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Bladimil Arroyo on the day in February 2019 that a Brooklyn judge overturned his conviction for a 2001 murder.
Bladimil Arroyo on the day in February 2019 that a Brooklyn judge overturned his conviction for a 2001 murder.
Claudia Irizarry Aponte/ THE CITY

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He Was Wrongfully Convicted of a Killing That Took Place Days After 9/11. Where Did Justice Go Awry?

Though he was nowhere near Ground Zero, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, left an indelible mark on Bladimil Arroyo. Five days after the attacks, he was arrested for murder, following his purported confession to stabbing a man in Brooklyn.

Arroyo, then 21 and an aspiring artist, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison — even though an autopsy determined that the victim, Gabor Muranyi, died of a gunshot wound, not a stab wound.

That evidence was brushed aside as the prosecution built its case around Arroyo’s false confession. Evidence supplied by police was inconsistent or improperly documented, according to an official reassessment of the prosecution.

In its 2019 review of Arroyo’s conviction, the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Review Unit found that the timing of the killing — just five days after the attacks on the World Trade Center — muddied the case.

“This case may have been complicated by the events of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing strains on the New York Police Department,” the panel wrote, describing “difficulty in reaching various officers, and receiving documents late and piecemeal.”

That discovery, along with findings by the Conviction Review Unit that NYPD detectives withheld evidence, led to Arroyo’s exoneration by Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic in February 2019.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Hale stressed in court that Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez moved to reverse Arroyo’s conviction because the defendant did not receive a fair trial — not because the DA believed him “actually factually innocent.”

‘A Second Chance’

Arroyo had spent 17 years behind bars, more than seven of them in isolation.

“This is a second chance at life,” Arroyo told reporters outside the courtroom that day. “And I gotta appreciate that.”

Doubts about his guilt lingered at his 2003 sentencing, when Justice Gustin Reichbach, who died in 2012, gave Arroyo 20 years to life in prison. Said Reichbach, “I would have to say that who exactly was the shooter here is not established beyond all reasonable doubt.”

And Arroyo maintained his innocence.

“I do want to apologize to the family and friends of the victim Gabor Muranyi, for their tragic loss, their time and trouble,” Arroyo said moments before his sentencing. “But I do want to let you know, your Honor, that I’m not guilty of the charges pending against me, what I was convicted of.”

“Opportunity” artwork illustrated by Bladimil Arroyo
“Opportunity,” an illustration by Bladimil Arroyo.
Courtesy of Bladimil Arroyo

Now 41, Arroyo is suing the city and state for his prosecution and incarceration. His cases amount to a claim that he was a secondary victim of 9/11, while police grieved 23 NYPD officers killed in the attacks and the city’s attention focused on Ground Zero.

Arroyo declined an interview through his attorneys, David Cetron and Gerald Allen.

Disputed Account

In the early morning hours of Sept. 16, 2001, two officers from the 72nd Precinct discovered Muranyi’s body on 42nd Street and Second Avenue near Sweet Cherry, a strip club in Sunset Park.

No witnesses were at the scene when police arrived, detectives said years later in interviews with the Brooklyn DA’s Conviction Review Unit. But reports of a mugging nearby followed by a shooting led police to a trail of blood to Arroyo’s home. That — and his spontaneous confession — sealed his fate.

Remnants of the World Trade Center smolder on September 14, 2001.
Remnants of the World Trade Center smolder on September 14, 2001.
Jim Watson/U.S. Navy

THE CITY reconstructed the crime and investigation based on public records, including reports by the Conviction Review Unit and transcripts submitted as evidence for Arroyo’s pending lawsuits.

The CRU found police failed to document some evidence at the scene of the crime and later didn’t disclose certain details to the defense in Arroyo’s criminal trial. Among them: One witness, on parole, identified a different man arrested near the crime scene as a possible assailant. Police later released that individual.

In his initial statement to police, Arroyo said that on the evening of Sept. 15, he was hanging out at his Sunset Park home with his girlfriend, who worked at Sweet Cherry. At around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., his friend Eddie Lorenzo picked him up in a black Pontiac Grand Am and the two went to the club.

Arroyo told police the duo had a run-in with two men, after one brushed up against Lorenzo as they were leaving the club. That was Muranyi, with a companion named Cary Greene.

Lorenzo stared at the man — “a Russian guy,” in Arroyo’s description. But Arroyo claimed he told Lorenzo to forget about it. They left and walked towards Lorenzo’s car, looking to call it a night.

What happened outside the club is in dispute.

Stabbing and Gunshots

In Arroyo’s telling, Lorenzo spotted Muranyi and Greene walking down the street, and hassled them from the driver’s seat of his Pontiac. Then Lorenzo got out of his car bearing a silver automatic pistol — Arroyo backing him up with a knife — and punched Greene on the side of the head, according to Arroyo.

The four men struggled until Greene stabbed Lorenzo in the neck, and Lorenzo fired at least six gunshots, according to Arroyo.

Greene would later tell police that he stabbed Lorenzo in self-defense.

Two police officers patrolling the area heard the gunshots, and went after a black Pontiac Grand Am that sped away from the area, according to the CRU report.

In Lorenzo’s statement to prosecutors, he claimed Arroyo started the fight because he wanted to rob the two men, and that Lorenzo helped him. Arroyo was already back in the car by the time Lorenzo jumped in the driver’s seat and sped off, he told 72nd Precinct detectives.

Ten minutes later, according to the DA’s review of detectives’ notes, Greene flagged down two officers claiming that “three Black males” tried to rob him and Muranyi near where his friend lay dead.

Lorenzo is described in the booking arrest sheet as a “black-Hispanic, dark skin tone.” Arroyo is described as “white-Hispanic.”

Police notes from that morning state that police briefly held a Black man who fit Greene’s description of the attackers But they let him go after Greene said he did not recognize him, stating: “If the guy did not have a stab wound, then this would not be the guy.”

But Greene identified another man that police arrested near the scene as one of his potential attackers, according to an interview by the CRU. That man’s hand was lacerated and he was clutching a bloody napkin.

The CRU found no evidence of that man’s arrest, or that any of this information was disclosed to the defense in Arroyo’s trial.

Police said a “stocky Hispanic male” with a bloody shirt walked past an officer near Arroyo’s home, got into the Grand Am and drove off. Arroyo told police later that morning that he had brought Lorenzo to his room and attempted to stop his bleeding.

Police followed a blood trail to a first-floor apartment on 42nd Street and got consent from Arroyo’s mother to search the apartment, according to the CRU report. The police found Arroyo in bed and took him in for questioning.

9/11 Upheaval

In its 2019 report, the Conviction Review Unit identified several things it said went wrong with Arroyo’s interrogation and trial.

Central to it all: the profound disruptions wrought by the destruction of the World Trade Center, still burning the night of the killing. The NYPD had lost 23 men on 9/11, and hordes of officers were deployed to search and secure Ground Zero.

The DA’s review found that because the case occurred in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “the run-up to the trial, the normal and orderly acquisition and dissemination of police documents was disrupted and that the trial assistant could not follow his regular course of procuring and turning over discovery,” Hale told the court.

“So much so,” he said, that CRU members “were not really able to accurately reconstruct what was turned over and what was not turned over.”

Those circumstances led to the prosecution being “prejudiced” against Arroyo, making for an unfair trial, Hale told the judge.

On the afternoon of Sept. 16, 2001, hours after his initial interview, Arroyo asked to speak to Brooklyn South Homicide Squad Detective Robert Keating again, the CRU review detailed. He confessed to bringing a knife to the fight and to stabbing one of the men in the chest, and to later throwing the knife out the car window.

In separate videotaped statements later that day in the presence of the trial assistant district attorney, Timothy Gough, Arroyo repeated his account, and again confessed to the stabbing.

Meanwhile, Greene made his own sworn statement to a prosecutor at the 72nd Precinct, stating for the first time that two men assaulted him — not three. At a lineup, Greene identified Lorenzo — but did not recognize Arroyo, according to a detective there cited in the conviction review report.

Greene was on probation at the time of the crime, according to police notes that were also not disclosed to the defense, the CRU found.

Gunshot Wound

Despite the conflicting statements, police closed the case that evening. Arroyo and Lorenzo were charged with two counts of murder in the second degree, two counts of robbery in the second degree, and firearms charges.

A grand jury indicted Arroyo and Lorenzo three weeks later on all counts, despite an autopsy revealing that Muranyi died of a gunshot wound — not a stab wound. “None of the charges involved a stabbing or possession of a knife,” wrote the Conviction Review Unit.

Lorenzo pled guilty to attempted robbery in the first degree. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. THE CITY was unable to reach him for comment.

“The CRU was unable to ascertain why Lorenzo was offered a plea deal,” the office noted in its report on Arroyo’s conviction. “Lorenzo did not appeal or otherwise attack his judgment of conviction.”

The identity of the killer remains unproven.

While Gough, the trial prosecutor, knew based on the autopsy that Muranyi died of a gunshot wound and informed the jury, the main evidence was Arroyo’s confession to the stabbing — a detail that prosecutors should have scrutinized before deciding to proceed, according to the Conviction Review Unit.

Instead, prosecutors, under then-DA Charles Hynes, went ahead and built their case around Arroyo’s false confession.

Investigation ‘Bias’

Although the detective who interrogated Arroyo maintained that the confession was “spontaneous,” the CRU found that the detective fed the fact of the “stabbing” to the suspect. That led the panel investigating his conviction to conclude that Arroyo’s confession was at least partly untruthful. It concluded that the prosecution should have made note of the detective’s inconsistencies during the pre-trial hearing.

A 2020 study commissioned by Gonzalez from watchdog group The Innocence Project to look into the Conviction Review Unit’s record also scrutinized Arroyo’s case and backed the conclusion. The study also found “confirmation bias” by cops arising from Arroyo’s 2000 guilty plea for weapons possession.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez speaks at a press conference at his Jay Street office, Nov. 21, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The allegedly coerced confession is among the claims in Arroyo’s lawsuit against the city and three police detectives, filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court last year. Attorneys for Keating and two other now-retired detectives, David Gilbert and Robert Cermenello, denied that and other claims.

James Moschella, the attorney representing the cops, said in a statement: “These detectives conducted this investigation as the consummate professionals that they are. They performed their duties in an exemplary manner and in accordance with the law, their training, experience and the procedures of the NYPD.”

The city Law Department declined to comment.

Gough, who was promoted to Homicide Chief at the DA’s office in 2017, is not a defendant in that suit. In a statement, Brooklyn DA spokesperson Oren Yaniv underlined the office’s reforms.

“In contrast with 2001, our prosecutors now receive training on confirmation bias, signs of false confessions and every other lesson that was learned as the result of the CRU’s work,” he said. “The lack of such training back then contributed to unintentional errors in judgement by the entire prosecution team, supervisors, and the court, which were cited as some of the reasons to vacate Mr. Arroyo’s conviction.”

Yaniv added: “A.D.A. Gough has established a long record of highly ethical and professional conduct and we have complete confidence in his leadership of the Homicide Bureau.”

Suing the State

Arroyo has also filed suit against the state, seeking $20 million under a law that allows wrongfully convicted individuals to recover damages. A decision by state judge Richard Edward Sise is pending.

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Letitia James declined to comment.

Arroyo, now 41, still lives in Sunset Park. His fiercest advocate, Allen and Cetron say, was his mother, Milagros Montalvo. The duo’s reunion was sadly short-lived: Montalvo died after a battle with lung cancer in the summer of 2020. She was 66 years old.

Bladimil Arroyo with his mother, Milagros Montalvo, on the day of his February 2019 court hearing.
Bladimil Arroyo with his mother, Milagros Montalvo, on the day of his February 2019 court hearing.
Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

Montalvo was a frequent visitor to Cetron’s midtown law offices, and always threw in a “Dios te bendiga” (“God bless you”) before walking out the door or ending a phone call. Allen said that Montalvo was proud that it was a fellow Puerto Rican — Gonzalez, the district attorney —who helped free Arroyo.

Montalvo embraced her son for the first time shortly before Arroyo’s February 2019 court appearance, in a private meeting at the Brooklyn DA’s office. Gonzalez was also in attendance, Cetron said.

“I’m very, very happy to have my son,” Montalvo told reporters outside the courtroom, Arroyo officially a free man. “I got my son back, that’s it. I need him.”

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