Court Weighs Whether to Dump Another Dubious “Detective Smoothie” Conviction

Hector Lopez was convicted of a 1994 arson-double murder despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime.

Theodore Hamm Mar 23, 2023

“Louis Scarcella hit a home run,” Brooklyn prosecutor Deanna Rodriguez assured the jury in her summation. “I applaud him, because he did his job.” 

The flashy detective indeed reeled in a key statement in which Hector Lopez implicated himself in a June 1994 double homicide caused by arson in Williamsburg. As Rodriguez explained at the trial 14 months later, Scarcella had “different tactics for different cases.” Here, because he viewed Lopez as a “macho man,” the detective knew that “screaming and hitting tables” would be pointless. 

Instead, the prosecutor said, the wily veteran detective used small talk, then found Lopez’s vulnerability. After two of his young children came to the precinct, the suspect caved. According to an account hand-written by Detective Steven Chmil, Scarcella’s longtime partner, Lopez “began to weep.” 

“Listen,” Lopez allegedly told the detectives, “you have it right.” The distraught suspect then explained that he had set the deadly fire at the home of his ex’s boyfriend, whom he blamed for taking his kids away. Lopez never signed the confession. 

In retrospect, we now know that 20 murder cases in which Scarcella — dubbed “Detective Smoothie” by Lopez’s trial attorney — played a key role have resulted in overturned convictions, including several with similarly dubious confessions that used variations of the phrase “you have it right.” Rodriguez, who was fired by the Brooklyn DA’s office in 2013, is now dead. 

Whether Hector Lopez’s murder conviction will remain intact is the focus of a hearing that begins next week at the Brooklyn courthouse. 

•   •   •

Hector Lopez

I met Lopez on a cold Friday afternoon in February at Exodus Transitional Community, a reentry services provider in Spanish Harlem. Since gaining parole (on his first try) in 2019, Lopez has worked at the organization, where he is now a senior case manager helping people returning from prison find housing and jobs. Now 55, Lopez is upbeat, professional and comfortable supervising other colleagues. 

Both Lopez and Ibrahim Rivera, his supervisor, speak highly of Julio Medina, the formerly incarcerated founder of Exodus and its CEO for two decades. Late last year, Medina stepped down amid investigations surrounding contracts the entity received from the city during the pandemic. “Julio is taking hard shots — but he’s a great guy,” says Lopez, noting that Exodus pays better than its peer reentry organizations. 

While in prison, Lopez earned a college degree from Hudson Link, an Ossining-based higher education provider.  This fall, Lopez will enroll in a master’s program in social work at Hunter College. “Hudson Link got a grant that enables them to pay for my graduate school,” he is pleased to report. Hunter is counting Lopez’s work experience at Exodus toward his credits, meaning it will only take him one year of classes to complete the degree. 

Since returning from upstate, Lopez, who is Puerto Rican, has lived with his mother in the same rent-stabilized apartment in the Morris Park section of the Bronx where he grew up. Jasmine and Eric, the two kids who came to the precinct in 1994, live nearby, and Hector is in regular contact with both. While living at home, Hector is saving money to buy a place for his mother and himself. 

It’s a good bet that Lopez won’t be settling down in Brooklyn. 

•   •   •

After our tour of the several buildings run by Exodus on Third Ave., near the gentrifying corridor along 125th Street, Lopez and I went to El Patio de Fela, a restaurant at the foot of the Taino Towers. The large, low-income housing complex guarantees that at least in some locations, Spanish Harlem will retain its identity for the foreseeable future.

Hector Lopez got a college degree while in prison and is now a senior case manager at an East Harlem non-profit helping people returning from prison find housing and jobs.

Lopez says that he has no distinct memories of Brooklyn prior to his arrest in June 1994, and that as a kid, Orchard Beach, not Coney Island, was his “second home.” Two days before the arson, Lopez went to Bear Mountain with his then-girlfriend, Margie Matos. They used kerosene for the grill, which left residue on the towels they brought home in their Buick sedan. They also kept a can of extra gas in the trunk. 

For several weeks prior to the June fire, Lopez had been quarrelling with Joey Rivera, the boyfriend of Christina Morales, mother of Jasmine and Eric. Morales had custody of the kids but Lopez, then working as a barber, recalls seeing both of them “every day.” Hector also had two other children at the time — Hector Jr. (nine) and Tiffany (five)— that he saw a bit less regularly. 

At approximately 3:40 a.m. on Tuesday, June 21, a fire broke out on the first floor of 2 Hope Street, a small residential building at the corner of Roebling in a section of Williamsburg that was then mainly Latino. Joey Rivera lived there with his parents but was not home at that time. Two tenants, Sandra Lopez (40) and Felix Rolan (54), died of smoke inhalation. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence linked Lopez to the fire. 

Around 9 a.m. that morning, police officers came to Hector’s home in the Bronx. Earlier that same day, Joey Rivera had filed a police report alleging a previous threat by Lopez against him. After an initial stop at his local precinct, Lopez was then brought to the 90th Precinct in South Williamsburg around noon. 

During the afternoon, Lopez spoke with precinct detectives but did not implicate himself in the arson. Around 8 p.m., Detectives Scarcella and Chmil arrived from Brooklyn North, an elite unit that handles cases in multiple precincts. Seven hours later, the duo notified the DA’s office that Lopez had confessed. But when an assistant district attorney soon arrived, Hector refused to speak with him and invoked his right to counsel. 

The author explains the latest update in this story.

There were clear problems with the purported confession. Not only was it unsigned by Lopez — but, unlike a statement other detectives took from Joey Rivera, it was not audiotaped. At the trial, Scarcella also repeated a problematic description of the incident that the detective had documented at the precinct. The defendant, said Scarcella, told him that he had ignited the blaze “about 1 a.m.,” nearly three hours before it actually started. 

Lopez’s alleged recap of how the fire began was also fundamentally flawed. Scarcella claimed that Lopez stated that he threw a plastic bag full of kerosene at the front door of 2 Hope Street and dropped a match. “The gas I had in my car had nothing to do with it,” Lopez advised Scarcella.  But at the trial, a fire marshal explained that the blaze had been started by gasoline ignited inside the building’s double doors. 

•   •   •

Scarcella, however, was not the prosecution’s only significant witness against Lopez. Joey Rivera eagerly took the stand. More surprising was the first person called by the prosecution: Margie Matos. 

Matos’ testimony was damaging for Lopez. She said that she and Hector had scoped out the Hope Street location a few weeks before the arson, and that he had returned to her Bronx apartment around 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the fire. But upon cross-examination by defense counsel Jeff Schwartz, Matos acknowledged that when she had first approached Schwartz to represent Hector, she “insisted over and over again” that Hector was innocent. One year after the trial, Matos recanted her testimony, explaining that she had made a deal with prosecutors, who had indicted her on charges including murder conspiracy. 

The DA’s office also brought charges against both Matos and Lopez for plotting to kill Joey Rivera. According to Lopez, a distant cousin with a criminal record had resurfaced while he was at Rikers awaiting trial. Lopez was caught on the jail phone telling his cousin to go ahead and shoot Rivera, regardless of whether his kids would be imperiled. A few months after the jury verdict in the arson murders, Lopez pleaded guilty to witness intimidation charges. “I said it [i.e. the threat] because I was angry,” says Lopez. “And I did my time for it.” 

In his summation, Schwartz spotlighted Scarcella. “Detective Smoothie,” he said, knew how to manipulate his audience. He “makes you smile when he wants you to smile; makes you cry when he wants you to cry.” Louie, the lawyer declared, “is an out-and-out liar,” albeit one who “knows how to solve high-profile cases.” As Schwartz reminded jurors, the arson double-murder was indeed a high-profile case

“The only evidence connecting Hector to this double murder is the alleged oral confession taken by disgraced Det. Louis Scarcella,” says Lopez’s current attorney Cary London (of Shulman & Hill). “In typical vein, Scarcella claimed Lopez said ‘you guys got it right’ — because being right was always more important to Louie than catching the true perpetrator.” 

The theatrical detective will be the first witness called when the hearing begins on Monday, March 27. Judge Elizabeth Warin will eventually determine whether Lopez’s conviction remains intact. 

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