To Catch A Predator: The NYPD Investigator Who’s After Weinstein

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Early in the evening of March 27, 2015, a young Italian model named Ambra Battilana walked into the NYPD’s 9th Precinct house, a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park. She was so physically and emotionally distressed that the desk sergeant almost called an ambulance. When two patrol officers transported her to the 1st Precinct house, in Tribeca, she cried throughout the short drive. There, at 8:20 p.m., she made a formal complaint that she had been sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein.

By nine o’clock, the commander of the NYPD’s Special Victims Division, Michael Osgood, had been notified. Osgood understood immediately that the case had to be handled with extreme care. He and Lieutenant Austin Morange, head of the SVD’s Manhattan unit, mapped out a plan to keep the case under wraps, to prevent Weinstein from calling in his army of high-powered lawyers and publicists. Knowledge of the investigation, they decided, would be confined to a small circle of detectives and supervisors. Their reports, contrary to standard procedure, wouldn’t be loaded on the NYPD’s system, and Osgood orally informed his boss, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, rather than putting his briefing in writing.

Then Morange called Martha Bashford, head of the Sex Crimes Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, to apprise her of the complaint. The call was made reluctantly, after much internal debate. Osgood’s team felt that ever since 2011, when District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. had been blasted in the press for dropping a sexual-assault case against IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the DA’s office had been gun-shy about taking on powerful defendants. While Osgood cannot talk about the case his team built against Weinstein, sources close to the investigation provided the first detailed account of its inner workings — and how the police became convinced that Vance’s office was systematically working to derail the investigation.

In the station house that evening, Battilana told an SVD detective that Weinstein had invited her to a meeting earlier that day, saying he might have work for her. As soon as they were alone in his office, he reached out, two-handed, and groped her breasts. She told him to stop, but he put a hand on her left thigh, moved it up under her skirt, and asked for a kiss. When she refused, he told her he was a very powerful man, boasting that he could make her $2 million a year. The meeting ended with Weinstein telling his receptionist to get Battilana a ticket to that night’s performance of Finding Neverland on Broadway.

Just then, as Battilana was providing her account to the SVD detective, she got an email from Weinstein. Why hadn’t she shown up at the theater, he wanted to know. Recognizing an opportunity for a “controlled call” — a police technique used to solicit and record incriminating evidence — the detective instructed Battilana to reply to the email and say that she didn’t have his phone number. They exchanged numbers, and Weinstein called.

“How did my breasts feel?” Battilana asked him, as the detective had coached her. (A flat-out accusation isn’t a good strategy for a controlled call. “Why did you touch my breasts?” is only likely to prompt an apology, which isn’t an admission.)

“They felt beautiful,” Weinstein replied, according to a source who heard the recording. “They’re great.”

The call was used to set up a meet with Weinstein — one that would be surveilled and recorded by the SVD — for the next day, at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. At one o’clock that Saturday afternoon, Lieutenant Morange called Bashford at the DA’s office to tell her about the meet. “Her response to it was, in sum and substance, that it was fine,” recalls Michael Bock, a retired sergeant who was one of only six SVD members privy to the investigation. “At no time did she request to prep the victim or direct any specific questions to be asked by the victim during the controlled meet. In other words, she didn’t participate, but the opportunity was there.”

At the Tribeca Grand, detectives listened in as Weinstein again admitted to fondling Battilana’s breasts, all the while trying to wheedle and bully her into a room he had rented in the hotel. Once Battilana had gotten safely away, Morange and another officer approached Weinstein, asking him to come down to the station house. Weinstein refused. “He threatened to call the police commissioner,” Bock says. When Morange told him that the commissioner knew they were there — a bluff the egotistical Weinstein readily believed — he agreed to go with them.

On the way to the precinct, Weinstein threatened Morange and the two detectives escorting him, telling them he was going to call Police Commissioner William Bratton, former commissioners Ray Kelly and Bernard Kerik, and former mayor Rudy Giuliani. By messing with him, Weinstein said, they were putting their jobs in jeopardy.

At the precinct, Weinstein demanded to know why he had been hauled into the station. As soon as Battilana’s name was mentioned, he invoked his right to counsel. “All he needed to know was her name,” Bock says. Weinstein’s machine went into high gear. He retained two lawyers with ties to the district attorney’s office, including Elkan Abramowitz, Vance’s former law partner and a donor to his campaign. To cement their access to Vance’s office, the lawyers hired Linda Fairstein, the former head of the DA’s Sex Crimes Unit and a close friend of Bashford’s.

On April 1, five days after Battilana had filed her complaint, Bashford conducted an interview with her. The next day, sources say, Vance’s office sent its own investigators to Battilana’s apartment. There, according to Bock, they aggressively questioned her roommates. Was Battilana a prostitute? Did she bring home lots of strange men? Was she a stripper? The DA’s office also reviewed video from the apartment building’s surveillance cameras, which would enable them to create a record of Battilana’s personal life. “When she found out about this, the victim became afraid,” recalls Bock. “She began to cry.”

According to Bock, Osgood believed that Vance and his office were actively working to discredit Battilana. So the chief and his team decided to take an extraordinary step. “We decided we’re going to hide the victim,” Bock says. “From the DA.”

On April 2, under the direction of Osgood, the SVD put Battilana in a hotel, registering her under a false name. For the next five nights, she was kept safe from Vance’s investigators, first at the Franklin Hotel, then at the Bentley. A 22-year-old woman had come forward to accuse one of the most powerful men in Hollywood of sexual abuse, and the police decided she needed protection — not only from her alleged assailant, but from the elected official responsible for prosecuting him.

The Special Victims Division is headquartered in a gray brick building on Avenue C, where the front doors are routinely stuck halfway open and, at night, roof floodlights give the humble edifice a penitentiary glare. Outside of Chief Osgood’s office there are dozens of desks, set side by side, where SVD detectives comb over every sex-crimes complaint made in the past 24 hours to make sure they were classified correctly. That was one of the first and most sweeping changes that Osgood made when he took over Special Victims in 2010. Too many rape complaints, he discovered, were improperly dismissed as “unfounded,” while attempted rape was often misclassified as forcible touching, a misdemeanor charge. Shortly before Osgood took command, a journalist named Debbie Nathan had been grabbed by a man and dragged into the woods in Inwood Hill Park, where he rubbed himself against her. “Special Victims showed up and made it a forcible touching,” Osgood recalls. “Yeah, she was grabbed — but that’s not what his intended goal was. He wasn’t gonna bring her into the woods and practice salsa dancing.” Osgood implemented what he called the “attempted-rape rule,” ordering investigators to take into account a perpetrator’s intent. “The worst thing you can do to a victim is to improperly classify her complaint,” he says. “Plus, I need to know if I have a possible rapist, so I can zero in on him.”

When then-commissioner Ray Kelly tapped Osgood to oversee the SVD, the unit was in bad shape. For many years, the NYPD had treated Special Victims like an investigatory backwater. “If you couldn’t cut it someplace,” Chief Boyce recalls, “we’d send you there.” Although the division was slowly beginning to improve, Osgood found that detectives were still making too many “jump collars” — premature arrests on slim evidence, which led to innocent people being picked up and guilty ones being let go. SVD detectives fought incessantly with prosecutors, each unit in the division acted as a world unto itself, and there was deep distrust between the SVD and advocacy groups for sexual-assault victims. When Monica Pombo, a social worker at the nonprofit Crime Victims Treatment Center, took a job at the NYPD, her fellow advocates responded warily. “Oh,” they said, “you’re going over to the other side.”

Osgood, who had spent eight years heading up the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Task Force, had developed a reputation for solving high-profile cases and working closely with traumatized victims and their communities. A former Marine who stands six-foot-four, he has the forthright manner of a seasoned cop, coupled with a buoyant, restlessly tuned energy; many of our conversations were accompanied by the sound of his fingers drumming on the tabletop. Around the NYPD, where excessive reading is viewed with a degree of suspicion, he’s often referred to as an academic. “He’s not a regular chief,” says Boyce. “He’s an expert in his field, and he has an unbelievable amount of knowledge.” Osgood majored in mathematics in college, and the shelves in his office are lined with books on criminal investigations, complex-systems theory, advanced management, biochemistry, and probability — a collection Osgood describes as a “body of knowledge and set of modern intellectual thought that is necessary to move policing forward.”

Osgood used such thinking to hone the way the NYPD investigates hate crimes. Breaking with long-established traditions of policing, he eliminated the military-style hierarchy ingrained in the NYPD, creating a flat command structure that allows for a constant flow of real-time information between detectives and supervisors. When a hate crime was especially violent or complex, he flooded the crime scene with manpower — a move his detectives affectionately call “an Osgood mobilization.” In what has become a mantra for Osgood, he imposed “investigative process discipline,” pushing his team to follow each investigative pathway to the very end, no matter how time-consuming or frustrating it might be. Searching for witnesses in one homicide case, for example, detectives in the hate-crimes unit identified and tracked down the six bus drivers who were working the B38 route in Bushwick the night of the murder. That step alone took two weeks, and led nowhere.

Employing such unconventional techniques paid off. The Hate Crimes Task Force, which Osgood continues to lead, has solved every case of stranger homicide it has investigated in the past 15 years. By contrast, the national solve rate for homicides — the majority of which involve known offenders — is roughly 65 percent.

Osgood brought the same instincts as a reformer to the task of investigating the more than 5,000 rapes and other sex crimes reported in New York City each year. When he took over the SVD, he knew nothing about what he calls the “hard, hazy world of sexual-assault complaints.” Years before Weinstein’s predatory behavior helped spark the #MeToo reckoning, Osgood decided that the cops needed to do a better job of listening — not only to the victims of sexual assault but also to the vocal and organized network of social workers, doctors, and prosecutors who advocate on their behalf. Going against the culture of the NYPD, Osgood allowed victims’ advocates to step inside the closed world of the Special Victims Division and independently audit case files — a step that only two other police departments in the country have taken. He sits down with advocates twice a year to hear their criticisms and suggestions, and he makes a point of being on call whenever they spot something that needs fixing.

“We have his phone number, and he’s always available,” says Brigitte Alexander, an emergency-medicine physician who formed the first sexual-assault response team for the city’s public hospitals in 2004. “So if there’s a problem, like some patrol officer not taking a report, it’s very easy to make that call and get it resolved. Honestly, before he took over, that did not exist. There’s a level of openness and professionalism that just wasn’t there 20 years ago.”

At the same time, Osgood ordered SVD detectives to stop jumping the gun on arrests. “I communicated to the whole division that we’re not a jump-collar division,” he says. “We’re a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt division.” He studied the science of DNA — “the molecular structure, DNA-extraction technology, the probability mathematics” — and created a DNA Cold Case squad that has resolved more than 1,800 dormant cases. Most recently, he formed a new squad dedicated to reexamining 4,000 unsolved cases of stranger rape.

The Stranger Rape Cold Case unit was formally approved by Commissioner James O’Neill in February, after Osgood and the SVD reopened and solved one of the NYPD’s most infamous cold cases. In 1994, a 27-year-old Yale graduate was raped in broad daylight by a stranger in Prospect Park while she was walking home from the grocery store. But as SVD detectives worked to solve the case, a high-ranking police source told the Daily News that the victim was lying, and the paper published a series of columns dismissing the attack as a “hoax.” The victim described the experience as being raped twice. Using new technology, Osgood’s team managed to match DNA evidence from the original investigation to a serial rapist who was serving a 75-year sentence in Sing Sing.

Osgood brought the victim to his office to give her the news personally. “I don’t know how to say this,” he told her, “but we solved your case.” She broke down in tears. Osgood also apologized to her, on behalf of the NYPD, for whoever had smeared her in the press.

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