A phone, shouts, a murder and an enduring mystery



The year was 1990, and there were, on average, six killings per day in New York City. The murder rate, which began rising in 1963, and had crept steadily higher in the years that followed, crested in 1990 at 2,245. That gave New York City the dubious distinction of being the nation’s murder capital that year. Among these killings were several so notable — because of the circumstances surrounding them or who was killed — that they made national headlines. 

In the Bronx, a young prosecutor, Sean Healy, was killed on his lunch break, apparently by a bullet meant from someone else. In the subway, Brian Watkins, a tourist from Utah, was stabbed to death while protecting his parents from a gang of muggers. And in the West Village, John Reisenbach, a 33-year-old advertising executive, was shot to death while making a call on a pay phone near his apartment building. New York magazine called Reisenbach’s murder “Nightmare on Jane Street.”

Much has changed for the better in the decades that have followed. Notably, the murder rate returned to its 1963 low. Last year, Greenwich Village’s Sixth Police Precinct recorded no homicides, one of three precincts in the city not to see a single murder in 2008.

In these safer times, though, the unsolved killing at the Jane St. pay phone remains a chilling symbol of the city’s former lawlessness.

John Reisenbach lived at 61 Jane St., a large apartment building at Hudson St. The address is a stone’s throw from the Meat Market, which back in 1990 was notorious for drug dealing and prostitution. Today, “Meatpacking,” as it’s known, is better known for its high-end restaurants, bars and boutiques.

Reisenbach had moved into the neighborhood a year before. He lived with his wife of 10 years, Vicki, and their three dogs. He was a vice president for advertising sales at the All American Television Corporation, a content-distribution agency in Manhattan.

Ironically, one of Reisenbach’s accounts was for “Crime Stoppers 800,” a television show that staged re-enactments of crimes in an effort to attract tips from the public.

At All American he became fast friends with Lawrence Schatz. Sometime after 10 o’clock on the night of July 30, 1990, Reisenbach left his apartment to call Schatz on a nearby pay phone at Jane and Greenwich Sts.

“The phone in John’s apartment wasn’t working,” Schatz recalled in a recent interview. “So he went to the corner to use a pay phone. We were going to quit our jobs and go into business together, and John had an idea he wanted to bounce off me.”

The two spoke for roughly 45 minutes before their conversation was interrupted.

“Give me the money! Give me the money!” Schatz recalled hearing. “It sounded like a mugging. Then I heard nothing.”

It is not known whether Reisenbach resisted the robbery attempt or whether he simply had no money to give — other than the quarters he was feeding into the phone. It is also not known whether one person acting alone or multiple people confronted Reisenbach. But it is known that three shots were fired and that Reisenbach, mortally wounded, staggered around the corner before collapsing on the sidewalk in front of 803 Greenwich St.

Not knowing what happened, but dreading that something horrible had occurred, Schatz rushed Downtown to the scene to find what he had feared: flashing lights and police officers.

“They’d already taken him to St. Vincent’s. I ran into Vicki there,” Schatz remembered. “And that was it. He was dead.”

Two days later, police arrested William Emerson, a 42-year-old homeless man, and charged him with murdering Reisenbach. Two witnesses, police said, had implicated Emerson in the crime. One, an unidentified man who was, according to news reports, himself homeless, claimed that Emerson admitted the shooting as part of an attempted robbery. Another, a transvestite prostitute who went by “Porsche,” placed Emerson at the scene as well.

But Roger Schwarz, Emerson’s court-appointed lawyer, doubted his guilt from the start.

“My investigator and I believed very early on that Mr. Emerson was not the right guy,” he said in a recent interview. “It just didn’t seem right. Homeless people don’t do stickups. They don’t carry guns. They ‘can,’” he continued, referring to collecting empty cans and bottles. “And that’s what Emerson was doing, that night, away from the murder.”

Schwarz and his investigator, John Barna, a veteran police detective with 25 years on the job, put together a convincing-enough case to compel the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to conduct an independent vetting of the evidence against Emerson. When the D.A.’s office concluded their inquiry, they agreed that the case against Emerson could not stand, that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.

On April 10, 1991, the District Attorney’s Office asked the court to dismiss the indictment against Emerson.

In the meantime, Emerson had spent half a year on Rikers Island, facing the possibility of life in prison. Standing in court that day, he told the court that he had, at one time, believed in the judicial system, “but after being put in jail for six months for something I did not do, I have lost faith in the police and the District Attorney’s Office,” he said. “This happened to me because I was homeless and black, which made me a perfect target.”

Today Schwarz remembers that case as one he “will never forget.”

“It was a very gratifying result,” he said of the dismissal of the charges against Emerson. “It is a sad example of what can happen when law enforcement acts in haste.”

Both the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this article on the prosecution of Emerson, but a police spokesperson, Sergeant Kevin Hayes, said the Reisenbach murder remains an open case.

In the aftermath of Reisenbach’s murder, neighborhood residents rallied to take back their streets. Neighbors pooled resources and retained a private security firm to patrol the streets at night. They also invited the Guardian Angels, a vigilante group that patrolled the subways and other hot spots, to keep watch in their area. Lastly, a group of gay activists called the Pink Panthers initiated foot patrols as well.

The following year, crime began to fall throughout the city, culminating in a return to its historic 1963 low in 2007.

In addition, Reisenbach’s friends, family and colleagues started a foundation in his name “for a better and safer New York.” The foundation began by offering grants to neighborhood-watch programs across the city. Today, the organization offers college-scholarship assistance, a mentoring program and an anti-gang initiative and contributes funds to the Police Department’s Gun Stop program, which offers cash rewards to individuals for turning illegal or legal firearms over to police.

Marc Wallace, a member of the foundation’s board and a West Village resident, said the foundation is one of those few instances “where a tragedy was turned into something good.”

Referring to the pay phone where Reisenbach was shot, Wallace said, “I can’t believe that phone is still there. Every time I pass it, I’m reminded.”