Prosecutor of Patz’s Killer Takes Over Weinstein Case
Posted April 25, 2018 8:57 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — A senior prosecutor known for winning a murder conviction in the killing of Etan Patz has been put in charge of the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into rape allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, two people with knowledge of the investigation said.
The prosecutor, Joan Illuzzi, took over the case in early April, replacing a veteran sex crimes prosecutor who had been leading the inquiry since December, the two people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the case.
Tensions have mounted between the prosecutors and the police over the handling of investigations into Weinstein’s conduct, which was the subject of exposes in October by The New York Times and The New Yorker. The acrimony started soon after, with recriminations over who was at fault for the failure to arrest the movie producer in 2015 in a groping case.
In November, the city’s chief of detectives said publicly that the police had developed a strong criminal case based on a complaint from an actress, Paz de la Huerta, who in a Vanity Fair story accused Weinstein of raping her on two occasions at her apartment in late 2010. But prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge him, provoking complaints from advocates for victims of sexual harassment.
The district attorney’s office has continued the investigation, but no charges have been announced and nothing has been said publicly about its scope or timetable.
Prosecutors are also investigating at least one other allegation, first reported in The New Yorker, that Weinstein forced a student actress, Lucia Evans, to perform oral sex on him during a business meeting at his office in 2004, two people familiar with the investigation said.
Prosecutors have also expanded the inquiry to include possible financial crimes involving Weinstein’s former production company, subpoenaing a wide range of records. The team looking at Weinstein also includes prosecutors from the Major Economic Crimes Bureau, according to two people familiar with the subpoenas.
Weinstein’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, said the sexual encounters the district attorney’s office has been scrutinizing were consensual. “The substantial delay in this investigation has been the result of serious flaws that are apparent with respect to any claim of nonconsensual sex,” he said. He also denied Weinstein had committed any financial wrongdoing, asserting he had reimbursed his former company for all personal expenditures.
Now the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., has turned to Illuzzi, one of the most successful prosecutors in his office. A veteran homicide prosecutor, she was on the team that won a conviction against Pedro Hernandez for the killing of 6-year-old Etan Patz. In 2016, she ran as the Republican candidate for district attorney on Staten Island, where she lives; she lost to the Democratic candidate, Michael McMahon.
By turning to Illuzzi, Vance has tapped someone with expertise in cold cases in which there is little or no physical evidence and the credibility of witnesses is paramount. But he is also tapping a lawyer who has had to make difficult and politically fraught decisions in high-profile cases.
In 2011, she led the investigation to determine if Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, had sexually assaulted Nafissatou Diallo, who worked as a housekeeper in the hotel where Strauss-Kahn was staying.
In that case, Illuzzi ultimately recommended the indictment be thrown out after evidence emerged undermining Diallo’s reliability as a witness. The decision was a political setback for Vance, though he won re-election in 2013 and 2017.
Vance declined to say why he had assigned Illuzzi to the Weinstein investigation. “This investigation is active and ongoing,” said Vance’s spokesman, Danny Frost. “It would be inappropriate to comment on investigative personnel except to say that we are staffing the matter appropriately as it moves forward.”
Carrie A. Goldberg, a Brooklyn lawyer representing de la Huerta and Evans, had criticized Vance for not moving more quickly to seek an indictment against Weinstein. In December she accused his office of “being complicit in Mr. Weinstein’s evading punishment.” She said on Wednesday, however, that Illuzzi had given the investigation new energy.
“The victims see her involvement as a sign from Cyrus Vance that he is treating this case more seriously,” she said. “We have reason to expect the district attorney of New York to act soon.”
Illuzzi took over the case from Maxine B. Rosenthal, an experienced sex-crimes prosecutor known for a hard-nosed style. “They are both heavy hitters, both widely respected,” Evan Krutoy, a former Manhattan prosecutor, said. In 2009, Rosenthal oversaw the prosecution of Joseph Brooks, an Oscar-winning song writer turned movie producer, who was charged with drugging and raping aspiring actresses he lured to his apartment with promises of auditions. (Brooks died in an apparent suicide before his trial.)
Illuzzi declined to comment on her new role. Rosenthal did not respond to a message from a reporter. The investigation is being overseen by Martha Bashford, the chief of the office’s sex crimes bureau, who also declined to comment.
Last year, Vance drew criticism for the handling of a March 2015 investigation into Weinstein’s behavior with Ambra Battilana, an Italian model. Battilana told the police Weinstein groped her breasts and tried to slide a hand up her skirt during an interview at his Tribeca office. In a sting operation the next day, she captured audio of him admitting he had touched her breasts.
Although the police believed they had a case, Vance’s office declined to prosecute. Bashford’s team found Battilana to be a problematic witness, who had given shifting accounts of a previous sexual assault complaint she made in Italy.
The decision not to bring charges led to finger-pointing between members of the Police Department’s Special Victims Division, who believed they had evidence of “forcible touching,” and the district attorney’s office, whose prosecutors doubted the case could be won. Battilana later accepted a settlement payment and signed an agreement not to talk about what happened.
But the political atmosphere surrounding sexual harassment has changed since Battilana made her complaint. More than 80 women, including several big-name actresses, have come forward with accusations against Weinstein, from unwanted touching to sexual assault. Scores of other women have come forward with stories of harassment in the workplace by other powerful men, leading to a cascade of resignations and firings. Last fall, as the storm over sexual harassment grew, Vance found himself on the defensive. Critics suggested he was gun-shy of taking on powerful men accused of sexual crimes after he was forced to drop the charges against Strauss-Kahn.
In March, the governor, Andrew Cuomo, responding to calls from a Hollywood advocacy group fighting sexual harassment, directed the attorney general to review Vance’s handling of Battilana’s complaint.
Vance has defended the decision, saying his office has a duty to bring charges only when it is convinced the crimes can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. “Any other course of action only serves to hurt the victims of sex crimes,” he said.