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Three people were in the bar that night — the bartender, an off-duty police officer he was chatting with over the polished wood, and, in the back of the place, a man in a phone booth.
It was a winter night in 1971 in Dunne’s Bar and Grill at the Brooklyn foot of the Manhattan Bridge, a Friday so slow that the bartender decided it was time to close. He asked the police officer, a friend of his who was not in uniform, to tell the man in the booth it was time to go.
In the chaotic seconds that followed, gunfire tore through Dunne’s, leaving bullets lodged in the bar and the officer, Robert Bolden, dead on floor. He was 46 years old, a father of three. His killer was never identified.
There are thousands of cold cases in New York City, needling reminders of unfinished business. But the murder at Dunne’s 48 years ago burdens detectives more than many.
His murder is the oldest unsolved case of an officer killed in the city. In July, detectives announced a new push to solve the crime, offering a $111,500 reward, raised by police unions around the country, for any information. Coming so long after the murder, the reward and renewed investigation are measures of the depth of resolve in the New York Police Department when one of its own has been slain.
The obstacles investigators face are many, starting with the passage of time.
“Most of the people at that time are either 80 or dead,” said Detective Martin Herb, a Brooklyn homicide investigator assigned to the case. “The crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, that’s a lot to go through.”
Still, investigators hope an infusion of cash to the longstanding reward will pry loose some leads. “We’re going to take this case and treat it like it happened a month ago, and use money and forensics,” Detective Herb said.
To revisit the death of Officer Bolden is to travel back to a starker time. He would become the first of 10 officers murdered in New York City in 1971, far more than in any year in the previous decade. The killings came amid a national wave of attacks on officers. Police chiefs and members of Congress urged for investigations into a possible conspiracy.
The police killings added to a general sense that New York City was in decline. Heroin use was rampant, the murder rate was rising fast and the city’s finances were shaky. Radical politics seemed to be in the air. Two officers, Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini, were ambushed and gunned down later that year in Harlem by members of the Black Liberation Army.
Officer Bolden lived only a couple of blocks away from Dunne’s, in the Farragut Houses, a public-housing project. He was a transplant from the South by way of wartime Europe. He had been born and raised in South Carolina, and his family members were once sharecroppers on a plantation owned by the Pratt family called Good Hope, his brother, George Bolden, said.
He enlisted in the Navy after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. He was only 16, but lied about his age.
“When the war broke out, a lot of the young men his age and older enlisted in the armed forces,” George Bolden said. “I think he felt the world was moving on without him. He cajoled my mom to go down to the naval enlisting place with him.”
When he came home from the war, he settled in New York City. “He married a lady who lived in Brooklyn,” his brother said. He first found work with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police unit before joining the Police Department in 1955.
“Always right where you needed him,” said a fellow officer from the 1960s, George Hanley, 75. “Gentleman of a cop. Nothing more you could ask from a man. A real swell guy.”
Officer Bolden relished the work. “He loved being in uniform,” George Bolden said. When he was occasionally assigned to a plainclothes unit, “he absolutely hated it.” He worked in the 75th Precinct in East Brooklyn, but was a familiar presence in his own neighborhood.
“He made it a point, whenever he could, he’d stop in places,” George Bolden said. A luncheonette, a Carvel ice cream shop, a dry cleaner — “He would actually stop in on his way home. He would get in to see those people. They knew him and knew he was a cop. He’d say, ‘I’m thinking about you. How are things going?’”
It may have been in this spirit that he began going to Dunne’s Bar and Grill on Gold Street near the bridge. The night of Jan. 22, 1971, was unusual only in how empty the bar was: just him; his friend the bartender, John Gallagher, 62; and the third man in the phone booth. Mr. Gallagher asked Officer Bolden to tell the man the bar was closing, and he did.
When he returned to the bar, the man emerged with a shotgun. He fired and wounded Officer Bolden, who returned fire with his service revolver, his bullets missing their mark and slamming into the wood bar. The man fired again, this time killing Officer Bolden where he stood. He fell to the floor.
The gunman ran out of the bar. Moments later, two other men ran in, grabbed the officer’s revolver, and ran back out. Witnesses told the police the men fled in a different direction than the first man.
Behind the bar, Mr. Gallagher blacked out.
With so few eyewitnesses, the case grew cold within hours and stayed that way. A police helicopter searched in vain for the shooter. Officers contacted people who had received calls from the pay phone that night, but none were believed to have spoken to him.
The bartender was interrogated and passed a lie-detector test, leaving detectives convinced he had nothing to do with the crime. He died a few years later.
The lack of clues created a void that filled with theories. Maybe the shooter was pretending to be on the phone, but actually was waiting for Officer Bolden to leave so he could rob the bartender. Maybe the two men who ran in after were his accomplices, or maybe they were not.
“We’re treating it separately,” Detective Herb said, viewing the gun theft as a crime of opportunity by two men who heard the shots. The gun would never surface again; it has not been used in another reported crime and has not been sold in the open market.
In the days after the murder, the police thought they were close to an arrest. Two people outside the bar that night had said they saw a man leaving Dunne’s near the time of the shooting. But the man came forward to the police when he learned detectives were looking for him and brought five witnesses who said he was with them that night, nowhere near Dunne’s.
Detective Herb and Sergeant Dan Brennan, both from
“Our twist is, we’re going to take today’s technology and put it to use as if it’s a new homicide,” Detective Herb said.
Officer Bolden was laid to rest the week after his death. “A biting cold wind whipped at the faces of the 500 policemen standing at attention outside the church in the Fort Green section,” a New York Times article said. “As six men in uniform picked up the flag-draped coffin, hundreds of white-gloved hands shot up in sharp salute.”
A school in East New York, near the precinct where he had worked, was renamed the Patrolman Robert Bolden School. But the officer’s legacy took form in a different way within his family.
In 1987, after hearing about his slain uncle for most of his life, a young man named Gregory W. Bolden of Providence, R.I., joined his local police department. One of his motivations was to “avenge his uncle’s death,” his father, George Bolden, said.
Gregory Bolden died in 2005 of a rare illness.
“It’s always been in my mind,” Detective Bolden said. “Hoping that one day, you’d be able to bring the case to a positive ending.”
Michael Wilson has been a reporter and columnist at The Times since 2002, writing stories for the New York, National, International and Arts pages. @MWilsonNYT
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