Joe Herbert is a legendary NYPD detective and widely considered one of the most skilled homicide investigators in the NYC Police Department. Joe helped to solve the Zodiac serial murder case, New York City’s second of only two serial murderers. The first was Son of Sam.
Today, as he retires from the job he loves, we celebrate his long, distinguished career with the NYPD. Joe’s story is featured in American Police Beat publisher Cynthia Brown’s book, Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Pride, Pain and Courage.
JOE HERBERT: Super Sleuth
“The attainment of the capacity to love is a rare achievement in a culture in which these qualities are rare. It cannot be attained without true humility, courage, faith and discipline.” – Erich Fromm
On November 17, 1989, a hand-written letter arrived at the NYPD’s 75th Precinct. It was addressed to the 75 Anti-Crime Unit and contained a large circle with lines divided into sections representing the signs of the Zodiac. Scribbled over the sign of Taurus were the words, “The first sign is dead.”
Underneath the sign the note read:
This is the Zodiac.
The First Sign is dead.
The Zodiac will Kill the twelve signs in the
Belt when the Zodiacal light is seen
The Zodiac will spread fear
I have seen a lot of police in Jamaica Ave and Elden Lane
but you are no good and will not get the Zodiac.
Orion is the one that can stop Zodiac and the Seven Sister
Detectives in the busy precinct checked open cases to see if there was a connection, but nothing came up. Hundreds of letters are sent to the NYPD every day. Most of them come from harmless crackpots. There was no way for the police to know this letter wasn’t written by one of them.
The first victim was shot at three in the morning on March 9, 1990, four months after the letter arrived at the police station in Brooklyn. Mario Orozco, a forty-nine-year old man, was on his way home using his wooden cane for balance after finishing up at a local restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher. The shooter emerged from the shadows of the cemetery clutching a nine millimeter zip gun under his coat. He came up on Orozco from behind, pressed the gun into his back and fired a single shot. Orozco survived but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet which lodged near his spine.
Twenty one days later, Jermaine Montenesedro was staggering down the street after a night of heavy drinking. As he was trying to decide whether to go up to the Bronx and stay with his girlfriend or walk over to his father’s nearby apartment, a single round tore into his lower back and ripped through his liver. He collapsed on the street. It was six blocks away from the Orozco shooting.
Like Mario Orozco, Jermaine Montenesedro recovered from his wounds but the Zodiac was getting better at his work. The next victim did not fare as well.
On May 31, 1990, Joseph Proce, an elderly World War II combat veteran in the early stages of dementia, was taking his usual walk in the Woodhaven section of Queens. It was a little after midnight when a man came out of the shadows. As the round tore into his back and kidney, Joe Proce dropped like a stone. Before the gunman fled into the inky night, he left a note under some rocks near the old man’s body. A hastily drawn cross was put on top of a star. “Zodiac. Time to die.” Joe Proce died three weeks later.
There was no reason for the police to suspect the Orozco, Montenesedro and Proce attacks were connected. Orozco and Montenesedro were shot within blocks of each other but in 1990, the 75th Precinct in the East Brooklyn had one of the highest rates of violent crime in the city. Murders and armed assaults were common in the neighborhood some called “the killing fields.” It was impossible to know this was the beginning of New York City’s most terrifying crime spree since Son of Sam killed six and wounded seven in the mid-1970s.
On June 6, one week after Joseph Proce was shot, identical handwritten letters were mailed to the New York Post and the CBS news program 60 Minutes. “This is the Zodiac. No more games pigs. The 12 signs will die when the belts in the heaven are seen. The first sign is dead on March 8. The second sign is dead on March 29. The third sign is dead on May 31.”
Each letter was signed with a cross and a circle and three pie-shaped wedges marked with Gemini, Taurus and Scorpio symbols, three of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
“Riddle of the Zodiac Shooter” blared in huge headline type on page one. The story caught on like a wildfire. Reporters began to wonder if the California Zodiac, a serial killer who claimed to have killed thirty-seven people over several decades, had moved to New York City. It seemed every time New Yorkers turned on the television, another expert on astrology was the guest. Fear rippled through the city like a bad strain of the flu.
Once detectives with the 75th Precinct Detective Squad realized the letters to 60 Minutes and the Post were eerily similar to the note left by the body of Joseph Proce, they poured through the records searching for people who were murdered on the dates of March 8, March 29 and May 31. Proce came up on May 31 but there were no homicides on March 8 or March 29. When they broadened the search to include people who were shot on those dates but survived, they learned a man named Mario Orozco was wounded on March 8 and a Jermaine Montenesdro on March 29. The detectives knew they were on to something when they discovered that Orozco and Montenesdro, like Proce, were all shot from the rear without warning. When they checked the victims’ birth dates, excitement must have given way to panic as they realized Orozco was a Gemini, Montenesdro a Taurus and Proce a Scorpio. With three down, there were nine to go.
New York City had a serial killer on the loose.
The Department assigned fifty of their top investigators to find the killer. Dubbed, “Operation Watchdog,” it was the largest NYPD task force since the hunt for Son of Sam beginning in July of 1976 until his arrest in August, 1977. The fifty detectives did nothing else for the next nine months but work on this case.
One of the first things the detectives did was contact the San Francisco Police Department to learn more about the Bay Area Zodiac. Soon they were knee-deep in thousands of documents collected over decades by their colleagues on the West Coast. To this day no one is sure how many people the California Zodiac killed. The case has never been solved. Over two thousand five hundred suspects were questioned. At several points police were confident they had identified the killer, but the evidence was not conclusive enough to convince the court to issue a warrant.
NYPD investigators read and reread everything they could find on the Orozco, Montenesdro and Proce shootings. They studied the research on serial killers, got a crash course on the occult and searched for a pattern.
The pattern indicated the Zodiac would strike again on Thursday morning, June 21, twenty one days after the Joe Proce shooting. On June 20, the NYPD flooded East New York with cops but the Zodiac was not in Brooklyn. He was uptown in Central Park.
As darkness settled on Frederick Law Olmstead’s magnificent eight hundred and forty-three acre park in the heart of Manhattan, a homeless man named Larry Parham found a bench, arranged some blankets and tucked his wallet inside his sneaker. He never noticed the man staring from a nearby bench.
When the killer was sure Parham was asleep, he walked over and looked through his wallet before putting it back in the sneaker. He never touched the forty-nine dollars in cash. Before disappearing into the night, he turned, aimed, and fired a single shot at Larry Parham’s chest. The bullet barely missed his aorta on its way through his right armpit.
A note, weighted down with stones, was left near the bench. In the fourth section of a pie the author had drawn a circle with a sketch of a crab – the sign of Cancer – in the center. Responding officers used extreme care not to touch the letter when they removed it from the scene. That enabled detectives to lift a partial eight-point fingerprint from the document, evidence that later identified the killer.
Larry Parham was the Zodiac’s fourth victim. He was a Cancer. He survived.
The next morning another letter was delivered to the New York Post. Along with the same ramblings, the writer was trying his best to convince his readers he was the California Zodiac.
The following day the Post ran the story. People were terrified and the Police Department was under enormous pressure. No matter how bizarre or outlandish, detectives followed up every lead.
Then the attacks stopped. When four months passed with nothing from the Zodiac, Operation Watchdog ceased operations and the detectives returned to their precincts.
On August 10, 1992, after a two year hiatus, he struck again.
The Zodiac found Patricia Fonti in Highland Park, a weed-infested open space with a body of water the city once used as a city reservoir. He shot her once with his zip gun, but when she fought back he used a knife. Her body was found several hours later propped up against a fence that bordered a bridge.
Patricia Fonti was stabbed more than one hundred times. She was a Leo.
On June 4th, 1993, almost one year after Patricia Fonti was shot and stabbed, Jim Weber, a forty-year-old unemployed construction worker, walked by Highland Park on his way home. A man clad in a dark sweatshirt and pants with a bandana placed partially over his face moved in quickly from behind. He aimed and fired one shot.
Jim Weber, a Libra, survived.
Over the next four months, the Zodiac shot two more people. On the twentieth of June a forty-year-old mental patient named Joseph Diacone was shot in the neck at point blank range just outside of Highland Park. Mortally wounded, he died before the ambulance could get him to the hospital.
Joseph Diacone was a Virgo.
On October 2, 1993, Diane Ballard was sitting on a bench in Highland Park when a man approached her from behind. He shot her once in the neck. The bullet, which surgeons were unable to remove, missed her major arteries on its path towards her spine. She survived but never recovered from the painful nerve damage in her back and neck.
Diane Ballard was a Taurus.
In the early 1990s, New York City, home to eight million people, was averaging five homicides a day. Without some evidence these shootings fit a pattern, it was only natural for the police to assume they were random acts of violence.
The first four Zodiac shootings in 1990 all occurred on a Thursday, but Fonti, Weber, Diacone and Ballard were shot on other days of the week. And after Larry Parham was wounded, no notes were found by the victims or sent to television programs or newspapers. But the police were well aware the killer might be trying to throw them off the scent by changing the pattern.
On August 4, 1994, a letter was delivered to the New York Post. It started out with the ominous message: “I’m back. Sleep my little dead how we lothe them.”
The sender had drawn a strange totem pole code. There was a list of dates, each of which was followed by a short description. “Female white shoot and stab in Highland Park. Male white shot 1 times in back in Highland Park. Female black, shot 1 time in neck Highland Park.” It was signed, “The Zodiac.”
The Post ran the story on page one. Once again, the city was gripped with fear.
The NYPD quickly assembled its second Zodiac Task Force calling in thirty of their most experienced investigators including Sergeant Joe Herbert, a soft-spoken, highly regarded detective.
Joe said the situation was pure angst for the police department. “We had a killer on the loose. He’s sending these letters to the New York Post. He’s taunting us. He’s announcing he’s going to kill one person for each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. In every letter he wrote, ‘No one can catch me. Only Orion can catch me. Six, six, six.’ Every time he did anything it was headlines for days.”
The fact the killer used the word ‘Zodiac’ added to the confusion.
“These kinds of cases take on a life of their own,” Joe continued. “People all over the world study the stars. Unfortunately for us, we heard from a lot of them. We got bombarded with calls and tips from Belgium, India, and Russia, to name just a few. But every one of them turned out to be bogus. With a case like this you have to stay focused and follow the evidence, not the signs of the Zodiac or some astrologer’s far-fetched theories about the belts of heaven.”
You can read more about Joe Herbert and 14 other NYPD heroes in Cynthia Brown’s book, Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Price, Pain and Courage. Available at www.braveheartsbook.com.
The first three shootings occurred in the same neighborhood. Most times that indicates the assailant lives close and is choosing to work on his home turf.
Joe and his team mapped out a square mile area around the location of each of the first three shootings. They went house by house making a list of every person in each dwelling. They cross-checked those names with arrest records going back ten years. The project took months. When they tallied the list of everyone who had been arrested, they had four thousand five hundred names. Now the work got harder.
“We compared the Zodiac’s fingerprints to the prints of every one of those people who had been arrested,” Joe explained. “Fifteen latent print experts worked on the project. In those days we did it manually. It took months.”
Joe waited for his beeper to go off hoping someone from the Latent Print Unit would call to say they found a match. When they finally did get a call, the latent print crew reported they had exhausted the list. No match. Nothing. It appeared months of tedious work had been in vain.
Joe was about to hang up when Detective Ronald Alongis, one of the top people in the Latent Print Unit, told him that out of the forty-five hundred people on the list, fifteen hundred had no prints on file. Either they were found not guilty, the case was dismissed or the judge ordered the records sealed. Whatever the reason, the evidence collected for that particular crime, including the defendant’s fingerprints, had been purged from the system.
Then it happened again. After Diane Ballard was shot, the Zodiac vanished. Two years later, in early 1995, the department disbanded the second Zodiac Task Force.
Joe’s next assignment was the 75th Precinct Detective Squad in East Brooklyn where he worked homicides, robberies and shootings.
“In those days, the 75th Precinct had over one hundred murders a year,” Joe said. “It was total mayhem.” Despite his heavy case load, Joe Herbert would not forget about Mario Orozco, Jermaine Montenesdro, Joseph Proce, Larry Parham, Patricia Fonti, Jim Weber and Diane Ballard.
On his own time, he became an expert on serial murderers. He found behavioral scientist John Douglas’s work especially informative. He read and reread the Zodiac’s notes and letters. He studied the diagrams and handwriting. He devoured everything published about the Bay Area Zodiac. Often on the nights his wife Barbara worked late at the hospital, often she would come home to find her husband asleep on the couch with handwriting samples, police reports and books on serial killers scattered all around him.
Three years later, on the morning of June 18, 1996, Joe had moved to the Brooklyn North Homicide Squad. He was at his desk reviewing a report of a recent murder when a lieutenant called to tell him a young woman had been shot and her boyfriend was being held hostage on Pitkin Avenue. Herbert had taken a hostage negotiations course and the lieutenant wanted him to get over there fast.
When the “shots fired” call came in, seven police cars sped to the location. As the cops got out of their cars and prepared to enter the house, gunfire came at them from a fourth floor window. Within minutes, close to one hundred officers were on the scene. One witness said it took only seconds after the sound of gunfire before chaos erupted on the streets. Dozens of people screamed and ran up Pitkin Avenue while others took cover inside the Euclid Avenue subway station. Leonida Roja, a thirty year old man walking down the street, was struck in the neck with pieces of brick that had been shattered by a bullet. Four officers were rushed to the hospital where they were treated for trauma, cuts, and bruises. Emergency Service officers cordoned off an eighteen-square block area surrounding the gunman’s apartment while other officers evacuated hundreds of residents to safer ground.
When Joe arrived, he ran over to the bullet-proof barrier ESU cops erected in front of the building. Huddled behind the portable cement fortress, the Emergency Service officers briefed the sergeant on what they knew. The sister, who just turned seventeen, managed to escape to the safety of a neighbor’s apartment after her brother shot her in the back. As the cops arrived, the gunman began firing wildly at the police and people walking down the street. The shooter’s name was Heriberto Seda. His nickname was Eddie and he was holding his sister’s boyfriend hostage in their fourth floor apartment.
Joe Herbert positioned himself behind the barrier. Cupping his hands around his mouth he yelled up to the fourth floor window. “Eddie. Eddie.” He could see the hostage standing at the window but the gunman was nowhere to be seen. Joe decided he had no choice but to go into the building and try to talk to Seda outside his apartment door.
“They evacuated the building,” Joe recalled. “I would have been in his line of fire if I went in through the front door so I climbed through a first floor window. Kenny Bowen and some other ESU officers were armed with shotguns and other heavy weapons and were already in position in the hallway. It was over one hundred degrees. Because it was an active shooting scene, we were all wearing heavy ceramic vests and helmets. Sweat was pouring down my face and I was having a hard time seeing.”
Joe talked to Eddie through the closed door for close to an hour but there was no response. “I think the Emergency Service cops were going crazy listening to me talk all that time,” Joe said. “Everyone must have been relieved when a few minutes into the second hour, Seda started to talk.”
“He asked me how his sister was doing. I told him she was going to be a little uncomfortable but she would be alright.”
Joe knew he was making progress when Seda asked him to promise he would not be sent to Rikers.
“That was pretty easy to do,” Joe said. “People only go to Rikers for one year at the most. This guy engaged police officers in a gun battle and wounded his sister. He was going away for a lot longer than one year.”
Most people in and outside of law enforcement are nervous in high-stress situations with lots of variables. Even seasoned street cops can be overcome by adrenaline when there is an armed suspect who has shot a family member, taken a hostage and may have more weapons.
It takes a special constitution and skill set to remain calm in those scenarios, especially if you are the one trying to talk a crazed gunman into surrender. Joe Herbert is one of those rare people. After a two hour standoff in the street and one hour of negotiations in the hallway, Eddie Seda told Sergeant Herbert he would give up his guns and come out.
Before the eight-man team of Emergency officers entered the apartment, Eddie was instructed to drop his guns – one at a time – into the bucket that officers on the roof would lower down to the window. When the cops hoisted the bucket up for the third and last time, Seda had relinquished a total of thirteen homemade zip guns.
The police were still not sure all the weapons were out of the apartment. Yelling through the door, officers with the ESU entry team told Seda to turn around and put his hands up high against the wall. “Hold it,” Eddie responded as they were about to make the entry. “You have my guns, but you didn’t tell me what to do with the bombs.”
“It was unreal,” Joe said. “We called in the Bomb Squad and the Emergency cops regrouped back behind the bullet proof barrier.”
Standing to the side of the door, Joe told Seda not to touch the bombs – the cops would get them out later. Later that day when officers with the Bomb Squad searched Heriberto Seda’s apartment, they found two fully assembled pipe bombs and enough pipe and other material to make at least nine more.
Four hours after Eddie Seda shot his sister and fired on scores of New York City police officers who rushed to the scene to help her, his wrists were cuffed and fastened behind his back. Once he posed no threat, the Emergency Service cops turned him over to Joe, who put him in the back seat of a marked police car. Seda was booked for shooting his sister and firing on the police and innocent people walking down the street.
If anything, the day seemed to be getting warmer. After spending two hours under a blazing sun followed by an hour in a cramped hallway on the fourth floor of a hot apartment building, Joe Herbert looked like he had been swimming, fully dressed.
Back at the station, Joe handed Seda over to Detective Danny Powers, the lead investigator on the case. It was Danny’s job to get Eddie’s signed confession; his admission in writing that he shot his sister.
While Danny questioned Seda, Joe went back to the apartment building to pick up the unmarked car he left there earlier. He was in the street talking to officers from the Bomb Squad when he saw Danny Powers and another detective, Tommy Maher, walking towards him. Danny was holding a piece of paper.
“It’s Seda’s confession,” Danny told Joe. “He put it all in writing – that he shot at our guys and wounded his sister.”
When Joe glanced at the confession, what he saw took his breath away. “As sure as I am standing here,” Joe told Danny and Tommy, “this is the handwriting of the Zodiac.”
Joe Herbert had been studying the odd scrawl for years. “It was the T’s, the S’s, the M’s,” Joe said. “It was the way he underlined certain letters. There was no doubt in my mind. Heriberto Seda was the Zodiac.”
Joe asked to see the commanding officer of the Brooklyn North Detectives. “I told him, look I am not an alarmist or conspiracy person, but I am positive we have the Zodiac killer sitting in a cell at the police station.”
Tommy took Heriberto Seda’s prints – both fingers and palms – and rushed them down to One Police Plaza where Detective Ron Alongis was on standby. When Ron compared Seda’s fingerprints to the partial print recovered from the letter left near the bench Larry Parham was sleeping on, it was a perfect match. Seda’s fingerprints matched the partial prints left by the Zodiac in Central Park. Alongis and Maher were euphoric when they called Joe Herbert and told him his suspicions were confirmed. Seda’s prints matched the Zodiac’s.
“That was a very exciting moment for me,” Joe said.
Joe vouchered the zip guns retrieved from Seda’s residence and sent them to the Ballistics Laboratory. After a meticulous examination, detectives handed Joe his second piece evidence. The rounds were the same as the ones recovered at the Zodiac shootings in East Brooklyn and Central Park. The rounds were fired from the same kind of homemade zip gun the police had removed from Seda’s apartment.
When a round goes through a regular firearm, it leaves lands and grooves on the bullet. It is akin to the fingerprint of the gun. When homemade zip guns are fired, the bullets cannot be traced by the lands and grooves. In several of the letters the Zodiac sent to the police, he wrote, “No lands, No grooves.” But identifiable tool marks are left on the bullets as they travel through the barrel of a zip gun. It was these tool marks that provided the ballistic evidence linking the Zodiac’s guns to Heriberto Seda.
Joe felt an incredible sense of calm; a confidence that comes when you know you have it right.
“I’m an evidence guy,” he says. “That’s what detectives do. We chase evidence. We knew the handwriting was a match and we had the prints. When ballistics ran their tests, they were sure the guns we took out in those buckets were the same type the Zodiac used.”
Oddly enough, one of the people whose records were deleted in the fingerprint search Joe worked on in 1993 was a man the cops had picked up for carrying a zip gun. When the ballistics lab could not get the gun to operate, the case was dismissed and the fingerprints were purged from the records. That man was Heriberto Seda.
Then they got more good news. The DNA found on two letters sent to the New York Post was identical to the DNA of Heriberto Seda.
Now came the hard part – getting his confession.
Lou Savarese, a veteran of the Zodiac Task Force, was called in to assist with the interrogation. Lou, like Joe, was obsessed with apprehending the Zodiac killer.
“Lou and I had gone to a seminar on serial killers,” Joe said. “We learned if you put pictures of their victims up on the wall, they can’t resist looking at them. It’s an ego thing. They like to admire their work.”
They retrieved crime scene photos of Patricia Fonti and Joseph Diacone and tacked them up on the wall of the interview room.
“We knew he’d see them as he came in,” Joe recalled. “Our plan was to seat him with his back to the wall. We hoped he would not be able to resist looking backwards over his shoulder.”
When Herbert and Savarese entered the interrogation room, Seda was already seated. There was a table, a few chairs and a one way window for observers on the outside. From the moment Herbert and Savarese took their seats, Seda tried to twist around in his seat and look at the pictures. When Joe asked him if he recognized his work, he shrugged.
For the first eight hours the detectives got nothing. Except for brief breaks, Lou and Joe did all the talking. The goal was to wear him down.
“Finally he spoke,” Joe said. “He asked for a St. James Bible. Once he started talking, he went on non-stop about religion. He seemed to think it was his responsibility to clean up society.”
The Zodiac had not been active for three years, but the fact that the crimes were never solved and the killer was still on the loose was always on Joe’s mind.
“When the case goes cold it takes perseverance and patience to stick with it,” he explained. “You have to master the evidence so if you are lucky and you make the arrest, the suspect knows, that you know, everything. All those nights I read and reread those files was about to pay off.
“At some point I asked him, ‘Eddie, who is the Clown Killer?’ He comes right back. ‘John Wayne Gacy.’ Who is the Night Stalker? ‘Richard Ramirez.’ Who was the cannibal? ‘Jeffrey Dahmer.’ When I asked him, ‘Who is the Zodiac?’ you could see he wanted to say ‘me’ but he wasn’t quite ready. ‘Eddie Seda,’ I told him. ‘You hit the big time, just like your buddies.’”
After nine hours, Eddie Seda confessed. “He admitted to everything,” Joe said.
Twenty-eight-year old Heriberto Seda was arraigned in Criminal Court in Queens where he was charged with attempted murder and possession of a weapon stemming for shooting his sister and firing on the police. In addition, Seda was facing three counts of second degree murder, one count of attempted murder and seven counts of weapons possession. The judge ordered him held without bail.
When the police searched Seda’s home where he lived with his mother and half sister – the girl he shot in the back – they found old issues of “Soldier of Fortune” magazine and books on serial killers piled high. It was clear Seda admired Ted Bundy, the man who confessed to thirty murders between 1973 and 1978 but was a suspect in over a hundred more. Bundy bludgeoned and raped his victims before strangling them to death.
But Seda’s number one hero was the Bay Area Zodiac. He had every book, magazine article, newspaper clipping and picture ever published on the Zodiac, including a dog-eared copy of Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac, a best selling book that was made into a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr.
Once the New York Post published his first letter, news stories on the New York Zodiac were prolific. Seda kept a scrapbook of every article. They were clipped and pasted neatly inside.
Along with his odd home library and macabre scrapbook filled with stories about the people he wounded and killed, the police also found a small arsenal of homemade weapons and bombs. Seda ordered ammunition from catalogs and made the zip guns himself. When the bomb squad did their search, they found two pipe bombs and a smoke grenade.
“When we questioned him he confessed he tested a third pipe bomb and it worked,” Joe said. “This is a guy who got thrown out of high school for carrying a weapon. He never worked a day in his life. I guess his ambition in life was to move up from a serial killer to a serial bomber.”
At his trial, Heriberto Seda repeatedly shouted at the judge. First he demanded a new lawyer then he screamed he did not want to be in court. ”I feel like I’m invisible,” he said when Justice Robert Hanophy ignored his outbursts. ”Get me out of here,” he screamed. “I’m losing my mind.” When his lawyers tried to quiet him, he lashed out at them too.
Robert Masters, the assistant district attorney, painstakingly detailed each of the Zodiac’s crimes for the jury. He mapped out a time line of the shootings starting in March 1990 lasting up through October of 1993. Masters described Eddie Seda as a cowardly killer who stalked the weak, the elderly, the homeless and people with drug and alcohol problems.
The jury found Heriberto Seda guilty on all counts. The judge sentenced him to serve a sentence of three hundred and forty years at the Attica Correctional Facility.
At age thirty six, after fourteen years in prison, Seda fell in love with inmate No. 97A0308 – Synthia-China Blast – a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who had a large scorpion tattooed on his face. Blast was convicted in 1996 for a gang-related murder. When the Department of Corrections turned down Blast’s request for a sex-change so he and Seda could marry and moved him to another facility, the couple sued, claiming the prison was violating their civil rights.
Joe said when the word got back to the detective squad, they were incredulous. “Some people thought it couldn’t be true,” Joe said. “Not me. Who could possibly make this stuff up?”
The attention-starved Seda must have been pleased when his crimes made it into episodes of Forensic Files and Psychic Detectives, both of which aired on Court TV. But nothing would compare to the thrill of learning that his favorite author, Robert Graysmith – the man who wrote Zodiac – was out with a new book. Zodiac Unmasked, was all about Heriberto Seda, the New York City Zodiac.
His victims were not as fortunate. Joe Proce, Patricia Fonti and Joseph Diacone were dead. Mario Orozco, Jermaine Montenesdro, Larry Parham, Jim Weber and Diane Ballard survived their shootings, but all suffered with serious, life-long, physical and psychological problems after their unlucky encounter with Heriberto Seda.
Joe Herbert grew up in Brooklyn, the fifth child in a family of six boys and two girls. Joe’s father, the late John Herbert, served with the New York City Fire Department for thirty-eight years. His mother, Veronica, stayed busy at home caring for her husband and eight children. It was a large, close-knit, Irish family and it was expected that every one of Veronica and John’s children would devote their lives to public service. “My parents expected all of us to do something with our lives that would help others,” Joe said.
He was especially close to his older brother John, a talented detective who spent the bulk of his career with the Brooklyn North HomicideSquad. Everyone knew when it came time to choose a career, the chances were good Joe would follow John into the NYPD.
“I spent a lot of time listening to my brother and his friends talk about their work,” he said. “I learned you have to take pride in your paperwork; that you have to be very careful when you write your reports. He taught me if you do it the right way at the ground level, your work can lead to an arrest and conviction but that it takes time and experience to develop these skills. There’s no shortcuts. John always said even one careless mistake in a police report or something as small as writing a phone number down wrong, can mean a guilty person might go free.”
Besides mastering the written work, people who excel as investigators must be communicators. Joe credits his family for helping him develop an ability to establish rapport through conversation – a skill that’s both innate and learned.
“Along with John, another brother, James, had a tremendous influence on me,” Joe said. “He was an extremely caring, tolerant person and a great listener. Watching James, I learned that those are the things that break down barriers and make people want to talk to you, even if you are the cop and they are the suspect. A lot of detective work is all about getting people to talk.”
Joe Herbert began his career in the 71st Precinct in Brooklyn, a high crime area located at the southern end of Crown Heights.
“I still remember my first foot post,” he recalled. “It was my second day on the street. My sergeant told me, ‘Herbert, your area is Patrol Post 31, Nostrand Avenue between Linden and Empire Boulevards. Please be advised this is the last known address of Anthony LaBorde, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. LaBorde was convicted last year of murdering Officer John Scarangella and the attempted murder of Scarangella’s partner, Richard Rainey.’ That was something to hear your second day on the job.”
During those first few years Joe made an unusual number of felony arrests for a rookie cop. His good work was rewarded with a transfer to the Precinct’s Anti-Crime Unit.
Joe and his partner, Dennis Schwab, made one hundred and twenty-nine gun arrests the first year they worked together. When one of their gun collars matched a weapon used in another crime, detectives working the case made a special effort to seek them out and explain it was their work that gave them the evidence they needed to make the arrest.
Those visits reinforced everything Joe’s brother John taught him – that you never know if the evidence you collect for one crime will be linked to others.
From 1983 to 1984, Joe and Dennis worked in plain clothes with the Anti-Crime Unit in Crown Heights. They had only been there two weeks and were still learning the nuances of working out of uniform when disaster struck.
Officer Angelo Brown worked the day shift at the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn. A couple of times a week he would stop at his favorite pool hall for an hour or so on his way home from work. On this particular evening, when the off-duty cop leaned over to take a shot, witnesses said they saw two men staring at the partially exposed gun Angelo had in his shoulder holster. They hung back until Angelo finished his game. When the young officer made his way to the front door, the men followed him. As Officer Brown walked to his car, they tackled him from behind, beat him, took his gun, and left him semi-conscious in the middle of the snowy, icy parking lot. Despite his injuries, the officer made a superhuman effort to get up. Somehow he managed to get himself in front of the car as the men were pulling out. When they didn’t stop, Angelo Brown threw himself on the hood. That’s when one of the men aimed the gun and fired the fatal shot.
Thirty days later the mood was grim. Despite an enormous manhunt, the two men were still unidentified and at large. Everyone took it personally these cop killers were still on the loose.
On day thirty-one, Joe and Dennis were on a routine patrol when they observed a man wearing a three-quarter length leather coat. He looked in their direction and quickened his gait. Joe made a fast U-turn. The man began to run. Both officers were sure he was frantically reaching for his weapon.
“Dennis chased him on foot and I drove past him,” Joe said. “I cut back and blocked him with the car. I jumped out and ran after him. He disappeared into the lobby of a building with both of us running close behind. We grabbed him just as he reached the elevator.
“During the foot chase, Dennis saw the man toss a gun. When he went back and found it, it was a Smith and Wesson revolver with a two-inch barrel. Dennis wondered if it belonged to Angelo Brown.”
When Joe and Dennis questioned the suspect back at the precinct, he told the detectives he was not the person who killed the cop but he knew the officer was not killed with a small gun. He said the weapon that killed the officer had a longer barrel.
Joe and Dennis had no way to know if this was reliable information but they wasted no time finding out. The 77th Precinct Detective Squad was handling the homicide investigation of Officer Brown and they called them immediately. When Joe repeated the conversation he and Dennis had with their suspect, it only took a few minutes before a contingent of detectives arrived at the 71st Precinct.
Joe and Dennis continued the interrogation. Reluctantly, the suspect told the detectives he hung out at a certain spot in the neighborhood where he sold marijuana. On the night Angelo Brown was murdered, two men came by and tried to trade a gun for pot. But the weapon was warm and he could smell gunpowder, so he refused the trade. But he knew who they were and where the police could find them. It broke the case wide open. That gun collar led to the arrest and conviction of the men who murdered Angelo Brown.
A week later, Lieutenant Timmy Burns, the 77th Precinct Detective Squad commander, told Joe and Dennis he was recommending them both for an award.
“He asked us if we wanted a medal,” Joe said. “We told him to forget the medal. We said what we really wanted was to be detectives.”
Joe was twenty-seven-years old and had only three years under his belt working as a New York City cop. Dennis had just few months more. But six months later the Brooklyn South Borough commander made a telephone call to the precinct to report Joe Herbert and Dennis Schwab were being transferred to the 71st Precinct Detective Squad. Twenty months later, in August of 1986, the police commissioner pinned on their gold detective badges. It was an unheard of feat for officers with such a short time on the job.
The mid-1980s was a tough time to be a cop in New York City. It was the beginning of the crack epidemic which first surfaced in the 71st Precinct in Brooklyn.
“There was this six story building on Crown Street,” Joe said. “It was the first crack house any of us had seen. It was a predominantly African-American neighborhood but there were people living there from all over the world. Every day people purchasing drugs waited patiently in this huge line. The drug traffic spawned all kinds of criminal activity including robberies, assaults and shootings. The whole place was like a scene out of that movie, New Jack City.
“We had only been there a couple of weeks when the commanding officer of the 71st Precinct ordered us to pay special attention to the 250 Crown Street address. We drove over there right after the meeting. It was only a few minutes later when we saw a Lincoln Continental pull up. The driver got out of the car and went inside to buy crack. When he returned to the car, we approached him. We noticed he had a .25 caliber automatic pistol on the front seat of his car. When we ran his prints through the computer, we got a match. It turned this man was the Flatbush rapist. He had brutally raped eight women over a two month period but had never been caught.
“When the women were coming home from work, he’d grab them from behind, pull them into an alley or behind a garbage bin and then assault and rape them. During one of his attacks, he unscrewed a light bulb. We figured he didn’t want to break it so he unscrewed it to kill the light. We were pretty happy when the prints from the .25 caliber automatic matched the prints on that light bulb. His name was Gregory Pought.”
When detectives arrive at a crime scene, they are trained to pay close attention to everything they see and hear. Even reaching up to retrieve a light bulb is standard practice because investigators never know what will turn out to be a valuable piece of evidence.
Joe Herbert said he can’t even begin to remember all the odd items he’s retrieved. “I think people would be surprised what we look at. I’ve collected rainwater from puddles, been down on my hands and knees and felt my way through mud. You go through everything and you look at everything no matter how small or insignificant because you never know if it will lead you to the person who did the crime. Because someone was careful enough to unscrew the light bulb and bring it to the lab for fingerprint tests, we were able to determine the man we arrested with the gun was the same person who raped eight women.”
In one year’s time, two of Joe’s gun arrests led the police to the Flatbush rapist and the men who killed Angelo Brown – career cases as they are known in the business.
Joe credits the older, more experienced people he worked with who were willing to share their expertise with him for his success. “That’s the only way you learn this business,” he says.
“I will never forget this one old timer. Richie Gordon was a first grade detective. Inside his brain there was this huge wealth of knowledge. Every time I wrote up a report, he would read it, show me the mistakes and then crush the paper into a ball. Those crumpled papers filled waste basket after waste basket. When my work finally met his high standards, he’d shrug and say, ‘Okay. That’s good.’ That training was key to my whole career. Richie Gordon taught me how to make a case.”
Stevie Litwin was another officer who influenced the young Joe Herbert.
“Stevie,” Joe said, “solved more murders and other crimes while he was sleeping than ten people all put together did when they were working. He treated people with such respect. He made the nicest person you ever knew look like a bad guy. People in the neighborhood loved him. They would call him in the middle of the night and tell him about a shooting. They’d say here’s who got shot and here’s who did it. The case would be all wrapped up and he’d still be in bed. He was kind to everyone, even people who didn’t deserve it. Watching him I learned that treating people with respect and dignity goes a long way, especially when you’re trying to get them to give you information.
“I already knew from my brother John how important interrogations are and that you need a strategy for developing a rapport. Even if they did horrific things, I was always nice to them.
“In 1996 when I was assigned to the 7-9 Detective Squad, I received a phone call around three o’clock in the morning. It was a night watch detective telling me a young mother and her five-year-old son had been stabbed to death inside their apartment. The woman’s boyfriend was being detained as a suspect. My wife woke up and she could tell from listening to my part of the conversation that a small child had been killed. She started crying. She kept saying, ‘How can they do this to children? How could anybody kill a child?’”
Joe drove to Bedford Stuyvesant. After looking around the crime scene and jotting down some notes, he went directly to the 7-9 squad room where the suspect was being questioned.
“When I got there the interview was going nowhere,” Joe said. The man wasn’t responding and the detectives felt they had hit a wall. I asked them if I could have a crack at it.”
Joe pulled a chair in close. “I told him, ‘Listen, I know you’re not a killer. This was only an argument that got out of control. You didn’t mean to hurt them.’ I think I even put my hand on his shoulder. Within minutes he was crying. He admitted to everything. He told me he killed his girlfriend in the midst of a heated argument and then he killed the boy because he was a witness. He said he hid the knife in the boy’s book bag in an alleyway. We went to the alley and the knife was right where he said it would be – in the boy’s schoolbag. I still remember the smiling kangaroo on the back of that small, little bag.
“I am a firm believer that being compassionate is how you get to them,” Joe said. “I offer to get them cigarettes or a soda. You don’t get anywhere by screaming and throwing them against the wall. You can be the most experienced interrogator and you will fail with those tactics. Look at those prisoners at Guantanamo. Some were water boarded and they still didn’t talk. You have to accept that being brutal doesn’t work.”
“It’s hard for younger officers to use this approach. It takes a lot of experience for a police officer to master the art of separating yourself from the crime and its victims. Younger officers tend to overreact. But as you gain experience, you learn to separate yourself and not be emotional when you question them.”
While Joe Herbert has experienced success, he has also known failure. “There were cases we worked on for years that were never solved.”
He remembers one homicide – a doctor in Brooklyn. “Dr. Pete was an extremely promiscuous man,” Joe explained. “He had a lot of women and girlfriends. He was tied up, suffocated and beaten to death. Whoever killed him dumped him on the street. Narrowing down the list of suspects was hard because he had so many different partners. We interviewed everyone we knew about which was a lot of people. But in the end we had nothing – no latent prints, no evidence of any kind that would help us. We worked hard on that case and it was discouraging not to find the person who killed him.”
At the 75th Precinct in Brooklyn, boxes of folders containing paperwork on unsolved homicide investigations are stacked against the back wall of the second floor where the detectives work.
“We always had too many new cases to focus on the dead ends,” Joe explains. “But it stays on your conscience that you couldn’t get those victims justice. Several times a year I made it a point to call in a lieutenant from the Cold Case Squad to see if they would take some of these unsolved cases. Some of the detective units didn’t want to turn cases over to them. I’m not sure why. Maybe they were ashamed they couldn’t solve the case. But I never felt that way. I showed the lieutenant the wall and encouraged him to help us. Several times their work resulted in an arrest and that was a great feeling.
Ask Joe if there’s a case that haunts him and he thinks for a moment. “The honest answer, from my heart, is they were all important. All of them stay with you in one way or the other. But if I had to talk about one I would tell the story of Keysean Blackledge. He was a four-year-old boy who was strangled to death and dumped into a trash compactor in the back of a building. When we recovered his mangled body, he was still wearing his Mr. T. pajamas.
“When you see something like this, it’s hard to explain the emotions you feel. It turned out the man who killed him was the mother’s boyfriend.
When Joe and his partner learned the boy’s mother had the man’s ATM card number, they drove to the bank. Bank officials set up a computer notification system and promised the cops they would call them as soon as the suspect used the card.
“The first time he used the card was in Okaloosa County, Florida, three days after the murder,” Joe said. “Four of us flew down on the first plane out the next morning. We staked out the bank hoping he would come back and take out more money. It was a very rural area. We’d been there about an hour when we see a dog chasing a chicken, The dog catches the chicken and soon there’s feathers flying all over the place. As we sat there laughing about four New York City cops sitting in a deserted parking lot watching a chicken getting torn apart by a dog, the bank called to tell us he used the card. He was in Biloxi, Mississippi.”
You can read more about Joe Herbert and 14 other NYPD heroes in Cynthia Brown’s book, Brave Hearts: Extraordinary Stories of Price, Pain and Courage. Available at www.braveheartsbook.com.
When the detectives got to Biloxi, the bank had video footage of the man and his car. “It was poor quality,” Joe said. “We still needed the plate number but at least we knew what kind of vehicle he was driving. The Biloxi cops advised us to take the video to the local casino. They had state of the art photo labs which meant we had a better chance of getting the plate number from a video that was grainy and out of focus.”
The casino’s equipment was top-notch. It was only minutes before Joe and the other detectives had a clear image of the car and the plate number. Within an hour information was broadcast to every law enforcement agency in the country. The next day an officer with the Texas Department of Public Safety, on patrol in Conway, Texas, recognized the vehicle. He put on his lights and pulled him over.
“We flew to Dallas and interrogated him that night,” Joe recalled. “He had been on the run for almost one week and he was extremely tired. He gave it all up pretty fast. He told us after he had a fight with the boy’s mother, he took the youngster to Brooklyn and killed him. We only worked that case for a week and it happened over eighteen years ago but I still think about that little boy.
In 1983 Joe and Dennis were working in plainclothes with the Anti-Crime Unit. It was five minutes to one in the morning.
“We heard the sound of gunfire,” Joe said. “It sounded like it came from Flatbush Avenue. We hit the gas and drove in that direction. Within seconds we see a man running around the corner. He looked like he was clutching a large gun. Dennis jumped out of the car and chased the guy for half a block. When he got within touching distance, he grabbed him from the back. The man swung around and stabbed Dennis in the face with a large knife. They both went down like a ton of bricks. People say the face bleeds more than the rest of the body and there was a lot of blood. It was everywhere. I was terrified Dennis was dying. Now the guy gets up and starts running. I pull my gun, chase him and jump on his back. I’m screaming, ‘Drop the knife. Drop the knife,’ but his knuckles are white he’s holding it so tight. All of a sudden he flips me over and I see this big, sharp shiny blade coming right at my face.”
Joe fired one round and the man crumpled to the ground.
Dennis recovered but he suffered nerve damage to his face. Eventually he returned to work but several years later he was seriously injured in an accident in his police car and was forced to retire from the Police Department. It’s been two decades but Joe says he still misses working with Dennis.
Despite the fact the man tried to kill both Joe and his partner, he still wrestled with the emotional repercussions of taking a life. It is not easy to cope after you kill someone, especially for a twenty-five-year old who became a cop to help people, not hurt them. “I grew up in a religious family,” he said. “I believe in the ten commandments, that it’s wrong to take a life. It’s a very difficult thing to do and then live with.”
The support he received from his colleagues was tremendous. “I talked to other guys involved in similar situations and everyone one of them said they had a hard time too. But I still needed to find something more to justify the fact that I killed this man. On some level I knew I did the right thing – he tried to kill me and my partner. But I couldn’t stop going over the details in my mind.”
When the feelings of guilt did not subside, Joe went to the neighborhood where the man lived. He spent a long time just watching his apartment building. He found some solace when he learned the man was out on parole after being convicted of raping two women after he broke into their homes. At least now no other innocent woman would be his victim.
When Joe Herbert’s alarm went off at six am on the morning of September 11, 2001, he grabbed a quick shower and wolfed down his customary piece of fruit and carton of yogurt. His wife Barbara, a registered nurse, left their home an hour earlier for her job in the rehabilitation center at a major medical center in Manhattan. That morning Joe decided to forgo his customary ritual of flipping on the television and watching the news as he got ready to head to his office at police headquarters in lower Manhattan. He got the news when his next door neighbor called to tell him two planes had crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center.
As he made his way to lower Manhattan via the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, Joe saw the horrific site – a gigantic dust plume rising high in the sky. When he saw the second tower start to give way, he tried to comprehend the loss of life. Would it be fifty thousand? A hundred thousand?
“That first day we worked until late at night,” he said. “Everyone was doing whatever they could. There was so much chaos, so much uncertainty. It’s hard to describe what it was like. We thought there would be hundreds of survivors to rescue, but the people who didn’t make it out before the towers fell all died. Some of us worked on the bucket brigade. The air was putrid. It smelled like death.”
It must have been early on the morning of September 12 when, bone tired and covered with dust, Joe found his car and drove home to get a couple of hours of rest.
The next morning, he returned to the smoldering site. “The World Trade Center complex had a Marriott Hotel about two blocks south of Ground Zero,” he recalled. “I was walking west on Albany Street near the Marriott with another detective, Russell Dunn. Two volunteer firemen standing on the hotel’s third floor landing asked us to get some body bags. We walked to West Street, grabbed the bags and went back up to the landing. There, scattered around on the small white stones that covered the area, were the remains of what appeared to be six or seven people. They were dismembered – innocent victims turned into human carnage. Then we saw the seats. They were shattered but it was obvious they were from one of the planes. The momentum must have been so intense that some of the passengers, along with their seats, fell down to that landing after they were sucked out of the aircraft.”
Russell and Joe filled the body bags with the remains and wrote out descriptions of the grim contents as best they could. “We even put the airplane parts and seats in the bags,” Joe said. “We thought if there was a seat number it might help someone identify their loved one. Other than that it looked to us like it was going to have to be DNA.”
The detectives carried the bags down the stairs and gently placed them into one of the trolley carts transporting the remains to the medical examiner’s office. It was an experience, Joe says, that will never leave him.
Within twenty-four hours of the attacks, officials at headquarters began a search for their top investigators, people with research and language skills and a proven track record for attention to detail. They needed a team that would find out quickly who did this and why and then begin the monumental task of making sure it did not happen again.
On September 25, 2001, the first group of NYPD investigators, including Lieutenant Joe Herbert, were transferred to the Joint Terrorist Task Force. They joined officials from other local and federal agencies at a secret location on the upper West Side of Manhattan.
Joe was happy when he learned Inspector Charlie Wells would command the Task Force and he would be reporting directly to him.
“Charlie was a legend in the New York City Police Department,” Joe said. “He was a Medal of Honor winner, had been one of the most fearless members of the NYPD Bomb Squad, and was my captain when I worked in the Brooklyn North Detective Squad. He had a profound influence on me. The first time I saw him after the attacks, the bags under his eyes were down to his chin.”
The newly formed task force began their work in a large, empty auto garage. The FBI had the lease on the building but major adjustments were needed to get the space ready for what would eventually be a team of one thousand law enforcement officials from forty-six agencies including the NYPD, the New York State Police, the FBI, ATF, DEA, IRS, Customs, and the Border Patrol.
“We jumped right into it,” Joe said. “We all felt a passionate commitment. We wanted to wrap our arms around it and find out who aided and abetted the hijackers. There was this overwhelming urgency to find out who was involved and bring them to justice.
“The FBI had their top tech people come in and install everything,” Joe continued. “They put in power lines, phones, faxes, computers, and hooked up internet service. The minute a computer was up and running, someone was using it. It was a total mad house.”
Outside, heavily armed Emergency Service officers guarded the facility twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week while cops with the NYPD Harbor Patrol and officers with the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled back and forth on the Hudson River.
Bobby Losada, a detective-sergeant and veteran of the NYPD’s homicide division was also one of the first people assigned to the Joint Terrorist Task Force.
“I walked into this enormous garage where the FBI had a temporary command center, Losada remembered. “Smoke was blowing up from Battery Park and there was that horrible smell. There were folding tables and chairs everywhere. On the top of each table was a card listing a specific agency. You could see the FBI, Customs, Immigration, the New York State Police. It went on and on. The idea was if you needed specific information you could go to the agency in the best position to help you. There were hundreds of people milling around. It was very chaotic.”
When Bobby saw Joe Herbert, Joe was standing at the front of the room gazing out at all those tables. His arms were folded and he had one hand under his chin.
“I was so glad to see him,” Bobby said. “You could see he was determined to come up with a plan even in the midst of all that chaos. There were so many details and bureaucratic issues that had to be worked out but Joe figured out how to cut through the red tape. He organized the leads. He worked out a system with the FBI so NYPD people got the necessary clearances to tap into FBI databases. It was the combination of his single-minded focus on getting the job done and an ability to know what’s not working and switch gears fast that made him one of the most important players in the country’s counter terror effort during the immediate aftermath of the attacks.”
Bobby says there is something else that’s made Joe so successful. “Everyone loves him. He is a total gentleman. He’s a typical Irish Catholic guy but he can talk to anyone. He is humble and he laughs at himself and that is the kind of person no one minds taking orders from.”
Right away callers with tips swamped the NYPD’s phone lines. “At the beginning we had some serious, concrete leads,” Joe said. “But then all these bogus tips started coming in. The most common call came from someone who was positive Osama was driving a cab down Fifth Avenue or working in a bodega in Queens. It was unreal. Whatever it was, we vetted it out but in the end, almost every caller turned out to be someone who was irrationally suspicious of Muslims.”
When it came to gathering information and analyzing it, things went better. Members of the Task Force questioned everyone who might have a connection to the hijackers. They began tracking their communications and more importantly the money.
When Joe worked the Zodiac case, he read every book and article he could find about people who kill multiple times. He used the same approach this time, devouring everything available on al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists. “I went in there stone cold and I think most Americans were just like me. We knew very little about militant Islamic culture.”
Joe ran background checks on the hijackers. He studied al Qaeda and spent a lot of time reading about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nine years after the attacks, he estimates he has read over one hundred books on Muslim history and culture and Islamic terrorism. Piles of books, some rising twenty-five volumes high, are still stacked in the corners of his home.
Since 2001, Joe has run into a lot of people who believe Osama got lucky, that it was a one shot deal. “Forget that,” he says. “I have learned to pay close attention, take everything they say seriously, and be aware of emerging trends. A case in point is the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Ten heavily armed Pakistani men fanned out across the city and conducted highly coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in hotels, hospitals, movie theaters and transportation facilities. One hundred and seventy-three people died and three hundred and eight were badly wounded. This was a different approach. They changed their tactics.”
The information gathered by investigators at the Joint Terrorist Task Force keeps the police commissioner, Ray Kelly, and his top people working in the Intelligence and Counter Terrorism bureaus, informed about existing and developing threats everywhere in the world.
“The best way to stop these acts,” Joe says, “is by having good intelligence. That’s our job at the Joint Terrorist Task Force. We work hard to have our finger on everything. We discover the threats then the Commissioner uses the resources of the New York City Police Department to address them.”
When you ask Joe if subsequent attacks have been prevented by all this hard work, he pauses. “There have definitely been attacks prevented since 9/11,” he says. “The threat has not diminished so it’s important we remain vigilant and aggressive.”
Joe Herbert was destined to be a detective. “I love it and I embrace it,” he said. “I have always tried to be the best that I can be.
He entered the Academy in January of 1981 and could have retired eight years ago. “There’s a lot of about law enforcement that’s a young person’s job,” Joe says.
“Criminals don’t work nine to five so the work cannot be done on your schedule. Diet is another problem. I worked in high crime areas my whole life. We’d feel lucky if there was a diner open. Fast food was usually it. Years of that kind of eating takes its toll. I am fifty-two and I know I can’t do the stuff I used to do but I still love this job.”
For young people in law enforcement who want to become investigators, Joe has some advice. Number one on his list – learn how to write a good police report. “Just the facts,” he says. “Avoid embellishing. Any extra, superfluous information you give can be used against you in court. Keep it bare bones – just enough so the prosecutors can win the case. And when you’re in court, just answer the question.
“You’ve got to learn to master the rules of evidence and that takes time. Document everything. Talk to district attorneys and do what they tell you to do. You learn a lot interacting with prosecutors. They are the ones in charge of so if you want to get a conviction get them what they need and do what they say. You have to learn to be one hundred percent consistent. Remember, the arrest is only the beginning. In most cases, it will be a year later before you are called to testify. You have to write everything down. Then read it over and over before you go into court.”
Joe says follow-through is another key to success. “If you promise you are going to do something, do it. That builds your credibility. When the DA sees you come in the door, they trust you. They know you are bringing them a case they can prosecute and win.”
So unless something happens beyond his control, Joe says he will keep his job with the NYPD until he turns sixty-three, the mandatory retirement age.
“When it comes to work, there’s just no way there’s anything better than this,” he says. “The greatest detectives in the world work for the New York City Police Department and I love being associated with them. And everyone of us is very lucky. We have the most interesting job in the world.”
Here’s a quote from Joe on mastering detective work: “To become a skilled detective takes a lot of experience. You have to learn to master your evidence and document everything. It takes a lot of time to learn the rules of evidence. You have to talk to the District Attorneys and do what they tell you to do. They are the ones in charge of prosecutions. If you don’t have your paperwork done right, and the evidence is weak, you won’t get permission to make the arrest. I tell the younger detectives to write everything down and when you’re called to testify, study that report so you don’t contradict yourself. It’s laborious, time consuming work.”