Doubling down on a fraud

Recalling the murky role played by civil rights leader Rev Al Sharpton in a notorious faked abduction case


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In March of this year the biracial gay actor Jussie Smollett was sentenced to 150 days in county jail for planning a hoax attack against himself in Chicago in 2019 and making false police reports. His alleged attackers had worn ski masks, berated him with racial and homophobic slurs, told him he was in “MAGA country” — “Make America Great Again” — poured an unidentified liquid on him, and left a noose around his neck. 

When a police investigation revealed a month later that he had paid two Nigerian brothers, who were his gym buddies, to perpetrate the attack, his credibility was shattered. The speculation was that sympathy for Smollett as the victim of a hate attack might have aided him in pay negotiations with his employers.

At the time, some commentators made passing reference to another hoax attack from the late 1980s, the Tawana Brawley case. If Smollett had read up on it, he might have thought twice — as should Smollett’s initial supporter, Al Sharpton, given his unrepented role in that scandal.

After a black teenager, Tawana Brawley, went missing from her home in Wappingers Falls, New York, for four days over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1987, she was found outside her family’s old apartment building in a refuse bag, with the words “KKK”, “nigger”, and “bitch” inscribed on her body, which was also smeared with faeces. She appeared unresponsive. 

At a hospital emergency room, during the course of a 20-minute interview by a black Dutchess County police officer, she said not a word, but instead used a notebook to give answers. Her story was that she had been detained against her will for days in a woodland area and repeatedly raped by six white men, one of whom was a “white cop”. 

The Jewish Abrams was understandably outraged at being compared to Hitler

A rape kit was administered, but the forensic results showed that she had not been raped, and puzzlingly there was no evidence of her having been exposed to the elements. Before long, her mother, Glenda Brawley, and Glenda’s boyfriend Ralph King, had enlisted a trio of advisers: Alton H. Maddox, C. Vernon Mason, and Al Sharpton. The son of a preacher, Maddox was a college-educated attorney and a victim of police brutality whose favoured defence tactic was to refuse to let defendants testify before a grand jury and instead demand a special prosecutor be appointed. 

Mason was another civil rights attorney and an ordained minister. Sharpton, too, was a minister who had preached his first sermon at the age of five and was mentored by black congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. Indeed, Sharpton had copied Brown’s hairstyle and dressed like him. They formed a company together to promote concerts and helped stage Michael Jackson’s 1984 tour. 

On 5 December 1987, Sharpton convened a press conference, at which he described Tawana as “a traumatised, raped woman”. New York “is now the Mississippi and Alabama of the Eighties”, he declared, and Tawana’s kidnapping “the most shameful act of racism of our times”. 

Maddox went further and claimed Brawley had been lured into an automobile by a police officer. “There has been a complete breakdown in the legal and criminal justice system in the state of New York,” he asserted. Brawley was refusing to talk until Governor Cuomo named a special prosecutor. 

Then a young man named Harry Crist, Jr., who worked for IBM as a technician and had a part-time police job, shot himself in the head with a .357 Magnum revolver. When he became a suspect, his friend Steven Pagones, an assistant district attorney, offered an alibi. (Years later it emerged Crist’s suicide note had pointed to a failed relationship and his disappointment about not becoming a state trooper as his motives for suicide.)

Sharpton told a reporter that state attorney general Robert Abrams and his wife owned a farmhouse in Dutchess County and had made contributions to the election campaigns of Sheriff Scoralick. When the reporter asked if this connection would stop Tawana from cooperating with the police investigation, Sharpton replied: “That’s like asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mister Hitler.”

One supporter was Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam

The Jewish Abrams was understandably outraged at being compared to Hitler. Worse was to come. When NBCTV showed pictures taken at the hospital of a partially undressed Tawana with the racial slurs on her body, Alton Maddox told a congregation in Harlem: “Robert Abrams, you are no longer going to masturbate looking at Tawana Brawley’s picture! You’re no longer going to go into the men’s room with your perverted mind and rape our daughters!”

At another press conference, Maddox claimed to have evidence proving that Steven Pagones had attacked Tawana. It didn’t amount to much. Pagones “lived on the same street as the Brawley family. Less than two years ago, he had eyed Tawana Brawley.” Maddox insisted that Governor Cuomo should immediately arrest Pagones, otherwise Tawana would not testify.

Steven Pagones, who was in his late thirties, was shocked by Maddox’s outlandish assertions. He hired an attorney and was later able to provide a thoroughly documented alibi.

Sharpton doubled down. He accused Pagones, the grandson of a Greek immigrant, of having mob connections and said Cuomo was protecting the mafia. Among other, more outlandish, claims he made were that Tawana had been raped 33 times and that her attackers had included members of both the Ku Klux Klan and the IRA.

Glenda Brawley not only refused to let her daughter testify before a grand jury, but also ignored a summons to appear herself. She was therefore summoned to appear before Justice Angelo J. Ingrassia of the New York Supreme Court. On the day of the hearing, the courthouse was surrounded by Tawana supporters chanting, “No justice! No peace! Arrest Pagones NOW!” One supporter was Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who sat outside in his gold Lincoln, as Glenda Brawley sat in another car with Sharpton at her side.

“Four hundred years of oppression is riding on this case,” said Maddox. The judge agreed, but said that he had a duty to uphold the law nonetheless. There was a brief recess, during which Maddox consulted with Glenda and Sharpton outside, and they decided she should go home. Maddox told the judge his client’s defence was that black people could not obtain justice, whereupon Ingrassia found Glenda in contempt of court and ordered that unless she appeared before the grand jury she should be jailed for 30 days and fined $250.

Sharpton found sanctuary for Glenda — “our African queen” — at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Queens, and there she stayed for several weeks, waiting for police to storm the church — a temptation they sensibly resisted.

Sharpton has, however, never apologised

From the outset the police had entertained doubts about Tawana’s story. A witness had apparently seen her climbing into the bin bag. The racial slurs on her body were upside down, suggesting she wrote them herself. Given that Sharpton claimed urine had been found in her mouth, it was awkward that she appeared to have cleaned her teeth not long before her discovery. Cotton wool was found in her nostrils, presumably to lessen the unpleasant odour of the faeces which, when tested, matched that of her neighbour’s dog. 

Eventually, the grand jury as well as a major New York Times investigation concluded that Tawana had faked her abduction. She confessed to a boyfriend, Darryl Rodriguez, that she had made up the whole thing because she had been out partying and was afraid of her stepfather’s reaction.

In 1998, Steven Pagones won a series of libel actions. Maddox and Mason paid up, Sharpton had his $65,000 bill paid by Johnnie Cochran (O.J. Simpson’s lawyer) among others. Tawana refused to pay her share. With annual interest of 9 per cent, it had reached $431,000 in 2013, when a court finally garnished her nurse’s wages and she started to pay off the debt in minuscule instalments. She now lives in another state, under another name, and has never apologised. She did, however, convert to Islam under the guidance of Louis Farrakhan.

Mason was disbarred in 1995, blaming his advocacy of Tawana’s cause for his downfall. He continues to serve as a minister. Maddox was suspended from practising law in New York. As for Al Sharpton, he has lost weight, now dresses more soberly, and wears his hair in a more conventional style. He gave the eulogy at Michael Jackson’s funeral and earns good money from anchoring an MSNBC show, but he owes $3.7 million in taxes. 

He originally claimed, “the reported hate attack on my friend and brother, actor Jussie Smollett is despicable and outrageous,” but later said Smollett should face “accountability to the maximum” if found guilty. Sharpton has, however, never apologised for championing Tawana’s false claims.

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