MANHATTAN SUPREME COURT — A Long Island man behind bars for more than 15 years for a robbery he says he didn't commit walked out of Rikers to freedom Saturday, after a saga to prove his innocence convinced a judge to overturn his conviction last week.
Michael Vasquez, 55, of Bayshore, Long Island, walked out of Rikers and into the arms of his elated daughter and granddaughter Saturday afternoon, four days after Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Lewis Bart Stone tossed out Vasquez' conviction on a 1997 gunpoint carjacking and granted him a new trial in light of a newly-obtained sworn confession from Vasquez' former pal.
"It's like a dream right now," said Vasquez, who was released from Rikers Island on $5,000 bail while prosecutors decide whether to hold another trial. Waiting outside for him were his daughter, Marjorie Vasquez, 33, and granddaughter, Leticia Stidhum, 14, of College Point, Queens.
"I can't believe it, I still can't believe it," Marjorie Vasquez said, "We waited so long. We still can't believe he's here."
Michael Vasquez's first act after leaving lockup was to chow down on a hot dog at a food cart just outside the Rikers parking area.
"This was like, the best steak I ever had. Really, any food tastes so delicious, now," said Vasquez.
The trio spent the rest of the afternoon stocking up on new clothes from Modell's and chowing down on an egg and cheese sandwich at Dunkin' Donuts.
Vasquez was blown away by many of the changes that have taken place since his incarceration, trying to absorb his first visit to a cellphone store, his daughter said.
"He was amazed by iPhones, and he wants one, but I think they're too advanced for him now," Marjorie Vasquez said.
The legal victory followed a 15-year-long saga by Vasquez's wife, Leticia Vasquez, the family, and their lawyers to prove that cops and prosecutors had put the wrong man behind bars for a 1997 gunpoint carjacking.
Vasquez was convicted of stealing thousands of dollars from a drug dealer's girlfriend on January 11, 1997 during a carjacking outside a building at Broadway and West 192nd Street, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said at the time that Vasquez held up Rigoberto Gonzalez Jr. and Janette Andriuolo and stole a purse full of drug money and drove away with the car, leaving the pair and Janette's drug-dealing boyfriend Raul Gonzalez and drug dealer Rigoberto Gonzalez, Sr. (no relation to Raul Gonzalez) stranded. Rigoberto Gonzalez and Raul Gonzalez had left the pair in the car while they went into the building for a drug sale.
The prosecutors' case revolved around the solo eyewitness testimony from Andriuolo, who took the stand to point out Vasquez as the robber. Prosecutors were never able to get Rigoberto Gonzalez Jr. onto the witness stand because he never showed up for the trial, court records show.
Vasquez, who had just been released from prison on a prior robbery conviction at the time of the 1997 incident, was convicted of two counts of robbery, and was sentenced to 20 years to life because of his two prior convictions, court records show.
But the family maintained that the court had the wrong man, and spent more than $40,000 in legal fees, wrote countless letters to various legal organizations, hired a private investigator, and even reached out to District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. to ask them to look into his case.
The family argued in court papers that Vasquez was caught up in a complicated double-dealing drug scheme in which his friends turned on each other in an elaborate ruse to rip off Raul Gonzalez.
The scheme was allegedly hatched a few days before the robbery, in which Rigoberto Gonzalez Sr. asked Vasquez to take part in a fake carjacking to rob Raul Gonzalez, who was a mutual friend and more successful drug dealer, court records show.
When Vasquez turned the offer down, Rigoberto Gonzalez Sr. allegedly found another man to take his place, Andrew "Chase" Charlemagne, Vasquez' legal team argued in court papers.
In September 2010, as Vasquez was coming into his thirteenth year behind bars and beginning to lose hope, he went into the prison yard of Coxsackie State prison in Upstate New York and saw Charlamagne — who he knew casually from his time in prison — standing there.
"What are you doing here?" Charlamagne asked Vasquez, who responded that he'd been convicted for the 1997 drug robbery of their mutual friend.
Charlamagne — who was serving 17 years to life in prison for a series of unrelated burglaries — immediately offered to write a confession letter to take responsibility for the crime, Vasquez said.
Vasquez' wife reached out to lawyer Herbert Moreira Brown, who filed a motion to overturn the conviction based on the new evidence in June 2011. Late last year, Judge Stone granted the motion for new hearings, and spent four days listening to testimony that ultimately convinced him to grant Vasquez a new trial, he wrote in his decision.
Vazquez' team tracked down Rigo Gonzalez, Jr., who admitted under questioning that he and his father, now deceased, staged the carjacking to steal Raul Gonzalez's drug money and then framed Vasquez for the crime, court records show.
Brown praised the judge's "courage" in examining the evidence and ruling in Vasquez's favor.
"We're just relieved," said Leticia Vasquez, of Florida, who paid Vasquez' $5000 bail at Rikers Friday afternoon. Michael Vasquez will live with family in Queens as he awaits prosecutors' decision on whether to hold another trial.
A press rep for the Manhattan DA's office said prosecutors had not reached a decision on whether to hold a new trial.
Relatives said whatever the they expect it will take Vasquez some time to acclimate to a life outside prison.
"He's never met his youngest grandson," said Letitia Vasquez, now a grandmother of five. "There'll be a lot of change, for sure."
Vasquez is due back in court on July 26th.