Extortion Plot Foiled

by Melissa Bailey | November 24, 2008 2:00 PM | | Comments (27)

IMG_0342.jpg(Updated Nov. 27, 2009: The ringleader in this case received a three-year jail sentence.)

Armed with an incriminating photo, a band of blackmailers hustled $200,000 from a prominent New Haven attorney. They demanded more — then Det. Robin Higgins and her “take-down team” stepped in.

Seeking help after a year of torment, the attorney came to Higgins in October. One day later, she had the first suspect in handcuffs.

A 17-year veteran of the city police force, Higgins (pictured) is one of the top detectives who handle sex-related crimes. When the department learned of a high-profile extortion case, they sent it right to her.

Higgins and Det. Angela Augustine-Day sat down with the attorney and heard his story for the first time.

“He was desperate,” Higgins said.

The man, an elderly New Haven attorney whom Higgins declined to name, told of a pattern of abuse that was threatening his marriage and his reputation and draining his retirement funds. Vexed by the matter for a whole year, he had shed 35 pounds.

At first, she said, he “acted like a lawyer,” telling her what to do. A 43-year-old mother of two young kids, Higgins speaks in a warm but assertive manner. She laid down the ground rules. “I said no — you’re going to answer my questions.”

He did. He told her he had spent the last year under the demands of a band of street criminals who had gotten their hands on an incriminating photo.

The photo showed the attorney getting oral sex from a female prostitute named “Mama,” according to someone familiar with the case. Someone, apparently in cahoots with Mama, had snapped the photo and turned it into a business opportunity. The attorney’s face wasn’t in the photo, but the evidence was damning enough to prompt him to pay thousands of dollars to keep it from his wife.

At his first estimate, the attorney figured his blackmail payments had totaled about $100,000.

“It sounds like the Sopranos or something,” said Higgins, recounting the tale one recent afternoon at a downtown bookstore cafe. She found out it was true. Police would later calculate he had spent twice that much, about $200,000, trying to keep the secret safe.

The pattern of extortion started about a year ago, when a former client came to him with the photo, Higgins said. The client threatened to show it to his wife unless he paid money. The attorney complied, handing over some cash in envelope.

Then the alleged blackmailer got some friends in on the business. Strangers, using aliases, started calling the attorney, demanding up to $5,000 in cash at a time. For a year, the requests kept pouring in — from six, seven, eight different people.

“They kept coming back, kept coming back,” said Higgins. They threatened to tell his family. They even showed up at his house.

For a year, the attorney declined to turn to police because he didn’t know if he’d get busted for the incident in the photo, Higgins said. But when the alleged blackmailers approached his wife, he felt he didn’t have a choice. After the secret got out to his wife, he turned to the police.

At that point, the attorney had been digging into his retirement savings to make the payments, Higgins said.

“He was a sad, desperate man.”

The Take-Down Team

On the same October day that the attorney went to Higgins for help, he got another blackmail request, according to Higgins. It came to his office through his fax machine. The person left a number to call.

Higgins told the attorney not to call the number back; she would take care of it. With three cops for backup, Higgins zeroed in on the suspect the next day. They followed the fax number to its origin. At the end of that electronic trail, they found their first suspect. They made the arrest on the spot.

Before much longer came a second opportunity to put the blackmailing to a stop. An arrest warrant tells the story of how a sting operation netted three more suspects in the case:

On October 28, the attorney got a call from a man named “Germaine,” according to the warrant. He also got a visit from an unknown man at the reception desk of his downtown office. While he was on the phone with Higgins, he got a knock on his office window. He didn’t see who was there.

Higgins told the attorney she would be right there. At the office, cops didn’t find any mystery visitors. They did find a note from the visitor with a phone number. With the number in hand, the detectives agreed to set up a time the next morning to bust the blackmailer.

They headed back to police headquarters to hatch a plan.

At 9:20 a.m., Higgins gathered the special investigations unit and gave instructions to six different teams.

She dispatched five teams to stake out the perimeter of the attorney’s office, in unmarked police cars.

IMG_0347.jpgInside, Higgins and three others would serve as the “take-down team.” They set up a recording device on the attorney’s phone and instructed him to call the blackmailer. They gave him an envelope of $100, divided into one fifty-dollar bill and fifty ones.

The idea was to lure the suspect to the office, where cops would be waiting to catch him red-handed with the cash in hand.

At about 9:30 a.m., the plan was a go: The attorney called Germaine. He wasn’t there. They didn’t leave a message. He didn’t call right back. So the attorney called the next on the list of alleged blackmailers, a woman by the nickname “Tameika.” She didn’t pick up. But she saw a missed call and called the attorney back, demanding $2,000. She agreed to come to the office to pick up the money.

She arrived at the office in the passenger seat of a red vehicle. She went into the office, took the envelope from the attorney, and headed for the door. As she left the office, she was met with a surprise — 14 police officers waiting for her. Cops took the money and immediately slapped her with a litany of charges: Five counts each of first-degree larceny, conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny and second-degree harassment.

The man who had driven her to the office was detained, too. Cops had the attorney come look at him. The attorney identified him as a man named “Joe,” who had allegedly blackmailed him three times.

As Tameika and Joe were taken to police headquarters for questioning, a third suspect fell into the grips of another sting.

The attorney tried to reach Germaine again. Two minutes after they called him, a man named “Jeff,” aka “Bogey” called back. He demanded $4,000. The attorney agreed to pay the fee, but Jeff had to come to his office, according to the warrant. Like Tameika, Bogey took the fall — he took the envelope of money and got slapped with five counts of the same charges as Tameika.

Down at police headquarters, Tameika admitted to shaking down the attorney once before, according to the warrant. She said she was introduced to the attorney through a friend named LaShonda. The friend had gotten her hands on the incriminating photos, and told her she could make some money, too.

The suspects who were arrested were small-time criminals with not much money and histories of robbery, larceny and gun charges.

At headquarters, Bogey “thanked us for arresting him because he was tired of living the hard life,” Higgins wrote in the warrant.

“This Policing Thing”

With four arrests in the hopper, Higgins said there may be more to come.

The Sopranos-style case has capped a career that began in the records division as a civilian clerk. From her seat at the records desk, she took a look around at the police at work.

“I thought, I could get into this policing thing.”

She was right — in 1991, she became a cop, patrolling the streets of Farren Avenue on a walking beat. Seven years later, she made detective. Along the way, she met her husband Ronnel Higgins on a domestic violence case. Higgins, a former Independent cop of the week, is now assistant chief of the Yale police department.

Now she maintains the sex offender registry, teaches about sex crimes at the police academy, and is one of the top detectives in the city’s special investigations unit.

A modest person, she thanked the detectives that backed her up on this unexpected, high-profile case. She downplayed the work she did in cracking the case — “It just fell in my lap,” she said.

Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:

Shafiq Abdussabur
Det. Scott Branfuhr
Dennis Burgh
Sydney Collier
David Coppola
Joe Dease
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Bertram Etienne
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Dan Hartnett
Ray Hassett
Ronnell Higgins
Racheal Inconiglios
Hilda Kilpatrick
Anthony Maio
Steve McMorris
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
Luis & David Rivera
Salvador Rodriguez
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
Stephan Torquati
Kelly Turner
Alan Wenk
Michael Wuchek
David Zaweski

(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)

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Posted by: citizen | November 24, 2008 2:08 PM


Posted by: jahad | November 24, 2008 3:41 PM

Recognition is way overdue for Det. Higgins. She does a remarkable job in the investigations division and her personable demeanor makes her a valuable partner in collaborations with local law enforcement agencies. I know I can always count on her for assistance! New Haven is in a great position to have her and her husband on their side- keep up the great work Robin!

Posted by: Drop the Hammer | November 24, 2008 4:09 PM

Did the Lawyer get arrested for patronizing a prostitute?

Posted by: Eye Spi | November 24, 2008 8:42 PM

Well the cat's out of the bag now because there aren't too many prominent elderly attorneys in town who have a ground-floor office and have lost 35 lbs in the past year.

Posted by: Chris Gray | November 25, 2008 1:05 AM

Boy, that's beginning to look to be an impressive list and, eventually, I hope to delve into all of those stories but, as one whom highly values professionalism in policing, this sure appears to be fine work.

With all the carping about our police and how they are employed, some from me, it is excellent that the NHI has this series to commend the many who serve the public so well.

Posted by: Moira | November 25, 2008 8:54 AM

And three days later Det. Higgins joined me and other parents at our childrens' school for the kids' Halloween parade. All in a week's work for a great woman! Cop of the Week? How about Working Mother of the Year?? Congrats, Robin! xo

Posted by: robn | November 25, 2008 9:46 AM

Well told story...i could almost hear the Law and Order gong go off at every paragraph.

Posted by: Mister Jones | November 25, 2008 3:18 PM

Nice story, but...

This article does not seem to be up to the Independent and Melissa Bailey's usual standards. It's devoid of any real facts, such as the names of the victim and the accused, or any follow-up on the prosecutions. There are details but no verifiable facts. While I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the story, at the same time there's nothing in it suggesting that the reporter did her fact-checking, and nothing to allow readers to do their own fact-check.

Ordinarily, the arrest of four people in an extortion scheme involving a "prominent" attorney would be news, especially as "there may be more to come." A big operation like this, with fourteen cops mobilized, sounds like news to me.

Without more, I am sorry to say this just reads as a puff piece.

Posted by: NHPD | November 25, 2008 7:25 PM

"Mister Jones"
Not every thing makes it to the papers, much by design. These facts are very easily proved, even by someone such as yourself. To insinuate that this case is bogus, shows your complete ignorance of how the police operate on a daily basis. This job is not done to promote news articles, or to make headlines. Most of the police would appreciate it if most of this never makes the news, due to the fact that it gives away how we conduct investigations.

Posted by: Lance | November 26, 2008 3:01 AM

200K? Spitzer got a bargain.

Posted by: Mister Jones | November 26, 2008 9:03 AM

NHPD you misunderstand my comments, which were directed towards the journalism, not the cop.

I believe the story. No insinuation intended.

My point is that good journalists and news organizations--like Melissa Bailey and the NH Independent--get facts, check facts and print facts. This story had precious few facts. No victim name, no perp names just aliases and no info of status of their cases some four weeks after the arrests. "These facts are very easily proved, even by someone such as yourself." Sure, if I had the names of the accused I could look up their cases, but I don't, so enlighten me. How am I supposed to find out more?

I understand that the story was intended to profile Detective Higgins, but the great story of her work on the investigation and arrests overshadowed the human interest angle. As a reader I was left looking for more meat on the bones of the story.

The legal community was buzzing about this story yesterday. Nobody had heard of it until the Independent published. Lest you think I am just looking for salacious details, remember that there is a public interest--deterrent effect--in publication of this kind of news. The chief publicizes his prostitution sweeps with photos of "alleged" hookers and johns, but this story got no play until the cop-of-the-week article. This story is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong with so-called victimless crimes.

Posted by: Paul Bass | November 26, 2008 9:28 AM

Mister Jones -- Thanks for the thoughtful critique of the article. We do always wrestle with these questions of what information to include and what not to include in a crime story; these are complex questions, and I by no means assume that we have the right answers.

In general we don't print the names of people who are arrested unless we've interviewed them. (Exception: public figures, who understand that's a price of their position, the public's right to know.) Our concern is that people publicly accused of a crime can't get their reputations back if they turn out to be innocent. As you and others argue, there are countervailing arguments, such as the public's interest in knowing if a dangerous creep lives door (or even an allegedly dangerous creep). That's why I think it's complicated; at this point we try to err on the side of "do no harm."

As for the name of the victim here, I am positive he wouldn't want his name revealed. He'd become a victim a second time. Yes, patronizing a prostitute is illegal. But being the victim of a cruel extortion scheme that wrecks your life is not illegal, and that was the issue with this story. Again, there are legitimate arguments in favor printing his name, too. Again, we're erring for now on the "do no harm" principle.

Posted by: NHPD | November 26, 2008 9:18 PM

My apologies mister jones, you are right, I did take it the wrong way.

Posted by: MONICA | November 30, 2008 3:21 PM

This story has been sanitized. Everybody knows oral is not sex. A former President and Yale Attorney made this point ten years ago. He is still married.

There were 2 ladies. One in action and one with a camera. Was it a party.

I think that the info came from one of the ladies Chief Lewis recently busted as a plea bargain. I doubt if it is an elderley prominent attorney. That man could retire. I think it is a senior Yale person, a prominent businessman or a senior City official.

I also think Bass is playing the politically correct here. I just reported the facts. I did not give names. He knows the Register or the Advocate will jump on this when the case goes to court. The upstanding citizen may not be named in court but everyone will see him entering and leaving court.

Good work Bass. You know the Register is bust and will print anything. WTNH always needs a story.

From the names the ladies were African Americans. If the man is that scared his wife must be a devout Catholic. Italian, or Polish. Not a good situation.

I doubt this will be posted.

Posted by: Mister Jones | November 30, 2008 6:54 PM

Thanks Paul. I respect your editorial judgment on this story. And NHPD, apology accepted. Sorry I led you to believe I doubted the cop.

This is still a great story, and great police work. I think it should have been bigger news and remain surprised that no other news orgs picked it up.

It's also a reminder of how nice it is to be able to have a reasoned debate in these pages about issues like this...

Posted by: Lisa Backus | December 1, 2008 5:43 AM

First of all this is a great story, well told. Since I am among the ranks of those who are about to see the death of my livelihood at the New Britain Herald, I felt the need to comment on a couple of thoughts expressed. I am a crime reporter, and do so for a couple of legimate reasons. Number one, it's fun. But more importantly I genuinely feel that it makes a difference in people's lives and to the community. I understand the New Haven Independent's stance on "do no harm." However, I wanted to present a different viewpoint. I do know it's a balancing act and have no issue with citing unidentified sources or not naming a victim if there is a legimate reason to hide their identity. But I do need to point out that I feel often when you contact an arrestee for comment you can wind up tainting thier court case - any comments made to a reporter can be used against them by a zealous prosecutor or judge. But I also feel strongly that arrests large and small need to be reported. It's not only the sensational that affects the quality of life for residents of a community. It's actually the petty crimes that have the most impact. Case in point: I covered three or four small arrest stories about kids (ages 18 - 23) committing small crimes about three years ago - two had burglarized a commerical building and two got caught switching seats (in full view of police) when pulled over for a traffic stop. All four arrests wound up having one thing in common: they were tied to heroin use. The two young burglars died of heroin overdoses in 2006. One of the car stop suspects is now serving a 22 year sentence for a string of armed robberies. I literally wound up following their lives and in some cases their deaths, one small arrest story at time. My overall point is (and yes I do have one, for those of you who've fallen asleep at this point), it's not always in the best interests of the community to hide their identities or kill an arrest story because they haven't been reached for comment. Just a thought to consider. Thanks for letting me spout.

Posted by: anon | December 1, 2008 11:30 PM

And, of course, you are withholding the names of the arrestees because you have so much journalistic integrity.

Posted by: anon | December 1, 2008 11:42 PM

reading now your comment mr. bass, are you saying you have never printed the name of an arrestee without getting a comment from them? is this possible? You don't do that?

this is a pretty big story.

I think it is laudible to have that policy. I don't think you do actually have that policy, but I think it would be admirable though very problematic.

But let's say you do -- why don't you get on the phone then and call the arrestees?

Did NHPD refuse to tell you who they were? and if so, did you pander to this illegal refusal by "working with them" on it, to get this cop of the week story?

Can I get you to take dictation too?

Posted by: anon | December 1, 2008 11:55 PM

example: http://www.newhavenindependent.org/archives/2006/06/fourth_suspect.php

In this story where you did run the names, you did not even report attempting to contact the suspects or suspects' family, not even an attempt.

that was what I found in one quick search -- your claims just aren't true. In stories where you apparently feel you need to run the names of arrestees, for whatever readon, you don't even try to contact them.

You have no policy or standard. whim, bias, emotion, gut feeling, pressure from sources whatever, but intelligent plan? I don't see it

Posted by: Paul Bass | December 2, 2008 9:00 AM

Anon -- You're right. We definitely mess up sometimes -- including that example you found from two and a half years ago. We'll do our best to be consistent.

Posted by: Mister Jones | December 2, 2008 10:43 AM

Monica, forget your conspiracy theory. The extortion victim is a lawyer. The story was posted Monday afternoon; his name was circulating by the end of the day Tuesday. I won't repeat it, because it's just talk, the rumor mill, not verified, but not a city hall guy, biz man or Yale big shot. Is he prominent? I don't know. I've never heard of him.

Posted by: NHPDtoo | December 2, 2008 7:50 PM

Wow, although this was a great case, I think a lot could have been omitted in the story. Once a defense attorney gets to court, they get the information in the police reports. Obviously, Det. Higgins would have never given out so much information on such a lengthy investigation. Just where did you get all the information? I believe it was totally wrong to include so much information in this article....after all, this is real life, not Law & Order, CSI, or any other crime shows.....I wouldn't have a problem if you followed up as information became available, but it is apparent that there is a leak somewhere within NHPD. This was a disservice to Robin and the hard work that went into this case....this article gave it all away. You can bet I'd rather not be cop of the week than speak with Melissa.

Posted by: anon | December 3, 2008 8:49 PM

As to why lawyer wasn't arrested.

I don't have specific info on this case, or on NHPD's policies, but often victims like that aren't and the reason generally is that it would discourage victims like this from coming forward.

Obviously, extortion like this is a way more serious crime than hiring a prostitute and police are going to want to shut people like that down. They need the victim to report it.

They can charge the lawyer (if the statute hasn't run out -- it might have - he said he was living like this for what, at least a year?) but it wouldn't be the best public policy. No one being blackmailed would ever come forward.

maybe there would be other barriers to prosecution, but they would be sort of irrelevent when there is this overarching interest in encouraging someone like this to come foward.

Posted by: Latonya Bailey | December 4, 2008 8:03 PM

Wow! This doesn't surprise me about Detective Higgins reason being is that she is an excellent detective and person. She cares deeply about the lives of others and she shows it in her work also she doesn't take any mess she gets the job DONE!Personally I think she should of been recognized a long time ago if any one has had any contact with her they will also say when she is called on a case she handles it as if it was her own family! Great Job Detective Higgins Keep up the good work the Community LOVES YOU!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: streever | November 27, 2009 1:31 PM

Anon, you realize that this IS NOT a story about the lawyer's crime, nor about the extortion, but about a great cop?

You ask why wasn't the lawyer named. What about the extortionists?

Paul & the NHI did everyone a service here. The treatment was fair. A man who paid a woman for oral sex wasn't named, and several individuals who sought to turn that mistake into a life-long sentence were not named. Both did something wrong, but I'd argue the second group is clearly more wrong.

nice work Det Higgins! That's what this is really about.

Posted by: janet | November 29, 2009 9:01 AM

It's a great story. I'd like to see the critic produce something more compelling. Nothing is perfect. Blackmailers beware. I hope the lawyer's marriage weathered this crisis. Like Letterman, he should have called the police at the first hint of a shakedown.
"Everybody lies, especially about sex."
Cut the guy some slack. He's suffered enough.
The reporter told a great true story.

Posted by: grey | December 1, 2009 7:21 PM

Everyone harping on Bass for excluding the names of the arrested is just being lazy and sensationalist. Lazy because, from my own experiences in crime reporting, you can go down to the station and look at the arrest reports, they are public record. Sensationalist because, like Streevsies says, what these people's names are makes no difference. Unless you're like me and you just dig the gossip:

"Oh snap, yo! 'Bogey' got busted!"

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