Cardenas Brothers

Queens County, New York
Date of Crime:  July 21, 1994

When some jewelry vendors were returning to their hotel in Elmhurst from a gem show in Manhattan, four Latino men snatched three cases of Tahitian black pearls from them. The pearls were valued at $1.5 million. As they escaped, the thieves attempted to carjack an off duty police officer. The officer managed to shoot his service weapon, a 9-millimeter Glock, before he was knocked unconscious. He later told detectives later that he thought he had hit a robber who was grabbing at the barrel of the gun.

That same night, Napoleon Cardenas accidentally shot himself in the hand with a .380-caliber semiautomatic pistol that he had been showing to two visitors at his girlfriend's apartment. He showed up screaming in pain at the same hospital that the off-duty officer and one of the jewelry vendors were being treated. A detective put Napoleon in a lineup, but none of the robbery victims identified him. A friend cleaned up the blood in his girlfriend's apartment. The police never searched the site.

Napoleon was due to serve a four-month sentence for credit card fraud. Days before it was to begin, he fled to the Dominican Republic. In his absence, one of the vendors called a detective days after the crime, saying he could now identify Napoleon as one of the robbers. The police visited Napoleon's brother, Carlos Cardenas, to ask about him and they began to suspect that Carlos had been involved as well. When the jewelry vendors returned to New York from California a year later, the police put Carlos in a lineup. One of the vendors chose someone else. Another chose Carlos.

At Carlos's trial, a jewelry vendor identified him. With the coincidence of his brother's gunshot wound, Carlos was convicted and sentenced to 8 to 25 years in prison. A year later Napoleon surrendered to federal marshals in Columbia. He served his credit card fraud sentence and was tried for the jewelry heist. After the off-duty officer and a jeweler identified him, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.

Napoleon's trial lawyer did not investigate his alibi. Napoleon's friend, Eddie Padilla, who had cleaned up the blood after Napoleon shot himself, had the bullet jacket from the bullet Napoleon fired. It had an aluminum casing unlike the police ammunition fired during the jewelry heist, which had a copper casing. After years of imprisonment, Napoleon began to think that he had held proof of his innocence in his hand all along. In 2005, he had surgery to remove bullet fragments from his hand. The fragments removed were of entirely of lead, which did not prove helpful. Nevertheless, the surgery convinced the DA to take a second look at the case. The DA's investigator became convinced from informants that others were responsible for the theft. After Napoleon and Carlos were given and passed lie detector tests, the pair were exonerated and released in 2007.  [4/07]


Reference:  New York Times

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Brooklyn-Queens-Staten Island Cases