By Murray Weiss
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
New York courtrooms are beautiful places. And murder cases bring the most unexpected types of people together.
Take the trial of Kenneth Minor, who's accused of murdering Jeffrey Locker, a Long Island motivational speaker who apparently wanted someone to kill him in order for his family to collect millions in insurance claims. The case has attracted a parade of starched insurance claim adjusters from across the country and drug-dealing lowlives from the streets of Manhattan.
Take bespectacled Edward Flaherty, from Massachusettes, a senior manager for claim investigations. Flaherty was a proper sounding man, with a Boston accent, a narrow chin, wide ears, a straight tie. He was as earnest as his 33 years in the life insurance business possibly could have made him. He would not answer any question without looking at Locker’s paperwork. His company had already made good on $3 million policy.
Then Charles Pendergast, a tall, well-groomed Texan took the stand. Pendergast said he was in charge of finding fraud for the American National Insurance Company. There was little doubt in my mind that had been a cop, or Texas Ranger, or a federal lawman before he started checking insurance fraud.
Nancy Ford, from Polk County, Iowa, followed Pendergast. What a mid-western accent she had. She belonged in a Frank Capra movie.
Ford worked for the Principle Finanical Group. She said Locker had a $3 million policy taken out only a short while before his death.
All I could think of as I listened to her drawl was the calming smell of a lush mid-western cornfield on a summer day.
But that pleasant thought on a blustery New York day ended abruptly when the prosecutor, Peter Gasaloro, called his next witness: Leon Johnson.
Johnson was the size of a linebacker, dressed head to toe in black, including his sneakers. Johnson, a convicted crack dealer, said he made a deal with the District Attorney to testify. He was facing years in jail for selling drugs, and testified he bought a cell phone from Minor on the day Locker died. He said he bought it for $40 and turned a $60 profit by re-selling it to a bodega owner. The phone turned out to be Locker's.
The day in court ended with yet another great character.
Detective First Grade Robert Mooney. As big as Johnson, Mooney brought three decades of police experience to the stand in what is his final murder case.
Mooney, and his colleague Robert “Harlem Bobby” Stewart, had questioned Minor before arresting him.
They are two of best homicide detectives in New York.
Mooney recalled his interview with Minor.
"Are you telling me that this guy wanted to kill himself," Mooney had asked Minor, according to his testimony.
"Yeah, yeah," Minor insisted, adding that Locker had “some issues with a Ponzi scheme,” and that he wanted "to do a Kervorkian and was at first looking to buy a gun."
Minor added: "He did not have the nerve to do it himself."
Ace defense attorney Dan Gotlin maintains Locker concocted the notion of stabbing himself with Minor’s help.
The prosecutor was not buying it. He asked if criminals often tell the truth when they are interrogated by police?
"They almost never tell the truth," Mooney replied.
By coincidence, Mooney, who spent a career tracking killers, is a huge fan of the Grateful Dead.
Only in a New York murder case would find a cast like this.