Menu

Multiple Police Oversight Bodies Refuse to Investigate Suspicious Death of Anti-Corruption Activist Sunny Sheu

The Office of the Inspector General, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau and the City Council’s Oversight and Investigations Committee all pass the buck on controversial case.

Theodore Hamm Jul 25, 2023

This is the second part of a two-part series. Also see “Calls Grow for a New Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Anti-Corruption Crusader” by Theodore Hamm. 

Before his unexplained death in June 2010, Sunny Sheu not only pointed the finger at Queens Judge Joseph Golia, but also suggested that the NYPD was working in cahoots with the judge. Sunny’s efforts to address the latter went nowhere, and to this day, his allies have not received any full explanations regarding the highly questionable actions of various detectives both before and after his death. 

What follows is a local odyssey, albeit one without a hero.

•   •   •

After a mid-January 2009 appearance in his foreclosure case, NYPD Detectives Domenick Digenarro and James Monaco met Sheu in the hallway outside the courtroom. That the two officers and Sheu then went to the Queens DA’s office (where the detectives were stationed) is not in dispute. In the view of the three participants, what happened over the next two hours was either a “kidnapping” or an “informational interview.” 

Frustrated by Judge Golia’s refusal to hold an evidentiary hearing that would have revealed criminal activity by the mortgage company in his case, Sheu had recently gone to the judge’s home in Queens and dropped off a letter in his mailbox pleading for the hearing. While Sheu’s action breached court case protocol, Digennaro told the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) that a criminal complaint had been filed. 

Sheu met with CCRB investigators in December 2009 to discuss his encounter with Detectives Digennaro and Monaco early that year. Will Galison accompanied Sunny to the CCRB office, but was not allowed to sit in during the interview. As Galison explains, Sheu had already stated to the FBI that Digennaro and Monaco had “kidnapped” him and detained him for two hours. 

Sunny also told the FBI that the officers forcefully threatened him, warning him to leave Judge Golia alone. According to Galison, Sheu gave the same account to the CCRB. (Four days after the initial encounter with Digennaro and Monaco, Sheu had written a letter to a state judicial oversight entity that was consistent with his later description of the events). As Black Star News publisher Milton Allimadi, who first chronicled Sunny’s foreclosure battle in 2009, recalls, Sheu said that during the meeting at the DA’s office, one of the detectives told him, “You live in a rough neighborhood [Flushing]. Anything could happen to you.” 

The Indypendent recently obtained a copy of the CCRB’s final report on Sheu’s case via a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. It shows that the agency’s investigators focused on the narrow question of whether the detectives (wearing plain-clothes) displayed identification to Sheu when they approached him outside the courtroom. The report did not address Sunny’s claims regarding illegal detention and threats. Because the investigator found that he had made contradictory statements concerning the initial contact with Digennaro and Monaco, the CCRB deemed Sheu’s complaint to be “unfounded.” 

Police oversight groups prefer to address broad policy issues not a murder case that could embarrass the NYPD. 

Three former CCRB investigators from that time period tell The Indy that the report followed the common practices of the agency, which focused on narrow categories of misconduct. According to Indy contributing writer John Teufel, who was at the CCRB in 2009, “if Sheu agreed to go with the police and never asked if he was under arrest or free to leave, it probably would not qualify as a ‘stop’ that the CCRB could investigate.”  

The CCRB investigator who interviewed the detectives appeared to believe their account. Det. Digenarro stated that Sunny “was very happy to comply” with the request that he come over to the DA’s office. According to Digenarro, this was because Sheu “believed that he was about to discuss his mortgage-fraud civil case” (presumably with the DA’s office). It’s not hard to imagine that what the detective deemed to be an “informational interview” also contained the threats Sunny reported to the FBI. 

Six months after the CCRB interviewed Digenarro and Monaco, Sunny was apparently bludgeoned to death. No evidence currently connects these two detectives to that incident. But it is clear that they were linked via the DA’s office to Judge Golia. 

•   •   •

As detailed in part one of this story, Sunny’s death in late June 2010 raised serious, as-yet unanswered questions about the 109th Precinct’s handling of the case. Two years later, Galison and Allimadi showed how Det. Chris Austin and others had advised the medical examiner’s office that a phantom 911 caller reported that Sheu collapsed because of an “aneurysm.” Even though the coroner ruled that Sheu died because of a three-inch wound to the back of his head, no official investigation ensued. 

In response to Bloomberg-era policing controversies including stop-and-frisk and Muslim surveillance, the City Council passed legislation in 2013 creating the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the NYPD, which is housed in the Department of Investigation (DoI). After Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, Will Galison filed a complaint about Sheu’s case with the new oversight body. 

In April 2015, Thomas Mahoney, then-OIG Director of Investigations, informed Galison that the office had completed its “preliminary investigation” of Sheu’s case. Mahoney, who had previously spent three decades in the NYPD, advised Galison that the OIG would retain its records of the 10-month inquiry in order to address potential “systemic issues” raised by Sheu’s death. Mahoney further explained that Sheu’s case was better suited for an “agency whose core mission is to investigate individual complaints and potential homicides.” 

Philip Eure, Inspector General from 2014-2021, recently told The Indy that “it was our common practice at that time to generally refer most cases with unique circumstances to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). We were focused on patterns, starting with the NYPD’s use of chokeholds.”

As noted in part one, in the spring of 2023, Councilwoman Gale Brewer, head of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, informed Galison that she was told by the DoI that they “do not have a record of the [Sheu] investigation.” Brewer advised both Galison and The Indy that she would “get that in writing.”

In mid-July, Brewer confirmed to the Indy that the DoI indeed sent her a letter, but it turned out to be the same 2015 directive from Mahoney to Galison. According to Galison, the OIG’s review was “quite extensive,” and he spoke with Det. Eddie Lebron for several hours. The Indy’s FOIL request for the records of the OIG investigation is due to be returned in mid-August. 

The IAB’s investigation took place from April-September 2015, before it was closed with no known charges against any officers. The initial due date for The Indy to receive those records is the day before Thanksgiving. 

•   •   •

“We take on big policy issues, like air quality,” Councilwoman Brewer said in response to The Indy’s question of whether the Oversight Committee would consider holding a hearing regarding Sheu’s case. “I can’t promise that right now,” Brewer stated. 

None of the eight other members of the Oversight Committee responded when posed with a similar question from The Indy

As seen in part one, civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, a longtime ally of Mayor Adams, also suggested that the public advocate might conduct an inquiry regarding a case that involves dubious actions by the NYPD, as well as NYC Health and Hospitals. The communications director for Public Advocate Jumaane Williams did not reply to The Indy’s requests for comment. 

“Elected officials only take action when they have something to gain politically,” observes Black Star News publisher Milton Allimadi. “In Sunny’s case, since the pols don’t see an immediate benefit, they have no incentive to rock the boat.” 

It is unlikely that Queens DA Melinda Katz will initiate her own investigation. In addition to the office’s connections to the judge detailed above, Golia’s daughter Donna-Marie Golia is the chief criminal judge in Queens, and thus works closely with the DA. Various lawyers tell The Indy that it is possible that the Queens court’s involvement in Sheu’s case could open the door for a federal investigation. 

This much is certain, however: We will never get any answers regarding Sheu’s death until someone with power starts asking questions.

The Indypendent will continue update this story upon the receipt of FOIL requests and other new information. Readers with knowledge of the case can contact the reporter: thamm@sjny.edu.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper and website. Our independent, grassroots journalism is made possible by readers like you. Please consider making a recurring or one-time donation today or subscribe to our monthly print edition and get every copy sent straight to your home.

Ivermectin for Sale