Photo by Ashim D’Silva

Meet the Man Who Calls Himself the Innocent Slave

Luis Vives is counting down the days until his parole. The documentation is en route to his family home in the Bronx, directed there a few days after he was notified he is eligible for clemency.

Being let out of his 6 by 9 foot cage in upstate New York’s Attica Correctional Facility isn’t Vives’ only definition of freedom, though. For Vives, freedom means exposing the truth.

America, the land of the free, has enslaved me for 15 years behind a ghost.

Luis Vives

Vives, now 40, has been in prison for over a decade — 12 years, to be exact. His court papers and his conviction say he’s serving his sentence because he robbed a man at knife point, relieving him of a few thousand dollars and, according to some (but not all) of the paperwork, cocaine. A lot of the paperwork is signed by a NYPD officer named Michael Gross, a man Vives calls The Ghost. Gross earned the nickname, Vives says, because he’s never seen him. In fact, Luis Vives can’t even prove ‘Officer Michael Gross’ exists, but, as a prisoner at the order of the state of New York, that’s not his job.

“For so many years now, I have been haunted behind a ghost that does not exist to me or my indictment, and to this very day, nobody inside the criminal justice system can show me proof of the officer that they claim arrested me,” Vives wrote in a letter to The News Station.

Luis Vives was born to Black, Puerto Rican parents in the summer of 1980, and raised in the Bronx. In 1983, his father was killed in prison when he was three–a hanging that his sister, Brenda Vives, says is shrouded in mystery and murky details. Luis and Brenda were always told that their father was hung in his cell by a correctional officer alongside four other people, but they can’t be sure. His single mother took him and Brenda to school every day, and they spent most of their time with their two female cousins. The four of them refer to each other as siblings, and they were raised with the belief that family is the most important thing of all. 

Luis Vives – photo courtesy of the Vives family

Despite his hardships, he lived his life as fully as he could, even on limited resources. Dancing was his thing, and he was often seen enjoying New York City nights in clubs across town. Sports are his thing, too. He’s a die hard New York sports guy: Rangers, Giants and Yankees, always. His musical taste is rap-leaning. He cites Jay-Z as his favorite rapper. Song Cry is his favorite track these days, because he feels a certain connection to the lyrics. “Picture all the possibilities, sounds like a love song…I can’t see them coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry…Though I can’t let you know it, pride won’t let me show it, pretend to be heroic, that’s just one to grow with…” 

When he was 13, his mother scraped up enough money to send him and his sister on a trip to Puerto Rico to visit his grandmother — his first visit to what he sees as his motherland. Brenda hated going, she says, because Luis and Brenda were teased for not speaking Spanish. 

Never having had a wife or children, Vives enjoyed the bachelor life. He built dreams of seeing the world, of grand adventures to foreign places he has only read of in books or seen on the internet. It was a simple life. It was his, and he loved every minute of it. 

That all changed in 2007. His dreams of seeing the globe became nightmarish on January 23 of that year — the last time he saw a new vista. But the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York was never on his bucket list. 

Vives was charged and convicted of robbery in both the first and second degree — burglary in the first degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance [cocaine] in the second degree. He was implicated, according to court records when Officer Carl Bennett arrived at a crime scene outside of his precinct’s jurisdiction, around 2:15pm. Vives is alleged to have stolen money, jewelry and drugs from Leonardo Rojas — who is also known as Alejandro Ramirez — in the second floor hallway of a building. On February 9, 2006 Vives was arrested for this incident, alongside a co-defendant he had never met. 

Sergeant Joseph Farrell, the area supervisor of the crime scene, testified that he saw — with his own two eyes — Officer Michael Gross working there. Patrolman Eddie Gutierrez then arrived and found a knife in that second floor hallway, which was later used as evidence. 

The entire account of these officers is problematic — or at least a mystery the system has yet to elucidate. 

Informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally.

Innocence Project

First and foremost, even though the name ‘Michael Gross’ is all over his legal documents, no such man testified in any phase of his trial. If he was a witness for the prosecution and an officer of the law, Vives says, why wouldn’t he testify in court? 

Moreover, according to Vives, Officer Gutierrez allegedly “stated in trial that he picked up a knife from the second floor hallway bare-handed and placed the knife in his pocket, then took the knife to the precinct.” Of course, that would be considered contamination of evidence, which could rule it inadmissible. What’s worse is that Vives alleges that the officer’s name on the evidence voucher for the knife reads ‘unknown.’ 

The allegations leveled by Vives get worse. He claims Officer Richard Simplicio stated under oath in the trial that he became the arresting officer of the Vives case because nobody else wanted it. 

The victim, Leonardo Rojas, “testified as a cooperating witness for the prosecution after pleading guilty to possession of more than two pounds of cocaine,” Vives alleges. 

According to the Innocence Project, incentivized “informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in about one in five of the 367 exonerations they’ve solidified using DNA evidence. 

“The promise or expectation of possible benefits from prosecutors creates a strong incentive to lie,” the Innocence Project says, and has resulted in overturned convictions for exonerees like Ryan Ferguson — who was falsely convicted of murdering a Missouri sports writer when he was just eighteen.

Vives says even the complaint reports are inconsistent. “On my complaint report, it only states that the victim was robbed of $2,500. Mr. Rojas never once made claims of drugs being taken until trial,” Vives alleges, “and on the complaint report there is no mention of jewelry being stolen, either.” 

Vives even questions the sum of money he is convicted of stealing. “The $2,500 that the victim claims was stolen by me and my co-defendant was never found,” he told The News Station. 

On March 19, 2015, Vives filed his first FOIL request (Freedom of Information Law, which allows members of the public to file), directed at One Police Plaza, the NYPD headquarters. He requested confirmation of the identity of ‘Officer Michael Gross,’ but says he was given the runaround and never received a document. 

The co-defendant is Vincent Sanchez. He also testified pursuant to a cooperation agreement after pleading guilty to robbery in the first degree. 

“On the day of our arrest, Mr. Sanchez wrote a three page statement in the precinct that never once mentioned anything about a robbery being committed,” Vives told The News Station. 

Courtesy of the Vives family

He kept pushing, but all it did was press Appeal Officer Jonathan David to file charges of aggravated assault against him on February 5, 2016. David claimed that Vives’ incessant requests for information harassed him and the department. Those charges were dismissed in court. 

Finally, after filing an Article 78 motion (used to appeal the decision of a New York State agency to the courts), he got what he wanted in 2018. Jordan S. Mazur, a new FOIL officer, provided him with a document with one single line that gave him hope. He says it solidified what he knew all along: There is no record of a police officer named Michael Gross as an employee of the NYPD at any point during the time of his incident or at any point since. When he tried to present this letter to his trial judge, he alleges he was placed on a negative correspondence list and Five Point Correctional Facility gave him a misbehavior report. 

To this day, Vives has not been given the true identity of the person who arrested him. Many of the people who put him in prison have long since moved on. 

Officer Carl Bennett resigned from the NYPD on September 18, 2017. He cannot be located. 

The Assistant District Attorney of his case, Soumya Dayananda, left the District Attorney’s Office. Dayananda went on to become the Deputy Chief of International Narcotics and Money Laundering at the Eastern District of New York’s U.S Attorney’s Office, where she prosecuted Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. 

The real identity of Michael Gross has yet to be revealed. 

The promise or expectation of possible benefits from prosecutors creates a strong incentive to lie.

Innocence Project

And Luis Vives still sits in prison, hoping that one day the truth will be revealed. Vives awaits his next parole hearing, hoping to once again taste the freedom his palette has been starved of for 12 years now. 

His earliest release date was April 12, 2021, pending a hearing regarding conditional release. No matter what, though, he says he will not be silent until he sees justice his way. 

“America, the land of the free, has enslaved me for 15 years behind a ghost,” he says. And he does not want to be a slave to that ghost — potentially the ghost of NYPD’s past, but one that’s been haunting Vives’ daily present since their paths crossed — for the rest of his days. 

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

Erica is a freelance writer and has published her work in Rolling Stone, Deadspin, LitHub and more. She graduated from New York University’s journalism school with her Master’s degree, specializing in magazine writing. She splits her time between New York and Toronto, Canada.

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