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Man acquitted in 1987 shooting death of cop

After deliberating for nearly two days, a jury acquitted a 35-year-old convicted drug dealer who had confessed on videotape to murdering an off-duty New York City police officer in 1987, when the officer happened upon a car theft outside his home in Flushing.

Shortly after 6:15 p.m. Friday, the jury of six men and six women filed into the courtroom in State Supreme Court in Kew Gardens and the forewoman read the verdict.

Henry Vega, who is currently serving a prison sentence of 92 years to life for selling cocaine to undercover police officers, was found not guilty on charges of second-degree murder in the death of Officer George Scheu, first-degree attempted robbery and criminal possession of a weapon.

As the verdict was read, the officer''s widow, Linda Scheu, turned increasingly ashen-faced, resting her left elbow on the arm of a courtroom bench and propping up her head with her hand. After Justice Randall Eng dismissed the jury, she quickly left with her daughter, Tracy, 25, and a detective, escorted by three court officers. She declined to speak with reporters.

Daniel Saunders, an assistant Queens district attorney, offered little comment other than to say that he was both surprised by and disappointed with the verdict. But Jonathan Latimer, Vega''s attorney, said the verdict underscored the defense contention that his client''s confession was coerced. He also said that Vega expressed words of sympathy for the Scheus.

Vega is next expected to stand trial this fall in connection with the 1996 shooting death and robbery of a man in Kissena Park in Flushing. The victim, Joseph Hill, was returning from a bar in Forest Hills after winning a Super Bowl pool. He was later found dead in the park, shot three times and robbed, the Queens district attorney said.

In Vega''s murder trial, the prosecution''s case revolved largely around the testimony of an undercover city police officer, the professed owner of a nightclub set up by police in Flushing to investigate Vega, a known drug peddler.

Between December 1998 and May 1999, Vega visited the club on Booth Memorial Avenue on nearly a half-dozen occasions, offering the owner Charlie everything from a watch to a beeper to a contract hit on an associate of his, according to testimony from the officer.

But what Vega did not know was that his encounters with Charlie Scadero, an officer who played the role of a gangster, and the other club patrons, who were also undercover officers, were secretly being recorded. On a videotape dated March 4, Vega admitted to shooting Scheu with a pen gun outside his home in Flushing after the officer stumbled upon him breaking into a red Mercedes-Benz.

Almost two months later, Vega was scheduled to carry out a contract killing in Queens, Scadero had testified. But on that day, the police picked up Vega and took him to a station house in South Jamaica, where they played an hour and a half of videotapes of him in the nightclub, Charlie''s Barbershop.

After 12 hours at the station house, Vega submitted to a videotaped interview with Saunders in which he admitted fatally shooting Scheu. But Latimer contended that Vega was merely bragging to Charlie and his associates in an effort to ingratiate himself with gangsters who he believed were tied to the mob.

There were inconsistencies about the purported confession. In conversations with the owner of the club, for instance, Vega maintained that he still had possession of the gun when in fact the police had recovered it at the time of the shooting, the undercover officer said.

In the videotaped confession, Vega said Scheu was standing in front of him when he was shot. According to Latimer, who spoke with jury members afterwards, the crime scene photographs demonstrated that the shooter would have had to fire at Scheu from behind, one of several discrepancies that shifted guilt away from Vega.

"But they also had problems with a lot of inconsistencies in what they felt was a coerced statement," the defense attorney said.

The jury, which began deliberations last Thursday and had been sequestered for one night, refused to discuss the verdict with reporters. Robert Hill, the brother of the Kissena Park murder victim, Joseph Hill, said he was bewildered by the verdict and believed the jury gave discrepancies in Vega''s confessions too much consideration in reaching their decision.

"How much more can they shore up a case than this one?" Hill said. "This was probably the strongest case of the three. You couldn''t ask for more than a confession."

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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