By Christina Carrega
The credibility of a disgraced NYPD officer-turned-private investigator is the catalyst for yet another delay in an over 4-year-old murder trial.
The day before the trial of Ajaya Neale was set for jury selection in Queens Supreme Court in October 2017, a local news broadcast aired a report suggesting that Neale was getting railroaded.
That report included an interview with Neale as well as interviews with an eyewitness who claimed authorities steered her into making an identification and six other new alibi witnesses. The witnesses “falsely” accused Assistant District Attorney Karen Ross of withholding evidence that they say would identify another shooter.
The details were unearthed by Manuel Gomez, a licensed private investigator and owner of Black Ops Private Investigators.
Once the television broadcast aired, defense attorneys argued that Queens Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Holder should reopen hearings to determine if the new witnesses and recanted testimony could be used at the trial, further delaying the case.
Neale, 30, was arrested on July 30, 2014 for the May 10, 2014 murder of Joel Rashko during a cookout at Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica. Neale, a member of the Crips, was allegedly seen by Erika King, the lone eyewitness, prior to the shooting on Bloods gang territory.
At Neale’s arraignment in Criminal Court, his attorney successfully convinced the judge to set $100,000 bail because of his community ties. His bail amount did not change even after a grand jury indicted him for second-degree murder, reckless endangerment and weapons possession.
As Neale’s trial date approached, his mother paid Gomez $6000 to investigate her son’s case after seeing his work on the case of Pedro Hernandez in the Bronx. Hernandez spent a year on Rikers Island after he refused to accept a plea deal in relation to a bodega shooting. He was eventually released on bail and the Bronx DA dropped the charges. Hernandez’ story was also reported on the same station.
Neale’s attorney Victor Knapp was not aware of Gomez’s hire or that his client did a television interview, according to court documents.
Gomez was kicked off the force after a 2009 arrest for “brandishing his gun during the course of a violent off duty dispute,” according to court documents released on Thursday. Gomez, who served as an officer at the 43rd Precinct in the Bronx, was the subject of numerous civilian complaints during a nine-month period. Gomez was later transferred.
Gomez had his gun license denied in 2013 and is currently suspended from entering “any state correctional facility” by the state Department of Correctional Services for bringing a recording device into a jail.
Knapp, who was retained as defense counsel, requested to be removed from the case because of “ethical reasons related to the sudden appearance of Alibi Witnesses three and a half years after the murder and who happened to be neighbors of the defendant … ” according to Holder’s written decision, which precluded the questionable witnesses from testifying based on Gomez’s misconduct with witnesses.
“The veracity of these statements and legitimacy of the witnesses is questionable [and so is the] failure to come forward in three and one-half years since defendant’s arrest,” Holder wrote.
Nevertheless the Neale family relied on Gomez to conduct an investigation to look for additional witnesses, however at the hearing it was revealed that Gomez only reviewed a small portion of the almost 11,000 police documents and discovery provided by the people.
The hearings re-opened this summer with two new pro bono lawyers on the case.
During the hearing in July, King — the lone eyewitness —accused Gomez of twisting her words and asking her to sign an affidavit saying that Neale was not at the murder scene in order to match statements from the six new witnesses, the Daily News reported.
Gomez was called to the witness stand at the hearing and admitted that he did not review all the evidence of the case before investigating.
“This Court believes Mr. Gomez’s so-called ‘investigation’ was nothing but a sham; a ruse to attack the NYPD and ADA Ross to bring attention and notoriety to himself, his business and his business and his agenda,” the decision read. The judge went on further to state that Gomez engaged in a concerted course of conduct and action in which the defendant provided dubious witnesses for Gomez to use, to persuade King to believe that she may have identified an innocent man.
On Thursday, Justice Holder decided to revoke Neale’s bail and remand him to Riker’s Island because “the hearing evidence also showed that the defendant played a substantial part in helping Mr. Gomez construct the videotaped statements he showed to Ms. King, by directing him to individuals — his friends and neighbors — who were willing to say that the defendant was on the block with them when the murder occurred.”
A law enforcement source told the Eagle that investigators and other authorities are looking into Gomez.
Neale is expected back in court on Nov. 19. If convicted, Neale faces up to 25 years to life in prison.