Gay man admits guilt, but says police menaced him and now regrets his plea
On July 14 last year, Edel Gambe was taking his usual Wednesday off from working as an interior decorator at a home improvement store in Manhattan.
“That day was my day off,” the 48-year-old Gambe told Gay City News. “I just made a stupid detour on my way to the gym… I made a detour to go for a walk in the park.”
The park was the Palisades Interstate Park, which stretches from Fort Lee in New Jersey to Bear Mountain in New York, along the Hudson River. The New Jersey section is patrolled by a police force that has racked up at least 132 arrests for public lewdness in 2004 and 2005. Almost all of those arrested have been gay or bisexual men.
One detective on that force, Thomas Rossi, has made roughly half of the recent arrests and, at a June 2 lewdness trial this year, Rossi said he had made “over 100 arrests for lewdness” since joining the force in 2002. On July 14, 2004, he was on patrol in plainclothes and training a second officer, Wayne Zelna. Five minutes into his walk, Gambe encountered the two officers.
“They cut me off and I stopped,” Gambe said. “They were good looking guys.”
The two men told him that they were “not from here, we’re from the city” and they were “checking out the park,” according to Gambe, who assumed they were cruising. Their conversation had sexual overtones, they asked him if he were a cop, and, finally, whether Gambe enjoys watching people having sex.
“I asked [Rossi] ‘What are you guys looking for?’” Gambe said. “They said ‘Well it depends… We need to see first.’”
Like Gambe, a number of men who have been arrested for lewdness in the park and have spoken with Gay City News said that men, who later turned out to be police, urged them to expose themselves using sexually suggestive language.
The New Jersey lewdness law requires that the act be “flagrantly lewd and offensive” and that the person “knows or reasonably expects to be observed by another non-consenting person who would be affronted or alarmed.” If the officers urged the men to expose themselves, then the men could reasonably assume that the officers were not “non-consenting” persons “ and that they would not be “affronted or alarmed.”
Gambe recalled that he was not sure what to do.
“I was hesitant,” he said. “I was wearing a pair of shorts so I just lowered them so they could see and right after they jumped me.”
The officers showed their badges, identified themselves as police officers, and told Gambe he was under arrest. Initially, he believed they were cops, but then began to doubt that when they became more physically forceful.
“I thought they might be trying to gay bash me,” he said. “They started punching and kicking… I started screaming for help right away.”
After a struggle, Gambe was on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. When he shifted his arms to get comfortable, Gambe said, Rossi drew his gun.
“He turned into a lunatic,” Gambe said. “He pulled his gun and pressed it into my face.”
Gambe said Rossi threatened to kill him and throw him off a nearby cliff overlooking the Hudson. Later, when Rossi was walking him to a waiting police car, Rossi said to Gambe, who was quite bloody, “If you have AIDS I’ll kill you, you bastard,” according to Gambe.
All three men were taken to Englewood Hospital and Medical Center to get their injuries checked. Gambe went by ambulance, guarded by Zelna, and Rossi was taken in a police car by another officer. A senior officer from the Palisades Interstate Park Police, who Gambe could not identify, joined them.
At the hospital, Gambe said that, while a hospital nurse stood by, the senior officer told him that if he did not consent to HIV and hepatitis tests they would get a court order requiring him to give a blood sample. Gambe consented.
“I wasn’t given a choice,” Gambe said. “If I had said no they would have gotten a court order.”
The nurse, whom Gambe could not identify, said that the hospital could not release the test results to the police without a court order. It is unclear if the police ever obtained that order or the test results. Gambe said he was given a physical examination and his arm was x-rayed. Gambe’s mug shot and photos he took after his release from jail show extensive bruising and cuts on his body.
The hospital told Gay City News that Gambe had consented to all testing done.
Gambe was taken to the Palisades Park police headquarters and charged with two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer, two counts of resisting arrest, lewdness, and attempted escape. His bond was set at $65,000 and he was held in jail for ten days until he could post bond. In his later indictment, only the lewdness charge was dropped and two counts of criminal sexual contact were added.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was just a trumped up charge for negotiating purposes,” said Hercules Pappas, Gambe’s attorney. Criminal sexual contact requires that the person “uses physical force or coercion” and “intentional touching.” In their reports, which are virtually identical, Rossi and Zelna never asserted that Gambe touched them in a sexual manner.
“Our brief stated that there was no physical force here and even the police reports state that,” Pappas said, regarding the requirements of a criminal sexual contact charge. “Certainly there was no element of coercion here.”
In their reports, both officers tell a story that differs from Gambe’s account though not entirely.
They assert that Gambe approached them. Rossi wrote that he told Gambe, “I do not come up here often and that I was not from around here.” Gambe offered to “show you guys a good trail,” according to Rossi, who also wrote that he “stated ok and we began to walk down an unmarked trail along the cliffs edge.” When they arrived at a “small area that was surrounded by many trees and bushes,” Gambe “placed his right hand over his shorts and began to rub his genitalia threw [sic] the outside of his shorts.” Gambe “stated that he likes kinky sex and likes to come up here to fuck or to suck a dick or 2” and then “pulled his shorts down and took his penis out in plain view of Zelna and myself. He began to masturbate in plain view of 2 non-consenting people who were alarmed and affronted by this act,” Rossi wrote.
When they identified themselves as cops, Gambe “lunged at me striking me with his closed fist in the right chest,” Zelna wrote. Gambe was forced, face down, on the ground where he tried to “head butt” Rossi and was “kicking and punching both of us” while yelling, “You better kill me because I am not going with you,” Zelna wrote.
Rossi wrote that Gambe tried to “head butt” him while he was on the ground and was also trying to use his legs and elbows to strike the officers.
“Subject then balled up in a fetal position with both of his hands locked in front of him yelling ‘Help me help me,’” Rossi wrote.
Both officers wrote that it took roughly 15 minutes to get Gambe handcuffed.
Zelna called for assistance several times from other officers and left Rossi and Gambe to find the additional help. Gambe tried to slide his handcuffs under his ass and “Since the subject had open cuts, continued to disobey commands to stay on the ground, and now I was the only officer with the subject, my weapon was drawn and in the cover suspect position,” Rossi wrote.
Both officers noted that they and Gambe traveled to the hospital to check their injuries. Rossi wrote that Gambe consented to being tested for HIV and hepatitis.
On July 25 of this year, Gambe pleaded guilty to a one count of lewdness and one count of resisting arrest. On September 15, he was given two years on probation and a fine of roughly $200. He was supposed to get a lifetime ban from the park, but John A. Conte, the judge in his case, did not mention this at the sentencing, according to Pappas.
The case has left Gambe very angry. He accused the police, Conte, and Mark Dispoto, the prosecutor in his case, of anti-gay bias. He even complained about his own attorney.
Reached by phone, Rossi said that he and Zelna were not allowed to speak to the press. John J. Parr, chief of the Palisades Park police, left a message with Gay City News saying that he would not comment on specific cases. Conte and Dispoto did not respond to messages.
Many men who have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of lewdness in the park have received a $1,000 fine, a five-day suspended jail sentence, two years on probation, a two-year ban from the park, and, in some cases, court supervised psychiatric counseling. Most of those sentences were handed out by Steven J. Zaben, the judge who presides over the park’s Municipal Court, which hears low-level offenses and traffic violations. Gambe’s case was heard in Superior Court and he was facing as much as five years in prison on the original charges.
“When you’re innocent, it’s not a good deal,” Gambe said. “I got this better deal because I’m innocent and the prosecutor knows that.”
After Gambe pleaded guilty, he thought better of it, but the prosecutor would not agree to a withdrawal of his plea.
“I got home and I thought I don’t want this,” he said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Pappas said that while the case against Gambe weak, had the case gone to a jury it would be the police against Gambe and juries tend to believe police testimony. Gambe had a prior shoplifting conviction that a jury might was see as discrediting his testimony.
“I acted in his best interests,” Pappas said. “I cannot put him at risk of a lengthy jail sentence because of his feelings about me or anybody else… Whenever you are presented with that kind of battle, juries usually decide in favor of the officers.”
Pappas said “I personally do believe that they did use excessive force in the arrest. I don’t believe that they were attacked by him, I don’t believe that they were hurt by him.”
Pappas was sympathetic about Gambe’s objecting to pleading guilty.
“He’s very adamant that he didn’t do this and he shouldn’t ever have to say he did,” he said. “The problems with these types of cases is that he had so many charges, they were indictable charges, when you have an offer that includes no jail time and no criminal record it’s hard to say no to that.”