Slumping forward on the wooden bench of federal court, Dawn Thompson began weeping and moaning softly as she finally heard the man accused of killing her son — a C.W. Post basketball player — admit to the crime 14 years after the slaying.
"I murdered Tafare Berryman by shooting and killing him with a firearm," Jaime Rivera, 34 of Freeport, said in court Thursday, as he pleaded guilty before Magistrate Anne Shields to using a firearm in the shooting death of the 22-year-old from Brooklyn.
Berryman was killed in a bizarre case of gang-related mistaken identity that ultimately led to state and federal law enforcement joining forces, spurred in part by a mother who was relentless in finding her son's murderer.
"I never thought this day would come," Thompson said afterward in the hallway of U.S. District Court in Central Islip. "He was a wonderful kid. He didn't deserve to die. He shouldn't have been taken away like this. My son was so innocent. He wasn't doing anything to deserve this."
Rivera believed he was shooting a friend of Berryman’s, Aaron Daly-Frith, in order to advance himself in the Latin Kings, officials said, in the mistaken belief that Daly-Frith had assaulted a leader of the Latin Kings in April 2005 in a fight outside the La Mansion Club in Island Park.
The shooting took place as Berryman was switching places with Daly-Frith in a vehicle to take the wheel because his friend was bleeding from a head wound.
The courtroom Thursday was packed with Nassau County detectives, and FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents who investigated the "cold case" through the years. Sources have credited Thompson for her persistence in the case — calling authorities every three months for 10 years and enlisting the help of a local assemblyman.
The DEA became involved, officials said, because Rivera was known to be a heroin addict, and investigators pressured members of the Latin Kings and others involved in drug dealing for information on the Berryman killing.
"They never gave up," Thompson said of the law enforcement team. She gave a T-shirt with her son's picture on it to Eastern District prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz, who worked on the federal case from the beginning. The T-shirt said: "Gone but not forgotten ... God is in control."
One of Rivera's attorneys, federal public defender Randi Chavis declined to comment.
Gatz and federal prosecutor Mark Misorek declined to comment.
“Nearly fourteen years ago, an innocent young man lost his life to senseless gang violence. Like his family, we do not forget,” Eastern District United States Attorney Donoghue said in a statement. “This case demonstrates our relentless pursuit of justice for the victims of gang violence and our determination to hold gang members accountable.”
The 2005 killing took place after several hundred C.W. Post students had been at a fashion show and were partying at the club, which had also become a hangout for Latin Kings, officials said.
A brawl broke out and while neither Berryman nor Daly-Frith had been involved, Daly-Frith was hit in the head with a bottle and was bleeding. The two friends drove away from the club with Daly-Frith at the wheel and Berryman in the passenger’s seat. But Daly-Frith’s bleeding clouded his vision and he stopped to allow Berryman to drive.
As Berryman switched to the driver’s seat, Rivera, in a following car, drove alongside and fired two shots — one striking Berryman in an arm, another striking him fatally in the head.
It was “a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time ... [Berryman] wasn’t even drinking. He was there to dance," a Nassau detective said at the time.
The murder remained a cold case unsolved for 12 years, despite being features on “America’s Most Wanted” and with a $10,000 reward offered for information on the killing.
In 2017, Rivera was arrested and charged initially with racketeering murder and murder with a firearm. The racketeering murder count, which had called for mandatory life in prison, was dropped as part of the plea deal. The charge of murder with a firearm calls for up to life in prison.
Rivera comes from a law enforcement family, Gatz had said. His mother was a retired New York City police officer, a stepfather who was also a member of the NYPD, and brother who was on the Freeport force.
Berryman, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, was a star basketball player at Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
The coach of the Post’s men’s basketball team, said at the time of Berryman’s killing: “He’s just a very first-class kid. … People gravitated to him because he had such an infectious smile. He was just an upbeat kid, and every day was a great day for him.”