On July 21, retired NYPD detective Sonny Grosso celebrates another birthday. He has spent every one of them in his beloved New York City. One of the most decorated NYPD detectives, who became an award-winning TV and movie producer, he still bleeds police and New York Yankee blue.
But on this July 21, he’ll have a little sorrow in his heart and will be thinking about an incendiary but tragic event that happened on April 14, 1972, just four days after The French Connection movie, which was based on Grosso’s true life story, walked off with 5 Oscar Awards. It should’ve been a week to celebrate for Grosso, except that fateful week in April 1972 ended in the death of an innocent cop, patrolman Phil Cardillo, who was gunned down inside the Harlem Mosque at 102 West 116 Street, which was run by Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan.
That controversial event, which Grosso covered in his terrific 1977 book, Murder at the Harlem Mosque, is back in the news. Last week, present NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill DeBlasio said they were reviewing ways to publicly honor officer Cardillo, four decades after he was killed. Grosso says of this latest effort to honor the fallen officer, “Unfortunately, up to now they’ve kept promising to do all sorts of things. Naming a street after him outside his former precinct, this and that. So here’s hoping this mayor and police commissioner finally give his family the recognition he deserved!”
In the late 60s and early 70s, there was major racial unrest in US cities including New York. The radical Black Liberation Army had declared war on law enforcement and was shooting cops nationwide. Between May 1971 and January 1972, the BLA reportedly shot six cops in New York, killing four.
It was an “especially dangerous period for police officers,” and highly decorated detective Grosso was assigned to the Major Case squad to take the battle to the BLA. As he could identify a BLA leader, Twymon Myers, Grosso was given “carte blanche.” In fact, on that eventful April 14, Grosso was on a Harlem stakeout of Myers, who made the FBI’s Most Wanted List in 1973.
As Grosso recalls:
We were on that Myers’ stakeout and a ‘10-13’ came over that there was a cop in trouble at the Harlem Mosque. It turned out to be a phony emergency call but we responded. Officers Cardillo and Navarra had first responded and were met with fierce resistance. Phil was good young friend of mine, someone I’d taken under my wing, teaching him the ropes. He was a married father of three, who was shot down in cold blood with his own gun and later died at St. Luke’s hospital. Since then, all kinds of efforts to honor our fallen brother have come up empty. And, to this day, no one has gone to jail for his murder.
In Grosso’s eye-opening book, he describes the events that saw various political and police leaders putting their own agendas before the concerns of a young officer’s life. Cardillo’s murder and investigation cover-up has been considered one of the darkest days for the NYPD.
So who was responsible for that fake call that precipitated the ugly event? Grosso suggests:
Listen, the BLA was looking to provoke violence, hoping the police would react by shooting them, thus setting off riots. I had previously arrested Myers but he was inadvertently released before we really knew his game. But after that, I was on his ass, and he even publically threatened me, writing in the Amsterdam News that he was going to kill The French Connection cop. I wanted to respond in the paper but they didn’t want to publish it saying, ‘Well, we don’t want to blow this thing up.’ I added, ‘Well, you already did that when you published Myers’ threat.’ So I put a time and place for Myers to meet me on 125th Street by the Apollo Theater, and of course I showed up like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Except the Coop was alone in the movie, and I had twenty cops backing me up. But Myers never showed. As for the phony call, we suspect Nixon’s dirty tricks squad. New York Mayor Lindsay was running for the Presidency on the platform that every major US city had an official race riot, except New York. So they knew that with it being Farrakhan’s mosque, it would cause an uproar and show that Lindsay couldn’t even control his own city. So they probably made the fake call and the rest is history.
And, Grosso shows in his book how political expediency not justice ruled that eventful day in 1972.
In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Sonny Grosso!