Prosecutor: Off-duty officer ‘terrorized’ family as SUV driver was beaten
NEW YORK (CNN) — Did a New York undercover detective join fellow motorcyclists in chasing and catching an SUV driver, then terrorize his family as he was dragged from the vehicle and beaten?
That’s what a prosecutor argued Wednesday, when Wojciech Braszczok was charged with first-degree gang assault and first-degree assault — both felonies — and third-degree criminal mischief in connection with a September 29 incident on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“(What happened) can only be described as a brutal and brazen attack on the driver and his family, in which the defendant is an active participant,” Assistant District Attorney Samantha Turino said in court.
Saying much of what transpired is captured on video, Turino put Braszczok, who was off-duty and riding with his motorcycle club at the time, among what she called a “mob of motorcyclists” who pursued Alexian Lien, dragged him from his Range Rover, then “stomped on, kicked and hit (him) with helmets until he appeared to lose consciousness.”
The 32-year-old Braszczok got off his bike after Lien, after being hemmed in by motorcyclists, ran over a few of them trying to escape, Turino said. He then joined bikers who chased Lien off the West Side Highway and onto 178th Street, where Lien stopped for good.
As the SUV driver was being beaten, the prosecutor said, Braszczok “terrorize(d) the rest of the driver’s family on the other side of the vehicle,” including shattering the rear window and kicking in the passenger side rear door.
“It should be noted that the 2-year-old child of (Lien) was in the backseat at the time the defendant was committing these violent acts,” said Turino.
Braszczok’s lawyer, John Arlia, firmly denied his client did anything wrong, saying his decision to go after someone who had run over motorcyclists doesn’t constitute a crime.
Arlia questioned whether it was the 10-year New York police veteran who broke the SUV’s window, saying it was already broken. The attorney also said that his client, a father of two who appeared in court wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and camouflage shorts, never got within 12 feet of the victim, much less hit him. Arlia said video from the scene shows as much.
“It’s an absolute overcharge,” Arlia said of the prosecution’s case, saying that most of the motorcyclists didn’t know each other. “… He is in no way near (Lien) and doesn’t join the others. … They can’t prove it.”
After both sides presented their cases, a judge set Braszczok’s bail at $150,000 bond or $100,000 cash. He later posted bond and was released, according to his lawyer.
Braszczok’s arraignment was not unexpected, as police indicated Tuesday he had been arrested. But the charges detailed then were less serious than those announced Wednesday.
Arlia told reporters that Braszczok is an undercover detective who has infiltrated various criminal organizations during his time in the New York Police Department, adding that he didn’t have a criminal record.
He was one of at least two off-duty undercover officers who were riding with fellow bikers that day, a law enforcement official told CNN. Authorities have no information that the other officer, who was riding with Braszczok, played an active role in the incident, according to a law enforcement official.
Braszczok allegedly didn’t inform supervisors that he was among the large group of bikers until two days after the incident. At that time, the prosecutor said, Braszczok denied being at the site of the confrontation. He changed his story, but denied participating in the beating, the next day, the prosecutor said.
1 Brooklyn resident charged, another arrested
The undercover police officer wasn’t the only motorcyclist tied up in the case Wednesday.
Clint Caldwell, a 32-year-old biker from Brooklyn, was also arraigned on first-degree gang assault and first-degree assault charges.
During Braszczok’s hearing, Turino said that — when the Range Rover was halted on 178th Street, after motorcyclists cut off traffic — Caldwell “charges the (broken) driver’s side window … and appears to strike (Lien) at least two times.”
Speaking after his client’s arraignment, lawyer Raymond L. Colon said video will show Caldwell opening the door of Lien’s Range Rover, but not assaulting him.
“He asks him to pull over, shut the engine — (Lien) just struck a couple of motorcyclists,” Colon told reporters. “And that’s all he did. There’s no contact. You’ll clearly see from the video he doesn’t reach into the window. There is another individual standing next to him that does.”
As with Braszczok, Judge Tamiko Amaker set Caldwell’s bail at $150,000 bond or $100,000 cash.
Police said another person also was arrested Wednesday in connection with the case.
James Kuehne, a 31-year-old Brooklyn resident, faces charges of gang assault, criminal mischief and criminal possession of a weapon, according to police.
Confrontation between bikers, SUV driver in Manhattan
The incident was sure to get attention, taking place on one of the busiest roads in one of America’s busiest cities. But the story caught on even more after video of the episode — captured when motorcyclist Kevin Bresloff turned on his helmet camera after seeing a water bottle thrown from the SUV’s sunroof toward the bikers, his attorney Andrew Vecere said — went viral.
According to Turino, motorcyclists heading north on Manhattan’s West Side Highway “were driving recklessly, … obstructing vehicle traffic, running red lights, swerving between lanes” when one of them — later identified as Christopher Cruz — quickly slowed down in front of Lien. Lien’s vehicle then bumped Cruz’s rear tire, slightly injuring him.
The Range Rover then pulled to a stop, at which point angry bikers surrounded his vehicle, hit it and spiked its tires, police said.
Lien’s vehicle then began moving again — plowing into three more bikers, including Edwin Mieses, whose wife, Dayana Mieses, said earlier this week has been told there’s a 1% chance he’ll never walk again.
As it moved away, the SUV was chased by motorcyclists, who caught up with it near the George Washington Bridge. Several bikers dismounted and approached the vehicle, with one of them opening its door, before Lien then drove away again.
Motorcyclists continued their pursuit, with some speeding ahead of him to help halt traffic. That’s where the ordeal ended — with Lien getting dragged out, kicked and hit. He suffered cuts to each eye, his right cheek, the left side of his body, and his lip, in addition to a pair of black eyes and abrasions to his hand, back and shoulder, according to Turino.
His wife and 2-year-old daughter were unharmed.
7 motorcyclists facing charges
Including Braszczok, Caldwell and Kuehne, seven people — all motorcyclists — have been or will be charged in the case, police said. Authorities, who have appealed for the public’s help in identifying people in some photos, haven’t ruled out more arrests or charges.
“In the last few days, serious charges have been brought against several defendants in last Sunday’s attack,” Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, said Wednesday. “As we said from the beginning of the investigation, the NYPD and the District Attorney’s Office are methodically scrutinizing the evidence to build the strongest possible cases in our continuing effort to hold accountable those responsible.”
The other motorcyclists are:
• Christopher Cruz, 28, who police say is the biker who slowed in front of Lien, was charged with reckless driving and other misdemeanors. He has been released on bond.
His lawyer, H. Benjamin Perez, said, “He never tried to assault him in any way. And he does not know any of the other motorcyclists who were involved in this beating.”
• Robert Sims, 35, is accused of stomping on Lien. He surrendered Friday on charges of attempted assault and gang assault.
• Reginald Chance, 37, who was captured on video smashing his helmet into the SUV’s window, has been charged with first-degree assault and gang assault. He was ordered held on $75,000 bond on Sunday.
Turino said Chance’s license had been suspended and he should not have been driving. She said his arrest record includes a marijuana charge in 2013 and attempted criminal possession of a weapon in 2006.
“The law does permit someone who is a victim of an accident to at least attempt to get the identification of the motorist,” said Chance’s attorney, Gregory Watts. “My client obviously overreacted in that manner, but he is not this thug assaulting someone who’s harmless, contrary to the public opinion that’s being put out there.”
He said Chance was knocked off his motorcycle by Lien’s SUV after bikers had surrounded the vehicle earlier.
• Craig Wright, 29, was arraigned Tuesday on gang assault and other charges and then ordered held on $150,000 bond. Wright is accused of stomping Lien at least twice after police say he and other motorcyclists forced the man’s Range Rover to a stop, used their helmets to break out the window and dragged him out of the car.
According to court documents, police say Wright, 29, identified himself in a picture showing him standing near the stopped SUV. Another photograph shows him stomping Lien as the man lies on the ground, according to the documents.
Wright is charged with first-degree gang assault, first-degree assault and first-degree unlawful imprisonment. He was arrested at his home in Brooklyn.
In March, Wright pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney said. It is unclear whether he was driving with a suspended license at the time of the SUV incident. He was also convicted in Virginia in 2005 for reckless driving.
Judge Amaker set Wright’s next court date for Friday.
That’s the same day the prosecution will present its case to a grand jury. Both Braszczok and Caldwell’s lawyers, at the least, said their clients intend to testify then.
Defenders of the bikers, including relatives of Mieses, the critically injured biker, have criticized Lien for driving through the crowd of motorcycles.
Vecere, Bresloff’s attorney, says his client hasn’t been charged with a crime, and he doesn’t expect him to be. He said police issued a warrant for the video, but Bresloff was going to turn it over anyway. He is cooperating with police, Vecere said.
“He was shocked” by what happened, the attorney said, adding that the case is “not black and white.”
CNN’s Susan Candiotti and Vivienne Foley reported from New York, and CNN’s Greg Botelho wrote this story from Atlanta. CNN’s Laura Dolan and Eden Pontz contributed to this report.