A 26-year-old NYPD officer from Levittown was murdered 51 years ago while on patrol in Brooklyn — and now a street in his hometown will honor him.
Fellow police, elected officials and friends will gather 9 a.m. Sunday for a street dedication ceremony on Abbey Lane, near Patrolman Robert Denton’s childhood home.
“Robert L. Denton Ln,” the two street signs to be unveiled will read, according to Ron Bellistri, Denton's friend since they were 10 and a retired NYPD officer. “I wanted to make sure that the memory of Bobby Denton lived on,” he said in an interview this week. “I want people to know who he was, that he was a wonderful young man, loved by his family and a tremendous amount of friends."
The circumstances of Denton’s July 24, 1971 killing, as reported by Newsday and others, were grim and almost nonsensical. A man asked Denton and his partner, working the midnight shift in Brownsville, how he could become a police officer and they told him; in a second encounter, minutes later as Denton left a bodega, the man slashed Denton’s throat.
Newsday's coverage did not give a motive for the slashing, and a 2020 court filing in connection with an unsuccessful parole bid for the killer called it "unprovoked." Newsday reported that the killer was held for "mental observation" at Kings County Hospital.
Bellistri, in a phone interview last week, talked about better days. “We loved to hang out with our friends, we were both athletes — we just hit it off,” he said. “It was some neighborhood — what a way to grow up. It was a fabulous life.”
He met Denton at Abbey Lane Elementary School after Bellistri’s family moved out from Flatbush, Brooklyn. At Levittown Memorial High School, Bellistri played quarterback, Denton linebacker. They attended the same college for two years before Denton, at the height of the Vietnam War, joined the Army. Denton’s mother worried, but he spent two years stateside packing parachutes, Bellistri said.
Joined NYPD together
After Denton was discharged, he persuaded Bellistri to join the department with him. “We just looked up to the police,” Bellistri said. “We wanted to do something for the community and we decided on the NYPD.”
Bellistri got what he called “a cushy little job” in the 13th precinct, Midtown Manhattan; Denton went to the 73rd, in northeast Brooklyn, what Bellistri said was “a very tough neighborhood.” Newsday’s coverage after Denton’s killing described an impoverished place whose mostly Black and brown residents were policed by white officers, some of whom feared for their lives. Denton, it seemed, didn’t.
Once, when Bellistri suggested his friend put in for a transfer to his precinct, Denton said no, Bellistri recalled: “I like the action,” Denton said.
The day Denton was killed, Bellistri recalled racing home to Long Island to console his friend’s parents. In the years since, most of Denton’s family has passed, Bellistri said. Denton’s widow — “the love of his life” — started a new life in Texas.
Bellistri rose to the NYPD's Narcotics Division, retired from the department in 1980 and then, started and sold a private investigation firm. Now 75, he still carries a picture of Denton in his wallet and every year visits the 73rd precinct house to buy the officers breakfast and say a prayer for his friend.
Last year, Bellistri asked a Brooklyn Community Board to rename a street in Denton’s honor. The board declined, he said. Community Board 16 manager Viola D. Greene-Walker said she was not authorized to comment but confirmed the board voted against renaming at its June 22, 2021 meeting.
Police keep communities safe
Hempstead decided to rename one of its streets for the slain officer after Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman and Bellistri last year raised the matter with town officials, including Supervisor Don Clavin and Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, a former NYPD detective who served in Brownsville.
Hempstead “has always been a community that supports our men and women in blue,” Clavin said in a release this week. “It is so important that generations of town residents understand the dedication and sacrifice made by police officers to keep our communities safe.”
Two signs bearing Denton’s name, made in the town’s sign shop, will be placed under the existing Abbey Ln. signs.
Blakeman said he imagined passersby seeing them and pulling out their phones to research: “They find out he was from Levittown, that he was a young man whose life was taken away from him in the line of duty.”
In an email, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch called the renaming “an important symbol that this hero’s sacrifice is not forgotten, not even a half-century later. … It’s important for cops to know that our communities still have our backs.”
Richard Lloyd Dennis, convicted in Denton’s murder, was released last year after 48 years, 7 months and 6 days of imprisonment, according to state records. Dennis could not be reached, and a lawyer who worked on his parole application did not respond to a request for comment.