NEW YORK (AP) — Rookie cop Eddie Byrne was alone in a squad car on a cold February night in 1988, protecting the home of a witness in a drug case who had been threatened by dealers. It was about 3 a.m. when the gun flashed — five bullets were pumped into his head.
Byrne wasn't caught in the crossfire of a shootout and he wasn't being robbed — he was killed because he was a cop. Days earlier, a powerful drug dealer had ordered a hit from jail on any cop as payback for his arrest and offered $8,000 as a reward.
"It was an all-out assassination," said retired officer Tony Keller, one of the first to the scene that night. "This just stunned us all. If they could kill a cop like that, no one was safe."
The brazen killing shocked a city mired in an epidemic of drugs and violence and became a flashpoint that helped usher in an era of change nationwide. Next month, the four men convicted will be up for parole, a longshot, but Byrne's family, police and politicians want to make sure they stay behind bars.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg all sent letters on behalf of the family. Last month, the police department's largest union added to its website a form letter that can be sent to the parole board urging that convicted cop killers remain in jail. More than 250,000 letters have been sent. Hundreds went to the Byrne killers.
"We won't let people forget about the sacrifices of those officers," said Patrick Lynch, head of the union.
In the late 1980s, Queens was the ground zero of the crack epidemic in New York, and two drug dealers reigned, Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols and his associate Howard "Pappy" Mason. Their army of thugs kept addicts in cheap crack and terrorized residents. Crime was rampant; in 1990, the number of murders hit an all-time high of 2,245.
"The drug traffickers' games were very vicious, and they were pretty blatant. You could go onto any street corner and see a deal," Keller said. "It was a tough job for a cop then."
Byrne was new to the precinct and to the department. He was still living at home and going to college at night, just like his father, a retired police lieutenant, did. His three brothers are also in law enforcement.
"He had barely started life," said his older brother Larry Byrne. "He had just graduated from high school. He wasn't married. He wanted to have a family and he never got to experience life."
Mason directed the hit through his associate Philip Copeland. He and three others, Todd Scott, David McClary and Scott Cobb, planned it. Finding a cop wasn't a problem — most people in the neighborhood knew there was a squad car with one officer parked outside the witness' home 24 hours a day.
"It was a tough night tour" said Keller, who was on the job more than 30 years. "You're alone, you're easily distracted, you're hungry, you're sleepy. It was dangerous. Sure enough, look at what happened."
On Feb. 26, Scott distracted Byrne while McClary shot him. Cobb was the wheelman. Copeland was to provide the alibi.
When police arrived, the car was still running. Glass was shattered, and Byrne was slumped over.
"He died alone sitting there, that's what's so sad. It bothers me still," Keller said.
The four men, all in their 20s, were arrested about a week later, tried, convicted and sentenced to the maximum available at the time, 25 years to life. (State law was changed in 1995 and now convicted cop killers face life without parole.)
Mason was given a life sentence on separate drug charges in federal court. But Byrne's killers will be eligible for parole every two years from now on. Their hearings are scheduled for the week of Nov. 11, and the week of Nov. 26 for Cobb. Larry Byrne said he's more worried about them being paroled decades from now, when the case isn't remembered as well.
"A future parole board might not appreciate the full gravity and seriousness of this terrible crime," he said.
About 10,000 uniformed police officers from around the country attended Byrne's funeral. The story was on the cover of Time Magazine. President Reagan called the family at home and offered condolences, and Byrne's father presented then-GOP presidential nominee George H.W. Bush with his son's police shield. Bush showed the shield at campaign rallies around the country when he spoke about the need to crack down on illegal drugs.
"Every day, my parents would open a paper and see a photo of my brother Eddie," said Larry Byrne, a lawyer who for years was a federal prosecutor on drug cases. "It wasn't anything the press did wrong, but it made healing for them very hard with it."
The case became a turning point in the war on drugs. The NYPD established teams of undercover officers to sweep dealers off the streets in drug-plagued neighborhoods. Officers went out in pairs instead of alone. A federal police funding program was named in Byrne's memory.
Drug dealers were put behind bars, and the city slowly became safer. Now, New York is on track to have the lowest murder rate since record-keeping began.
"The department has changed dramatically since then, but something like that could still happen," said Kelly, the police commissioner. "It's important to remember this is a risky job. Officers are risking their lives to do it."