Queens DA moves to dismiss charges against three men in 1996 Astoria double murder

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz moves to dismiss charges against three men in a 1996 Astoria double murder case after they spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars. (Photo via GoFundMe)

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz on Friday, June 4, moved to dismiss charges against three men wrongfully convicted in an infamous 1996 double murder of an NYPD officer and the owner of an Astoria check cashing business during an attempted robbery.

George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt spent nearly 25 years in prison before they were released without bail from the upstate Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville in March after Queens Administrative Judge Joseph Zayas vacated their wrongful convictions, citing prosecutorial misconduct.

“Today, my office moved to dismiss indictments against George Bell, Gary Johnson and Rohan Bolt, who were convicted of the Dec. 21, 1996, murders of Ira “Mike” Epstein and NYPD Police Officer Charles Davis during a robbery attempt of Mr. Epstein’s check cashing business,” Katz said in a statement. “This follows a thorough, three-month investigation by Executive Assistant District Attorney Pishoy Yacoub.”

The three men were originally convicted in the Dec. 21, 1996, murders of Ira Epstein, the owner of an Astoria check cashing business, and off-duty NYPD officer Charles Davis, who was working as a security guard at Epstein’s business. However, the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit recently found that the trial prosecutors inadvertently failed to disclose records that would have helped the defendants’ case, as required by law.

The DA’s team said they found documents suggesting that a gang called “Speedstick” may have instead been behind the slaying, after one of its members copped to committing the robbery gone wrong to authorities.

Additionally, one of the prosecution’s star witnesses — a man who accused Bell, Johnson and Bolt of committing the crime — was found to have a history of mental illness and was experiencing hallucinations around the time of the murder.

“There can be no true justice, in Queens County or anywhere else, unless we hold ourselves to the highest standards facilitating the process by which justice is sought,” Katz said. “My commitment to the effort continues.”

Brad Leventhal resigned as the Homicide Bureau Chief in the DA’s office in late March after he was accused by Judge Zayas of withholding evidence from the defense, including testimony claiming someone else committed the double murder.

“I am grateful that justice has finally prevailed after 24 years,” Bell said. “I thank everyone that believed in my innocence and fought vigorously for me. I am committed to fighting for others who have been wrongfully convicted so that they may see freedom and justice as well.”

Bell and Johnson were 19 and 22 years old at the time of their arrests. They had never met Bolt, a 34-year-old married father of four and restaurant owner. None of the men had criminal histories and no physical evidence connected any of them to the crime at the time of their arrests or at any time since.

“I have maintained my innocence for the past 24 years. I will never get that time back, but I will make the most of every day I have now,” Bolt said. “This miscarriage of justice is far too common, and the decision today hopefully sheds hope for others who have been wrongfully convicted.”

For the last 24 years, Bell, Bolt and Johnson have maintained their innocence.

“After spending more than two decades in prison for a crime I did not commit, I finally receive some sense of closure today,” Johnson said. “The burden that has been sitting on my shoulders for the past 24 years has been lifted and I am excited to be able to start my life again.”