January 1421, 1999
The Kimberly Conundrum
How a crack-smoking male prostitute became the basis of a controversial theory about who killed Kimberly Ernest.
by Howard Altman
click here to go to Part 1 of "The Kimberly Conundrum"
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Over the rumble of subway cars passing by on the sooty blue trestles of the Market-Frankford El outside his window, Len Wise says his boy Richie never touched Kimberly Ernest.
Sitting at his desk, before a wall decorated with his NRA membership certificate and a framed copy of the Daily News front page declaring Richie and Herbie Haak "Not Guilty," Wise says he has been on a mission:
To find Ernest's "real killer."
For Wise, it became personal on Nov. 8, 1995, the day Herbie Haak told the authorities that Richie did the crime.
In the office of Convoy Oil, a thriving business he owns in an otherwise blighted neighborhood, the craggy-faced 45-year-old Wise talks about his efforts to clear Richie's name.
Efforts that led him to invest thousands of dollars in legal fees and countless hours of his time in an exhaustive investigation yieldingin addition to a not-guilty verdicta bizarre story about an alleged conspiracy to protect John Lambert, the son of a prominent lawyer.
Sifting through a pile of papers that he has culled over the years, Wise says that the story of this high-powered cover-up began with Billy Liberatore, a 31-year-old thief and prostitute with many addresses and a daughter to support.
Billy Liberatore is now the key figure in the $75 million civil suittwo separate cases rolled into oneagainst the city and police filed on behalf of Herbie and Richie.
Oddly enough, though Haak and Wise "personally don't like each other," according to court statements, Herbie Haak's attorney Fred Ambrose has been Rich and Len Wise's staunchest ally.
In court papers, in a nine-page memo to Police Commissioner John Timoney and in a concerted effort to win media coverage, Ambrose and his team are using Liberatore to suggest that John Lambert killed Kimberly Ernest.
By the admission of Ambrose's own private investigator, Liberatore is the entire basis of the cover-up theory.
Stephen Stouffer, working for Ambrose, swore in a July 29, 1998, deposition that Liberatore was "at this time all I have" to prove that John Lambert killed Kimberly Ernest.
This was a full two weeks after Ambrose gave Commissioner Timoney his memo naming John Lambert as a prime suspect.
A review of thousands of pages of documents and interviews with dozens of people intimately involved in the homicide's myriad investigations show that Liberatore is a very shaky hinge on which to hang a story.
He has been convicted more than a half dozen times, for charges including robbery, simple assault, drug possession, illegal weapon possession and several counts of prostitution. He also has a pending aggravated assault charge.
This star witness against Lambert was hardly a stranger to Len Wise.
In court records, Liberatore says he worked at Convoy "on and off" between 1986 and 1996 as a chemist earning $6.50 an hour.
During that period, Wise was first Liberatore's supervisor, then, when he took over the company, his employer.
Though he has become a pretty important witness, Billy Liberatore wasn't much of a chemist. Wise would eventually have to fire him, according to his attorney, Sam Malat.
All things considered, the credibility of Billy Liberatore was so questionable that the normally aggressive attorney Jack McMahon, hired by Wise to defend his son in the criminal case, wouldn't put him on the stand during the trial.
And then there are Liberatore's stories themselves.
So far, Billy Liberatore has told at least four different versions of his taleincluding once on video as a blurred-image subject of a Channel 10 special report in April of 1998.
The Channel 10 version of Billy Liberatore's evolving recollection of events was the first to play in Philadelphia media. It spurred the City Solicitor's Office into a frenzied hunt for Liberatore.
Enter The Pawn
The story of Billy Liberatore, star witness, begins in the swirling vortex of weirdness kicked up by Kimberly Ernest's brutal death.
The day after Richie Wise was dragged out of his aunt's house and charged with killing Ernest, Len Wise says that, faced with herds of media cattle stampeding his home and his business, he and his family fled Philadelphia for the relative calm of the Jersey Shore.
The next day, Wise says he got a message from his brother.
A guy named Billy had some dirt on the murder.
"I was contacted by Billy Liberatore the day after my son was arrested," says Wise, his tabby cat Connie crawling over his desk. "He said a guy named Mike did it. He was scared to death of the guy."
Wise says that, initially, he did not know Mike's true identity.
But slowly, starting with a shooting that he says he heard while listening to the police scanner on Christmas Day, 1995, Wise says he began to unravel the mystery of the Guy Named Mike.
The shooting was at 1706A Delancey St., according to Wisefour blocks away from the scene of the crime his son was accused of committing.
That address was also mentioned a couple of times in police reports from the initial search for Kimberly's killer.
And it is the place where, according to Wise, Billy Liberatore said Kimberly's killer ["Mike"] had lived.
Wise says he decided to visit 1706A Delancey, a basement apartment just a few doors down from the Plays and Players Theatre on a narrow street of well-kept brick and brownstone row homes.
"I knew about the place," says Wise. "Liberatore told me about it. I went down there to see what was going on."
He says he talked to the owner of the apartment at the time, Marty Bergen, who told him that the name on the lease was John Lambert.
Three months after he says he received the enigmatic tip from Liberatore, Wise says he solved its riddle after reading the March 1996 "The Vampires of Delancey Street" article in Philadelphia Magazine, about a group of crack-smoking male prostitutes living and working near 17th and Pine.
"I read the magazine and things started clicking together," says Wise. "It started clicking together because of the descriptions."
The main character of the story, written by Eric Konigsberg, is Johnny D, "tall and wasp-waisted, with beady, deep-set eyes, flower-like skin and lank hair bound into a ponytail with a purple scrunchy."
He is a man who was in a hell of a lot of trouble, making money selling blow jobs and crack rocks, owing drug dealers and barely getting by.
After reading the article, Wise says, he remembered the Christmas shooting at 1706 Delancey and figured out that Johnny D, as described by Konigsberg, was Lambert, the guy from the apartment where the shooting occurred. And that Lambert was Mikethe guy that Billy Liberatore, in one version of his many accounts, says slugged Kimberly Ernest shortly before she was found beaten to death.
"The description started clicking," says Len Wise. "That's when I got involved."
Billy The Author
About the same time as the "Vampires" issue of Philly Mag was hitting the streets, in late February of 1996, an anonymous, handwritten letter, in a plain white envelope, arrived in the hands of Channel 10 reporter John Blunt.
"The Killer of Kimberly Ernest is a guy named Mike he lived with a guy named John Lambert at 1706A Delancey St. John and Mike sold Drugs at Delancey St. and 17th and Spruce St. Mike is tall and about 180 lbs. he has long dark hair. On the morning of Nov 2nd he tried to rape a girl named Michele at that apartment, but John made him go because he was druged up and crazy. He was seen at 20th and Pine St. about 3:00 a.m. that morning with a short guy with black hair, Homicide detectives were looking for him on Nov. 4 but could not find him. They were asking about him at 17th and Spruce and gave up. This guy Mike is a bad Dude. I can not give you my name because this guy would Kill me. If he found out.
"Please look in to this before he Kills again. Mike is the Killer so why did the police stop looking for him?
Something is wrong with the police. The paper said Kimberly had black and brown hair in her hands. Ask about him on Spruce St and Pine St
Help Stop him.
The police won't. Something is wrong.
Other reporters likely received a copy of this letter.
Blunt says he turned it over to the cops soon after he got it. In yet another twist worthy of Charles Dickens, Blunt turned this tantalizing piece of information over to police on the day it was reported that the DNA evidence found on Ernest did not match Haak or Wise.
The letter came at a very bad time for Judy Rubino, the brash, blonde assistant district attorney who saw the Ernest case blow up in her hands; first with the unhelpful DNA analysis and then with statements from Haak and Wise that they were beaten into signing blank papers.
Presented with the kind of juicy morsel that is rarely seen and never passed up, the media had a predictable feast, roasting Rubino as the sacrificial pig.
It was the talk of the town.
Things were so bad that Rubino asked Judge Carolyn Temin to issue a gag order, so that the free flow of information about how bad her case was could be choked off at the source.
Amid all this hubbub, and unbeknownst even to those who investigated Haak and Wise, Billy Liberatore, street hustling reprobate, officially bubbled to the surface.
On March 27, 1996, in the wake of the DNA bomb, Billy Liberatore stepped out of the shadows and put his name to a statement distributed by Wise and Stouffer about what took place the morning Kimberly was killed.
"After all night of smoking crack cocaine, John D. acting really crazy went upstairs to his room and then left through another door upstairs to go outside.
"John D. came back to the house at approximately 6:15 a.m. through another entrance downstairs. He threw crack at me and Michelle (a girl I was with). He was extremely nervous. He was sweaty and his hair was all messed up. He then ran upstairs to the bathroom. After approximately one hour he came back downstairs and he still seemed extremely nervous. He constantly chewed gum. The following day people on the block were saying that John D. had killed the girl (Kimberly Ernest.
"I did not see John D. again until two or three days later and I noticed that his hands were scratched and scrapped up.
"The reason I have not come forward sooner with this information is because I fear for my life if I say anything about that night."
Liberatore's statement was notarized by a woman named Christine Christian. There are no other names attached to it.
A Secret Service-certified typing analyst named Elizabeth Markward has since reported that this letter, and three other anonymous letters about the case, contained so many similarities that the "combined effect certainly suggests a singular typist."
Len Wise has acknowledged writing (and typing) one of those letters, a widely distributed document suggesting that Ernest was the victim of a serial killer.
Jack Bans Billy
One month after the Philly Mag article, and shortly after the letters started surfacing, Len Wise hired Jack McMahon, a gruff former assistant district attorney.
It did not take long for McMahon to initiate an aggressive defense of Richard Wiseeven though the attorney, son of an NBA player, signed on knowing it was a slam dunk because of the district attorney's flimsy case.
McMahon, besieged by Len Wise, quickly sent out his favorite bloodhound, Ed Geigert, in search of Billy Liberatore.
On April 23, 1996, Geigert and Liberatore had a chat. After a debriefing of that chat, McMahon reluctantly agreed to meet face-to-face with Liberatore.
"He testified that he was with John Lambert, in the Delancey Street house," says McMahon in his civil suit deposition, taken Aug. 11, 1998. "They were getting high, using cocaine and that there were some girls there "
Liberatore, according to McMahon, said that he fell asleep at about 2 a.m. The next thing Liberatore remembered, according to McMahon, was "seeing Lambert come into the house, and he had some blood on him, and said words to the effect that I think I killed a girl, or something to that effect. And then Liberatore saw later in the news that a girl was killed, and they lived in that area, so he assumed that was the girl."
McMahon quickly deduced that Billy Liberatore was far from credible.
"I didn't think he made a good appearance," McMahon testified. "His background and his lifestyle and his being wanted for something else. He had a bench warrant out on him. It was such that I didn't think he would make a good impression."
Not wanting to "muddy up the waters" of his couldn't-miss defense, McMahon opted not to use Liberatore as a witness " because he was a guy who, first of all, makes a bad impression, got a lot of baggage [a]nd I think it was pretty curious that the person that was with the actualquote 'actual killer'just happens to be friends with the family members of the one that is falsely accused. I think it's just a little too convenient maybe. And I just thought maybe it could be true, but I didn'tI didn'tI didn't like the way it sounded."
Still, Wise persisted. "He was desperate for help," testified McMahon. "He would do anything to help his son and he had this testimony he thought may be very helpful. And I think he encouraged me to interview [Liberatore] again."
But that only led to another problem with Liberatore.
"The second time I interviewed him, and I really didn't want to interview him he changed [his testimony about Lambert]," according to McMahon, who stated he found Liberatore so preposterous that he never even bothered to take any notes. "I think he put himself out with Mr. Lambert for a while, walking the streets and not in the house doing the cocaine. It was something different factually, but the basic nature of the testimony was the same, that he comes back and killed a girl with blood on him "
The Big Push
Regardless of what his lawyer was thinking, Len Wise continued to push his theory.
One of the first people Wise talked to, other than McMahon, was Jack Miller, a dour former cop turned private investigator who is somewhat reluctant to talk about the Ernest ordeal.
Wise and Stouffer say Miller is "convinced" Lambert killed Ernest.
Miller is not as gung-ho.
"I have to be careful," says Miller, who left the police force in a dispute over a miscalibrated radar device. "I am 57. I have a small business. If this goes wrong, then I am out. If I give something out and it is wrong, then I'll have all doors shut on me."
Still, Miller has more faith in Liberatore than McMahon did, a faith he says he developed assisting Ed Geigert in the initial investigation of the Ernest homicide in the spring of 1996.
Part of his investigation included talking to Ambrose, Stouffer and Wise. And visiting 1706A Delancey. And going over the case with Geigert.
Does Miller believe that John Lambert killed Ernest?
"Yes," says Miller. "I believe he did it. I don't believe he did it alone. This is purely speculation on my part. Billy was also involved after the fact," says Miller.
The reason, says Miller, is that Lambert needed help disposing of the body. The same kind of help Haak told police he provided Wise in his effort to blame Wise, falsely, for the Ernest homicide.
Does Miller believe Lambert killed other women as well and got away with it because of his father?
"It's not that I have my doubts," he says. "There was not enough evidence to bring this to the surface. The police closed the case with the acquittal of Haak and Wise."
Why does Miller feel so strongly about John Lambert?
"With John Lambert, it is strictly speculation," he says. "I know my feeling. We received an anonymous letter, supposedly sent to detectives, pointing the finger at John Lambert. My understanding is that the police looked for two or three days then turned to Haak and Wise. Nothing we saw indicated they did an investigation of John Lambert."
After helping Geigert trace the letter back to Liberatore, the ex-cop says he was squeezed out of the biggest case of his life.
"It was high profile," says Miller, glumly. "Geigert took over."
Send In The Clowns
Miller does not exaggerate when he says the Ernest case was high profile.
By the spring of 1996, as the prosecution and defense were gearing up for the trial looming over the horizon, it was a full-fledged flying circus.
When the DNA evidence came back excluding Wise and Haak, the prosecution had to shift gears. Prosecutors, in an attempt to find another explanation for the semen found in Ernest's body, now theorized it was from her last lover.
Whom the cops and the press raced to find.
There were questions about married men. About a diary that Ernesta typical, sexually active single woman in her mid-20sallegedly kept of her sexual encounters.
Kimberly's life was now exploding on the front pages, with the Daily News breaking the story about the diary.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the legal maneuvering continued fast and furious.
On May 9, 1996, Judge Temin denied Rubino's request for a gag order.
On May 28, Haak and Wise, already jailed without bail for the Ernest killing, were sentenced to five to 23 months for an attempted break-in near a Bucks County K-Mart the previous October.
On June 8, Rubino saw more bad news in the papers. Police and defense sources reported that a single dark hair found on Kimberly's body did not match either Haak or Wise.
A month later, on July 11, eight demonstratorsfriends of Richie Wiseshowed up outside the Criminal Justice Center, where a pre-trial status conference was being held.
The eight carried placards and complained that there was no way Haak and Wise could kill a woman, then show up at a bail hearing two hours later. They complained that the confessions were coerced. And, picking up on Len Wise's serial killer theory, they shouted that there were, at the time, at least four other unsolved murders like Ernest'swomen in their 20s whose bodies were dumped in public in Philadelphia and Bristol Township.
On August 8, the parade of misery continued for Rubino. The media reported that a police chemical lab report given to the defense showed no evidence that Ernest was killed in Haak's car, as the two had stated in their confessions.
Though the murder case against Haak and Wise was evaporating, Richie continued to find himself in hot water.
On September 24, Wise was found guilty of beating a Fishtown man with a beer bottle in 1994. Nearly a month later, Wise was charged with two more, unrelated crimes: a 1994 carjacking and a 1995 beating of a gay man, whom Wise was said to have hit with a tuna fish can.
On November 1, the Delaware County Daily Times ran a front-page story asking if Aimee Willard and Kimberly Ernest were victims of a serial killer. The story was based on an interview with Len Wise.
On December 6, reacting to the fact that there was no evidence found in Haak's car, Rubino announced that Ernest was killed in a second cara 1991 Subaru abandoned, and later torched, on a North Philly street. This piece of evidence, like the car itself, would eventually immolate.
The car belonged to John Hall, who first squealed on his stepson, Herbie Haak.
Hall was going to testify about the car, but those plans were scrapped when Hall, in one of the district attorney's bathrooms, told Det. Tom Augustine that he had lied about a number of other things in this case.
Augustine reported that to prosecutors, who decided they could no longer use Hall as a witness.
Meanwhile, troubles mounted for the two accused of killing Ernest.
On December 17, Wise was given an 11-to-22-year sentence for the beer-bottle-beating conviction.
A month later, in January 1997, Haak and Wise asked Judge David N. Savitt to throw out the confessions, saying they were coerced. Savitt, according to the Inquirer, found "no credible evidence" to support Haak and Wise's assertions that they were "mistreated by police, coerced into confessing or that their constitutional rights were violated."
Savitt, however, did edit the confessions.
Capping off all this pre-trial mishegoss was an announcement from Jack McMahon that he would seek the GOP nomination for district attorney in the upcoming battle to try to unseat incumbent Lynne Abraham.
McMahon's announcement came on February 12, 1997just one week before the trial.
The Big Gambit
On February 19, 1997, one of the most sensational trials in Philadelphia history opened with conflicting statements.
The prosecution claimed Herbie Haak and Richie Wise had confessed to murdering Kimberly Ernest. The defense countered that the two "were railroaded by detectives hell bent on solving a high-profile murder," according to the Inky.
As with other developments in this case, the trial was huge news.
But there was some other mojo working at this time, beneath the surface, out of public view.
Three men from Kensington, brothers Billy and Danny Cornwell and their friend Joey Leach, were meeting with New Jersey lawyer Sam Malat, who makes a habit of suing police departments on behalf of allegedly abused defendants.
It was the prelude to one of the greatest grandstand plays in Philly court history.
The three young men from Kensington came to Malat with a story about being beaten and harassed by none other than Tom Augustine, the detective accused of beating and harassing Herbie Haak.
Malat had been following the Ernest case in the media. He was well aware of the lack of evidence against Haak and Wise and had even talked with Len Wise on the phone while the Ernest trial was going on.
He decided to file a $30 million lawsuit, claiming that the previous December, Augustine had slammed around the Cornwell brothers and Leach.
Malat, through his partner Sal Zerbo, announced the suit to the world at a most opportune time.
March 7, 1995, was the biggest day of Herbie Haak's often-troubled life.
Confidently sitting in the witness seat, accused of killing Kimberly Ernest, Haak had a lot riding on what he was about to say.
He was betting his life. And that of Richie Wise, tied at the ankles to his arch-enemy Haak by a chain of legal maneuvers.
Haak was trying to convince 12 jurors he had been beaten and spat upon, forced to sign blank pages later turned into a confession.
"Did you kill Kimberly Ernest?" asked his attorney, Bernie Siegel.
"No sir, I did not," said Haak.
"Did you rape Kimberly Ernest?" asked Siegel.
"No sir, I did not."
Haak went on to allege that Homicide Detective Tom Augustine, a much-honored veteran known for eliciting many confessions, had resorted to violence this time around.
Haak told the rapt courtroom that on Nov. 29, 1995, Augustine became particularly enraged when asking the whereabouts of a car supposedly involved in the crime.
"He said, 'What kind of car was it?' I said 'I don't know,'" said Haak.
"Augustine said 'Wrong answer.' And punched me in the chest."
Haak's testimony helped torpedo the prosecution's case. With no physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking Haak and Wise to Ernest, Assistant District Attorney Judy Rubino was clinging to the confessions.
Proof that Haak and Wise were beaten has always been sketchya jail report lists several bruises on Haak's body after his interrogation, while mug shots, taken of Haak and Wise after their confessions, do not show the kind of abuse they claim they suffered.
At this moment, it no longer mattered. Regardless of whether Haak and Wise had been beaten and coerced, Haak, by being so convincing, was able to instill in the jury reasonable doubt about the legitimacy of the confessions.
But, big as it was, Haak's daring gambitadmitting that his first statement implicating Wise was a lie and that his subsequent confession was beaten out of himwasn't the only legal game in town on March 7, 1995.
During the lunch break that followed Haak's riveting testimony, Augustine and his boss, the hulking Sgt. Paul Musi, walked out of the stuffiness of the Criminal Justice Center and into the afternoon drizzle of this late winter day.
Waiting for them were reporters and people toting cameras, wanting their reaction to the latest ploy.
The guys from KensingtonBilly and Danny Cornwell and Joey Leachwere outside the courtroom, with Malat's partner Sal Zerbo. They were telling anyone who'd listen that three months earlier, in December of 1996, the Kensington Trio had been roughed up by Augustine, the only named cop in their $30 million lawsuit against the city. It had been filed the day before by Malat, who claimed that Augustine had introduced himself as "Officer Fuck You" and proceeded to slam the trio around.
In a case whose behind-the-scenes machinations would make the attorneys on The Practice blush, this was lawyerly theatrics of the highest order.
For the cops, it was bad news that would only get worse.
As reporters set upon him, looking for answers, Sgt. Paul Musi shoved a Channel 6 shooter, whose camera got a little too close to the angry detective's face.
Pulling his left hand out of his raincoat, Augustine patted Musi twice on the forearm and softly but firmly told Musi to calm down.
It was perfect footage from a very bizarre day.
And it would get awesome play. The story of cops brutalizing suspects, combined with the image of Musi forechecking a cameraman, aired half a dozen times that night, leading the news on a day when Bill Clinton was talking about his questionable campaign ethics.
Reasonable doubt wasn't just a feeling percolating among the sequestered jurors. Now it was a dull roar all over town.
One week later, on March 14, 1997, the jury showed just how well Haak's statement had worked. It took them three hours to acquit him and Wise on all charges.
A month later, Malat filed suit on behalf of Richie Wise.
The same Sam Malat who'd dropped the March 7 courthouse bombshell on behalf of the three guys from Kensington.
It's a confluence of events that has not gone unnoticed by Tom Augustine, who says he was greatly disappointed in his media friends who set him up outside court.
This confluence also did not go unnoticed by the City Solicitor's office, which in court papers is asking Malat to explain just how much he communicated with Len Wise, Fred Ambrose and Stephen Stouffer before, during and after Malat's courthouse stunt.
Explaining The Malat Maneuver
Sam Malat, who says he is a true believer in the rights of the accused, is the first to admit that dropping the Cornwell-Leach lawsuit on Augustine during the Ernest trial was no matter of coincidence.
"It was part of a marketing plan," says Malat. "There were two purposes."
First, says Malat, all the defendants in the Cornwell-Leach suit were at the courthouse on March 7, 1997.
"I'm cheap," says Malat. "I wanted to save $300 to $400 by serving everyone at once."
The second purpose, says Malat, was to win Len Wise's business in the civil suit Malat says he knew, even before the criminal trial began, would eventually be filed.
"I needed an in with Len Wise," says Malat. "If I didn't have Cornwell and Leach, I wouldn't have been able to bring his case to my office. I would have been just another lawyer from New Jersey, instead of an attorney with a case against one of these detectives."
A week after the acquittal, Malat says Wise hired him for the civil suit.
"We presented that my office, the attorney who I was associated with and my paralegals were qualified to do the job," says Malat. "He was confident that I had both the zeal and ability to represent his son."
There was another factor involved in Wise's decision, says Malat.
"The other attorney Wise spoke to was looking at Richie like he was a piece of meat. One thing very few people understand about a civil rights caseit is not about the money. It is never about the money. You really think Richie cares about whatever money he may win? He just wants to be able to spend time with his little girl. Civil rights cases are never about the money."
Len Wise, in his deposition, testifies he first learned about allegations that Augustine beat the Cornwell Brothers and Joey Leach from a friend of his son Christopher.
The friend also told Wise that the Kensington Trio had an attorney from New Jersey, Sam Malat. Wise said he then called Malat's office and left a message. It was returned by Malat's office manager some time before March 7. Wise stated he could not remember when specifically.
Regardless of the timing, or the Wise suit, or any money, Sam Malat says he truly believes the Cornwells and Leach were harassed by Augustine, and that Augustine is a brutal cop with a history of beating confessions out of people, including a 15-year-old who confessed wrongly to a murder after an encounter with Augustinecharges which Augustine denies.
After April 18, 1997the day Malat filed his civil suit against the city, the district attorney and the policethe case quieted down for a bit, except for the increasing pressure for police to start videotaping confessions.
Mr. Liberatore, I Presume
The Kimberly Ernest case exploded back onto the scene in October of 1997, when Herbie Haak dropped the other shoe, filing a civil suit of his own.
He was represented by Bala Cynwyd attorney Fred Ambrose, a thin, quietly intense, taciturn man with dark hair and glasses.
Like McMahon in the criminal case, Ambrose immediately sent an investigatorin this case Stephen Stoufferon a search for clues.
One of the first people Stouffer talked to was Len Wise, during a lunch at Dave and Buster's some time in October 1997, shortly after Ambrose filed Haak's civil suit.
Stouffer, in his civil suit deposition, testified that all he did was have a hot dog and talk about the weather with Wise. Wise, in his deposition, says that he "shared information with Ambrose's investigators."
Stouffer testified it was legwork in Kensington, not Len Wise, that led him to Billy Liberatore, who surfaced again on Dec. 10, 1997.
That's when Stouffer, who said he spread his pager number throughout Kensington, received a page from Billy Liberatore. An hour or so later, Stouffer met Liberatore "somewhere on Front Street in Kensington" and drove him to a restaurant in Upper Darby, where Billy Liberatore gave yet another version of what happened on the morning Kimberly Ernest was killed.
It was very similar to the statement Liberatore gave in March 1996. With one very large exception.
Last time around, Liberatore had said Lambertor Johnny D as he is known on the streets and in the Philly Mag storyleft 1706 Delancey Street and came back with scratch marks.
According to the statement given to Stouffer 21 months later, Liberatore and Lambert were together when Lambert encountered Ernest.
In the March 1996 statement, Liberatore said he was in Lambert's apartment when Lambert returned full of scratches. This time, Liberatore said he hopped on the El to Somerset Street and hung out in that neighborhood for about an hour and a half before returning to 1706 Delancey.
Just as suddenly as he surfaced, Billy Liberatore sank back into the underworld from whence he came.
Fred Ambrose and Stephen Stouffer were still pursuing their investigation. On Jan. 23, 1998, a civil jury found Tom Augustine not guilty in the beating of the Cornwell brothers and Joey Leach.
Unlike the media circus that went on when the suit was filed, Augustine's not-guilty verdict got no ink or airplay.
The whole Kimberly Ernest case, in fact, began to fade from the public conscience.
But not for long.
Bad Moon Rising
"It appears TV media is developing a story," wrote Assistant City Solicitor Jeffrey Scott in an internal city e-mail to mayoral spokesman Kevin Feeley at 4:38 p.m. on April 2, 1998.
Scott, charged with defending the Haak and Wise civil suits, was alerting Feeley that all hell was about to break loose again. And that it was important for the city, the police and the district attorney's office to maintain a unified position that the investigation was over.
"As you know, our position is that Wise and Haak committed the murder," Scott wrote. "We are concerned that any implication that the murder investigation is being reopened would damage our case. I wonder if it would be appropriate to make a public statement that the investigation is not being reopened."
Scott went into detail about what he was hearing of the pending media storm.
"Please be advised that Channel 6 contacted Captain Glenn of the Homicide Unit. The Channel 6 reporter informed Captain Glenn that he heard Channel 10 had information that the Philadelphia Police Department is or has reopened the Homicide Investigation and that the Homicide Unit has a new suspect.
"Please note that the Police dept. is not reopening the investigation into the Ernest murder.
"I told Captain Glenn that all media inquiries should come through my office so they can be forwarded to the Solicitor and then to the appropriate person . We may want to take the first strike and put any idea that the investigation is being opened to rest by issuing a statement."
Four days after Scott issued his e-mail warning, Fred Ambrose launched a courthouse Scud, holding a press conference to demand that the police reopen the Ernest investigation.
Ambrose mentioned no names and said that he had "not new evidence but evidence that has existed since November of 1995."
The press conference received moderate play, appearing in both dailies and on TV.
But a bigger would-be bombshell was yet to come.
It would be dropped by the elusive Billy Liberatore, who became the anonymous subject of a Channel 10 special report that aired April 16, 1998.
Somehow, reporter John Blunt obtained a copy of a videotaped statement that Liberatore gave to Ambrose. Blunt aired a segment of that interview and electronically blotted out Liberatore's face, at Ambrose's request. In this statement, Billy Liberatore repeated what he told Stouffer on Dec. 10, 1997, about witnessing "my friend" confront Kimberly Ernest. Once again, events morphed somewhat from earlier tellings.
This time, Kimberly struck Lambert, whose name was not mentioned in Blunt's report. This time, Billy Liberatore said he was afraid to stick around because he had a pocketful of crack.
Blunt's report was the first time the "real killer" theory was made public.
Assistant City Solicitor Jeff Scott was livid.
For two months, he'd been looking for Billy Liberatore.
Questions For Billy
Among other things, Jeffrey Scott wants to know if Liberatore talked with either Wise and Haak or their attorneys while he was incarcerated at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
Liberatore and Wise were there at the same time between March 9 and March 13, 1997. Liberatore and Haak served time together between March 13, 1997 and April 2, 1997.
In court documents, Scott states it is "quite possible" that one of Richie Wise's many attorneys contacted Liberatore during his stay. "It is extremely likely" that Haak and Liberatore talked, stated Scott, who also wants to further explore any fiduciary relationships between Wise and Liberatore.
Most of all, Scott says he wants the truth.
The city, states Scott, is "entitled to know if Mr. Liberatore's statements regarding John Lambert were true or a fabrication. Moreover, the defendants are entitled to know exactly what, if anything, Mr. Liberatore saw on the morning of Nov. 2, 1995."
On July 23, 1998, in an effort to determine whether the city would get to depose Liberatore, U.S. Judge Robert Gawthrop III, a part-time thespian and full-time hambone, asked Ambrose about Liberatore's whereabouts.
"I wish I knew, Your Honor," Ambrose told the judge. "Mr. Liberatore is aI am trying to think of a good phrase for itlives basically on the streets and goes from shelter to shelter."
Despite that, and the fact that he was neither Liberatore's attorney, nor keeper, Ambrose told the judge that back in April, he offered to "put out a word" that the city was looking for Liberatore.
Gawthrop, during his inquiry about the whereabouts of Liberatore, whom he refers to as "this peripatetic presumptive panhandler," asked Ambrose, "What is his favorite grate? I'm not making light of him, but is there any particular steam vent that suits his fancy?"
On the same day, Gawthrop brokered a seething battle over discovery.
Ambrose, who had been unsuccessfully trying to obtain information about the Ernest case, was allowed to receive Lambert's arrest record, all latent prints taken by the cops at the crime scene and Kimberly Ernest's fingerprints.
The city, ruled Gawthrop, could have the depositions of Liberatore and Stephen Stouffer.
Ambrose, ruled Judge Gawthrop, "is directed that should he have contact with or obtain information as to the whereabouts of Mr. Liberatore, he must forthwith so notify defense counsel so that they may take his deposition, if desired."
For emphasis, Gawthrop underlined "must forthwith."
Stouffer eventually gave a deposition. The city is still waiting for Liberatore.
Three months after Gawthrop's ruling, a private investigator hired by the city learned that Liberatore spent at least part of the summer in an upstate New York hospital, where he had checked in about the same time Fred Ambrose was telling the court he did not know where Liberatore was.
Fred Ambrose, according to the city solicitor's office, was the contact for Liberatore at the hospital. And sometime in July, investigator Stephen Stouffer paid Billy Liberatore an authorized visit, according to allegations made by Scott in the federal lawsuit.
Private investigator John Finn, who is partners with former Philly police mob investigator Frank Friel in Atlantic Investigations, has been hired by the city to investigate the civil suit.
On October 19, 1998, Finn met with Billy Liberatore at an upstate New York prison, where the local police were holding Liberatore because Philadelphia authorities wanted to pick him up on an unrelated aggravated assault back home. He has since been released.
Finn says Liberatore told him that he was hospitalized in July and that Ambrose knew it.
Liberatore, according to Finn in an affidavit, said that "Fred Ambrose gave him a one-way bus ticket to the Peter Morgan Farm in Marlborough, New York. There he did landscaping work. He met a girl for a while and started drinking. Then he decided to go to St. Francis for help because he was drinking too much."
Liberatore "stated he was upset with his life," according to Finn. "All he wants to do is talk to his mother and see his child. He hasn't talked to his mother since he has been in New York and he doesn't know where his child is. He stated that he is sorry for all the wrong he has done and all the lies he has committed. He believes his mother is the only one who ever loved him. His stepfather, brothers and sisters never had any time for him."
Finn wrote that he showed Liberatore the statements he made implicating Lambert.
"He held his head in both hands, and asked if John was mad at him and where he was at," wrote Finn. "He stated that when he comes back to Philadelphia in the presence of his mother, he would tell the truth as to this entire situation."
On Nov. 4, 1998, in a statement given to Stephen Stoufferwho in this case was working for Malat, not AmbroseLiberatore disavowed most of what is contained in the Finn affidavit.
"Mr. Finn continued to ask me questions about the case, calling me a liar, asking, again, whether Fred [Ambrose] or Steve [Stouffer] had paid me any money. I again told him 'No, I am telling the truth, I don't have to lie. I'm here to get my life straightened out.'"
In a court filing opposing Liberatore's deposition, Ambrose says Finn's affidavit was "not only false in its content, but clearly a fabrication issuing from the fertile imagination of Mr. Finn."
Finn maintains that he told the truth about what Liberatore said.
As for not telling the city about Liberatore's whereabouts, Ambrose did not deny the city's assertion, in court records, that he knew of Liberatore's hospitalization and of visits to him by Stouffer. Ambrose did not respond to numerous phone calls seeking comment about his knowledge of the whereabouts of Liberatore.
In a Nov. 8 brief to Judge Gawthrop, Ambrose wrote that Liberatore's deposition was unnecessary because he "clearly does not have an intention" to "present Mr. Liberatore as a witness at the time of trial."
That's the same Mr. Liberatore who, four months earlier, Stephen Stouffer had testified "was all I have" in the effort to connect Lambert with Ernest.
Ambrose's vow not to call Liberatore as a witness may be moot.
In complaining that the city has no right to depose Liberatore now, Sam Malat wrote to Gawthrop two months ago that Liberatore's name appeared in a list of 400 potential witnesses he submitted to the city during the discovery phase of the civil suit back in February.
Meaning that the city should have sought Liberatore's deposition back then.
And that, during the trial, Malat could still call Liberatore as a witness.
Still No Check Mate
The final answers to questions about John Lambert's involvement in the Kimberly Ernest killingand the efforts to prove itmay not come for some time.
Action on the civil suit has been delayed, pending resolution of a state court's decision on whether Herbie Haak should go on trial for the October 1995 assault on Christopher Beck, the gay man whom Wise was convicted of hitting with a tuna fish can just days before the Ernest murder.
A ruling on the city's appeal may take months.
In the interim, the city and attorneys for Haak and Wise blast each other with seemingly endless salvos of tree-killing legal briefs and motions.
Len Wise continues his crusade.
Det. Tom Augustine and John's father Jay J. Lambert bide their time, waiting for the right moment to spring suits of their own.
A source close to the case "fully anticipates that litigation will be filed in the next 30 days."
John Lambert sits in a jail cell, wondering, no doubt, about the accusations against him. There is no indication if or when he will submit to a DNA analysis.
Billy Liberatore is as elusive as ever. Efforts to reach him, through his mother, attorneys Ambrose and Malat and investigator Stouffer have been unsuccessful.
And Dorothy Ernest, mother of the victim, endures further assaults on her daughter as the two men acquitted of the murder seek $75 million from the city.