Admitted killer’s bizarre, tear-filled interrogation shown to jury in Trenton man’s cop slay trial
A day after he shot a retired Trenton cop’s son to death, Robert Bartley was more worried about perception – and $258 – than reality.
The Trenton transplant, formerly of Chicago, told detectives as they walked into an interrogation room that he was missing a wad of cash. It was taken from him after he was arrested Feb. 27, 2013, and charged with the murder of James Austin, the 18-year-old son of retired Trenton sergeant Luddie Austin.
“I know that’s the least of my worries,” Bartley said. “The money wasn’t in my property. Can you write down that the money wasn’t in my property?”
“There’s a lot of worries, but nothing is the least of the worries,” said Gary Britton, a Trenton Police detective. “I will make it part of my continuing investigation to see where your money is. It’ll be a string around my finger. I gotta find Robert’s money. I promise I will do that for you.”
Britton played the part of calm, cool cop, trying to build rapport with the suspect, at a time when the department was under pressure to solve the murder of “one of their own,” as a Trenton cop testified to last week.
Britton solved the murder and also tracked down Bartley’s missing cash.
The taped interrogation, which was shown Tuesday for jurors in Raheem Currie’s murder conspiracy trial, happened hours after Bartley claimed he was beaten by police officers who kicked him in the mouth, his side and smashed his head into a parked police cruiser.
Inside the witness box, Bartley rested his head on his balled-up fist while listening to the taped statement.
Bartley stressed during his interview with detectives that he didn’t want them to believe he was a “cold-blooded animal” for shooting Austin.
Britton acknowledged he was friends with the retired cop, Luddie Austin. But he assured Bartley he didn’t believe he was a heartless person and that he would be treated fairly by police.
Britton said he believed the people who were involved in James Austin’s death were “good kids” and Austin had been gunned down after a “street fight went stupid.”
“He was your friend for 20 years,” Bartley said of Luddie Austin. “He has a dead son.”
Britton said cops learned “not to take things personally,” and that it would not benefit him to act like he wanted to “kill this mother—ker.”
“I would get amped up and die of a stroke while you’re still doing pushups in the yard,” Britton said.
After confessing to the murder, Bartley denied that his cousin, Currie, or anyone else, plotted to kill James Austin. He told cops he took matters into his own hands after Currie and James fought earlier that day, resulting in each man breaking car windows.
Bartley has now turned against his cousin and is cooperating with prosecutors as their star witness.
Jack Furlong, Currie’s attorney, questioned Bartley about differences between two statements he gave police.
The first statement he gave was Feb. 27, 2013, about 28 hours after the murder. He spoke to police a second time Sept. 3, 2014, a day before he formally accepted prosecutors’ plea in court.
The deal required him to provide “truthful testimony” against Currie, in exchange for Bartley pleading guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter and serving 25 years in prison. Prosecutors will dismiss conspiracy and weapons charges as part of the deal.
Bartley, who was on probation for an aggravated assault conviction at the time of the shooting, faced the possibility of life imprisonment if he was convicted of murder at trial.
Furlong went over Bartley’s responses to answers he provided when he pleaded guilty, pointing out circumstances that were not consistent with what witnesses have testified to at Currie’s trial.
“You were just trying to get it done,” Furlong said. “You wanted the deal didn’t you?”
Bartley was not shy about admitting his motivation in taking the deal. He also was pretty straightforward with detectives after initially claiming early on in the interrogation that he was not involved in Austin’s murder.
Britton told the then-22-year-old man that he had been identified and urged him to come clean.
The detective said Bartley was going to “take a hit” for Austin’s murder but said he would feel better if he didn’t wrap up others in a “spider web of shit they don’t need.”
“We actually have consciences,” Britton said, describing his police cohorts. “I would hate to see anybody in jail if they’re completely innocent. I would hate to see someone go to jail longer than they need to. Sometimes you just have to know, ‘I f–ed up.’ … Soften the hit rather than take a big hit. Don’t stick your chin out defiantly.”
A teary-eyed Bartley, breaking down several times throughout the interrogation, told detectives he understood “100 percent” and confessed to killing James Austin with a .32-caliber handgun he stashed at a friend’s home in Trenton.
“I hope you don’t think I went there with the intentions,” of killing him, Bartley said.
“I feel bad for everyone involved, including you,” Britton said. “I’m dumbfounded by this entire case. How old are you? You don’t look like a bad kid. I’ve gotten to meet some thugs, and I don’t get that vibe from you.”
Bartley admitted his role but told detectives several times that his cousin, two others who were in the car with him at the time of the shooting, and another friend whom he described as a “brother” were not involved in Austin’s killing.
Bartley urged detectives at the end of his interrogation to let his friend, Ryan Small, whom he described as being closer to than Currie, go free.
Small was picked up with Bartley and was in custody during Bartley’s interrogation.
Police raided Small’s home and found the handgun that Bartley used to kill Austin. It was stashed in a basement crawlspace, behind loose bricks, at Small’s parents’ home on the 100 block of Hanford Place.
During the first interview in February 2013, Bartley told detectives that he received a phone call from someone after the fight but didn’t say who was on the other end of the line.
A group including driver Brandon Hill, never charged with a crime, and Endia Kaver, Currie’s girlfriend, drove to pick up Bartley and returned to Austin’s home.
Bartley was at Small’s home drinking Jamaican rum and orange juice when he got a call from Currie, on Kaver’s phone.
Bartley testified that Currie asked him if he had his gun. He said that later he showed his gun to Currie and his girlfriend, who were both seated in the back of a silver Honda Civic that had its window bashed in.
Other witnesses did not mention hearing a conversation over the gun or seeing it when they took the stand last week.
Bartley said Kaver, who was never charged and testified last week, called her boyfriend a “p–y” prior to them driving back toward Austin’s home.
When they got there, Bartley said he knocked on the door of Austin’s East State Street home, demanded he pay for “his people’s” broken window and shot the retired cop’s son after Austin cursed out him and refused to pay.
At one point during his interrogation, Bartley asked police, “I’m the only one being charged with murder?”
Britton responded: “You had a carload of people. I’m trying to decide what to do. … Was it a plan? Was it a big conspiracy? Was it something that got out of hand? I don’t know.”
Bartley was initially unflinching about his cousin’s innocence.
“It wasn’t planned,” he said. “I’ll tell you that now. It wasn’t planned. I just knew his window was busted. He said he was fighting. I was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”
“I believe you,” Britton said.
Currie at first was charged with gun possession, for allegedly knowing Bartley was armed when they returned to Austin’s home. The charges were upgraded following further investigation.
During his cross examination, Bartley would not answer questions about where he got the gun, which he started carrying after he said he was stabbed in Trenton.
Bartley was also asked about the alleged police beatdown.
Furlong wanted to know why he did not mention it to Britton.
“I just took it on the chin,” Bartley said. “It was to be expected.”
Bartley asked the detective later in the interrogation if he could arrange for him to be placed into protective custody at the Mercer County jail.
He claimed on the stand that he was frightened because police officers made threats about what would happen to him in jail.