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Claude Bird robbery prosecution witness now says earlier police statement was coerced

Bronx resident Claude Bird, a 42-year-old Jamaican national,

Bronx resident Claude Bird, a 42-year-old Jamaican national, is scheduled to go on trial Monday in Mineola on six armed robbery counts. In this photo released Monday, May 17, 2010 by the Nassau County Police Department, he is shown in photos from 1993, left, and from his mug shot after being arrested. Credit: AP

A man who served prison time for a record-setting bank robbery refused to say his cousin, Claude Bird, carried out part of the heist and testified Monday that police forced him to sign a statement two decades ago that said otherwise.

The court testimony of Suffolk County resident Norman Palmer, a 43-year-old real estate investor, came on the first day of Bird's armed robbery trial in Mineola. Prosecutors say Bird, 42, of the Bronx, was one of two gunmen who escaped with $241,000 from a European American Bank in Lake Success on March 8, 1993.

Authorities have said it was the biggest bank heist in Nassau County history and that the case was the oldest one awaiting trial in New York. Bird, a Jamaican national, maintains his innocence.

The robbery happened after an armored car delivery, and authorities said a teller who helped set it up also went to prison. They said Palmer was the getaway driver, and state records show he went to prison in 1994 for robbery and was released in 2001.

Court records show Palmer signed a statement after the heist that said he met with Bird and another suspect in the bank's parking lot before the robbery, and that they had guns and masks. It said Palmer saw them go into the bank before Bird came out carrying a money bag, and Palmer drove the other two men away.

But, Palmer said yesterday, police "wrote a statement and forced me to sign it."

Called by the prosecution Monday, Palmer testified he was involved in planning the robbery and was there to be a lookout. But Palmer said he stayed in the lot and his memory "gets foggy" after that. He testified Bird's role was that "he was supposed to be the person who went into the bank." But Palmer denied driving anyone away from the heist, or having seen Bird with a gun outside the bank.

Prosecutor Jessica Cepriano told State Supreme Court Justice George Peck that Palmer's testimony Monday was different than what he told police in 1993. "He's done nothing but lie since he took the stand," she said before Peck ordered Palmer back to court Tuesday.

A former bank teller also testified earlier, describing how a masked gunman leapt over a counter and forced her and a pregnant colleague to lead him to the vault.

"Do what we say or we'll shoot you!" Eve Volonakis said she heard male voices shouting before that gunman approached her teller station.

Authorities said Bird spent years as a fugitive before his 2010 arrest in the Bronx after he tried to get a learner's permit in his name. They said he previously got a driver's license in a dead man's name and lived under that identity for years.

Cepriano said Monday that Bird confessed when Nassau detectives interviewed him in Jamaica in 1994. But Bird's attorney, Toni Marie Angeli, said he was then being held "in deplorable conditions," where he was denied food and water and "kept away from his lawyer." She's argued that the statement was illegally obtained.

Angeli also said the government lost evidence and said Bird -- described in a court filing as 5-foot-11 -- couldn't be the robber whom eyewitnesses described as being shorter.

Volonakis first testified that the gunman who threatened her was between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-10, but acknowledged during cross-examination that she told authorities decades ago that the suspect was 5-foot-8.

Prosecutors say Bird escaped from a Jamaican jail before he could be extradited, but the defense says a Jamaican judge released Bird from custody after not getting justification for his detention.

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