When Leonardo Valdez Cruz killed Jo’Anna Bird on March 19, 2009, plunging a knife into her with such savagery that an autopsy could not determine how many times she was stabbed, she'd known him for seven volatile years.
At first he charmed her with care and attention. But by late 2008, Bird had three orders of protection barring the erratic and violent drug dealer from her home, school, work, and her parents' home. State law mandates police must make an arrest on a domestic violence complaint when there is probable cause to believe an order of protection has been violated.
Yet at least six times in the months before Bird’s death, when she or a family member called 911 to report Valdez Cruz harassing, assaulting, and threatening to kill her, officers failed to make the required arrests.
Bird also had a child with Valdez Cruz, and a growing conviction that she would die at his hand.
More than a decade later, asked by a Newsday reporter about the failures of the police officers from whom Bird repeatedly sought help, Bird’s imprisoned murderer said, "They’re just being lazy, and they didn’t care."
Valdez Cruz, the killer, is not wrong, and experts who’ve reviewed the case share his conclusion: Officers could have done far more to help Bird, and they repeatedly broke the law by failing to do so.
But blaming what happened on the "laziness" of a handful of cops does nothing to address the lawlessness, apathy, dismissiveness and lack of leadership in the Nassau department exposed by the Bird case:
- It does nothing to explain why 14 cops who failed to protect Bird escaped serious punishment, and why several have since advanced their careers dramatically. Five have been promoted. Det. Jeffrey Raymond, who now heads the department’s Burglary Pattern Squad, got Valdez Cruz released from jail two days before he killed Bird, and provided him with a cellphone he repeatedly used to threaten Bird. Raymond was docked four hours pay as punishment. Thomas Shevlin, one of the 14, has since been elected president of the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association and another, James Shanahan, is its financial secretary.
- It does nothing to explain why resources available to victims of domestic abuse on Long Island are so inadequate. The 17 available beds for domestic violence victims in Nassau County are one-eighth the state’s per capita average.
- It does nothing to explain why the repeated threats to Bird and assaults on her did not trigger a broader police and social services response.
- And it does nothing to explain why the Nassau County Police Department continues to illegally hide from the public the wrongdoings of cops, and their mostly trivial punishments. What a Newsday investigation recently discovered about this case comes mostly from a 781-page document sent to another news organization by the county district attorney's office, that has been unjustifiably withheld for years from Newsday by the police department.
Cruz had his first arrest at age 12 and 23 of them by 2009. That included six arrests for violent felonies. He spent more than two years in a juvenile facility, starting in 2000, for robbery and assault. After that he made his way as a drug dealer and ranking member of the Bloods gang, cycling in and out of jail until his life sentence for killing Bird.
When Valdez Cruz met Bird, she’d just moved to Westbury from New Cassel. She was 17 and pregnant with the child of another man, who’d left her.
Valdez Cruz insinuated himself by helping her through the pregnancy, and the two became a couple, but his violent and controlling nature soon surfaced. He threatened to kill and mutilate her frequently, in letters, on the phone, and in person.
Police have justified their response by arguing that Bird failed to press charges and often recanted allegations. The most obvious example was an attempted kidnapping by Valdez Cruz that Bird described in a five-page report, before he again scared her into changing her story.
That could have put him away for decades.
It was the job of responding police officers to convince Bird they could safeguard her from Valdez Cruz, and to do so.
To get superiors involved in saving her life.
To get social services involved in saving her life.
To offer relocation, and protection, and convince her they could deliver.
And then, to deliver.
Instead they empowered him, seemingly because of his supposed use as a confidential informant and their apathy toward the danger.
Local advocates say there has been significant progress in the handling of domestic violence cases since Bird died but that more resources, including more beds for victims, are needed. Policing experts say the officers who failed Bird deserved far stiffer penalties. The law says the county must be forthcoming about police wrongdoing and punishment for it. And common decency says Raymond, Shevlin and Shanahan should not have leadership roles in the department or union.
Jo’Anna Bird didn’t believe the Nassau County Police Department would protect her from Valdez Cruz, because she regularly saw officers fail to do so.
Those officers believed the Nassau County Police Department would protect them from a full investigation and punishment for their wrongdoing, because they regularly saw the department do so.
Both Bird, and the officers, were right.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.