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New York's Plainclothes Subway Detail : They Serve as Bait to Catch a Thief

December 19, 1985|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | Associated Press

NEW YORK — The bait was gold. It has hanging around the neck of plainclothes police Officer Jeremiah Lyons, and as the uptown No. 2 subway screeched north out of Manhattan to the Bronx, he appeared to have fallen fast asleep.

Two teen-age boys were about to learn that appearances can be deceiving.

Lyons, 33, is a professional victim, a member of the New York Transit Police Department decoy squad. His job is to act as a target for criminals who stalk the New York subways.

This Friday night, he was in his usual working position when he took the "hit." He was slumped on the hard plastic seat of the darkened car, his mouth agape, his head swaying with the motion of the train.

Other Passengers

At one end of the car, a passenger in a torn, sleeveless sweat shirt stood smoking a joint. Not far away, a slight woman with red hair and black clothes was staring into space. In the gap between cars, a young man wearing a black hat stood smoking a cigarette, bobbing and swaying to some remembered tune.

As the train pulled into the Intervale Avenue station in the Bronx, 13-year-old Akmins and his brother, 14-year-old Akmell, sat staring at the gold chain around Lyons' throat. "This is the stop," Akmell said to Akmins.

The train stopped. Akmell stood by the door. As it began to close, he blocked it while the younger boy stepped up to Lyons and deftly yanked the chain off his neck. The boys were off the train in a flash, the doors slapping shut behind them.

They didn't know it yet, but they had stepped into a trap.

The transit police decoy program is a new and improved version of an old, and sometimes discredited, tactic.

The squad, established in April, includes 24 officers, two sergeants and Lt. Richard Gollinge, who oversees it all from behind a cluttered desk in a subterranean warren of offices in the Metropolitan Avenue subway station in Queens.

Unlike some past decoy teams--cops dressed to look like derelicts--the current operation uses decoys who look like ordinary commuters.

"We try to make our decoys look like exactly what the victim would be," Gollinge says. "And most of the victims in the transit system are people who look like they have money--working men, working women. Bums do not rob bums. There's no money in it."

Decoy officers usually work in teams of four: one "victim" and three backups. The backups usually dress and act like hoods.

As soon as Akmell and Akmins made their move, the other "passengers" on the train burst into action. Officer Jimmy Nuciforo, 23, dropped his "joint"--made of tea--and dashed out of the train. Officer Elizabeth Sheridan, 25, her red hair flying, was right behind. The train began to move out of the station.

Officer Richard Doran, 25, threw down his cigarette and ran to the nearest emergency cord. He pulled it and the train jolted to a stop. Doran was already out, followed closely by Lyons. They hurtled down the dimly lit station platform. Two uniformed cops who had been elsewhere on the train joined the chase.

They found Sheridan standing over Akmins, her revolver drawn. The boy was lying face down on the concrete platform, his hands already handcuffed behind his back. Akmell and Nuciforo were gone.

Akmins was taken to a token booth while Doran and Lyons went in search of Nuciforo. A uniformed officer stood beside the youth, who appeared dazed.

"Do you have any needles on you?" the officer asked.

"No sir."

"Any guns?"

"No sir."

"Anything you shouldn't ought to have?"

"No sir."

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

Nuciforo returned a short time later with Akmell in tow, followed by the boys' mother. Nuciforo said Akmell had jumped down a stairwell, dashed to the street and walked about six blocks home. Nuciforo had followed, but was waylaid by a group of drug dealers who had engaged him in an altercation that left a strawberry-colored bruise on his cheek. He eventually caught up with Akmell.

"What happened out there?" the mother demanded.

The cops explained.

"Why would you do something like that?" she asked the boys. "I gave you money to go to the movies, and here I have to come out here for something like this?"

Akmell and Akmins said nothing.

Sgt. Jack Maple, who heads the decoy teams, is fond of saying that their work consists of "hours of boredom and moments of terror." It is a sentiment that all the officers endorse, none more than Jerry Lyons, who has endured many hours of boredom--feigning sleep on the subway--and one particular moment of sheer terror.

"I was sitting on the train," he recalled. "I was well-dressed. I had a yarmulke on, and my glasses. I had a gold chain on. I gave the impression that I was dozing. I felt something on my chain and I opened my eyes a little bit. I saw a razor blade at my throat and I saw it go from my left to my right across my throat."

A young man with a switchblade razor was lifting the chain to inspect it.

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