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A Brooklyn man who was acquitted in the gruesome 1997 killing of a Bronx teacher was indicted last week for allegedly operating a gun-trafficking ring.
In 1997, Hart stood trial for the murder of Jonathan Levin, who was tortured, stabbed, and shot during a robbery at his Manhattan apartment. Hart, along with Cory Arthur, a former student of the slain teacher, were accused of killing Levin over a bank debit card.
The pair were accused of duct-taping Levin to a chair, stabbing and shooting him, before snatching his debit card and withdrawing $800 from a nearby ATM. They allegedly used a vacuum cleaner to drown out the teacher’s screams.
Hart was acquitted after his confession was deemed unreliable, according to the New York Times. Jurors concluded he appeared “drunk, high or both” when he signed a police confession under questioning. The then 27-year-old admitted he had consumed alcohol and used marijuana before being interrogated. Detectives insisted Hart was sober, but ultimately, the jury ruled in Hart’s favor after viewing photographs of him from the night he confessed and threw out the confession.
Meanwhile, his co-defendant Arthur was dealt a 25-year-to-life prison sentence for Levin’s murder. He’s currently incarcerated at an upstate New York correctional facility.
In the years since, Hart has maintained his innocence.
“I’m sorry ma’am, for your son,” he told Carol Levin following the trial, the Daily News reported. “But I did not do this crime. I swear to God.”
News of Hart’s recent indictment was welcomed by Levin’s family, who remain convinced he played a central role in Levin’s death.
“Oh, he was involved,” Jonathan Levin’s mother Carol Levin told the Daily News. “I’m glad he’s arrested. Maybe this time it’ll stick.”
Hart has racked up multiple arrests in recent decades, an NYPD spokesperson told Oxygen.com. Between 1999 and 2004, he was booked on a number of drug charges. Two years after his acquittal, Hart was also charged with the willful defacement of a loaded firearm.
He and his co-defendants now face several new charges, including multiple counts of first-, second-, and third-degree criminal sale of a firearm, second- and third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, and fourth-degree conspiracy.
Hart is accused of working with three separate gun suppliers in New York, South Carolina and Virginia to funnel more than $30,000 of firearms via the so-called “Iron Pipeline” onto the streets of Brooklyn, according to an indictment obtained by Oxygen.com.
Three other men — Vernal Douglas, 49, Christopher Hodges, 31, and Ira Jones, 42 — who allegedly smuggled the firearms across state lines to Hart were also indicted, prosecutors said.
The weapons were allegedly mailed and driven across state lines. Hodges, for example, regularly rode a Chinatown Bus from South Carolina to New York to deliver the guns to Hart, according to officials.
In a series of text messages, Hart and his suspected suppliers allegedly used code words such as "jump off," "pole," "nine," "deuce-deuce," "six shot," "joint," and "slices" to refer to trafficked firearms, ammunition and feeding devices, according to the indictment.
“I got your James Bond joint,” Hodges allegedly told Hart via cell phone on Feb. 25.
Appearing to list his current inventory, Hart responded to his alleged connection in South Carolina: “So we got the ... box trey eight, the James Bond, the MP, the deuce deuce ... black with pearl handle,” according to the indictment.
Hart, who was also wiretapped by detectives, sold undercover officers 44 firearms — primarily handguns — between October 2019 and October 2020, the indictment states. He allegedly flipped the guns “within a block” of his Brownsville home. Investigators also seized two assault rifles, a German hunting rifle, and eight pistols.
Hart’s arrest comes as local authorities are working to curb a “sharp” rise in gun violence in the city in recent months.
“This indictment is part of our multi-pronged approach to stem the surge in gun violence that we have seen in Brooklyn and throughout the entire city this year,” District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said in a statement.
Hart and Douglas, who works as an MTA subway conductor, have since been arraigned in Brooklyn Supreme Court. Jones is awaiting extradition from Virginia, prosecutors said. Hodges, of Walterboro, South Carolina, is still at large.
Some of Hart’s relatives said they were surprised to learn he’d been indicted on weapons charges.
“[He’s] definitely a good friend,” Hart’s cousin, who didn’t provide his name, told the Daily News. [He’s] a good person. This is shocking all the way.”
The murder of Levin, the son of millionaire media mogul Gerald Levin, the now-retired former Time-Warner CEO, sent shockwaves through New York.
“They really tortured this poor guy just for money, just for a debit card,” Joseph Giacalone, retired New York City Police sergeant and Bronx cold-case detective told Oxygen.com. “All that for a little money is unconscionable.”
Levin, 31, taught at William Howard Taft High School in the South Bronx — one of the poorest zip codes in the state. In 2002, the Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications was opened on the school's campus. It was declared a "living tribute” to the English teacher’s “spirit," by the city's Education Department, according to the New York Times.
Jonathan Figuera, 25, who graduated from Jonathan Levin High School For Media and Communications in 2016, remembered learning what happened to the beloved Bronx teacher as a teenager.
“‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” he recalled after learning of Levin’s murder. “People are messed up in the head.”
The Bronx restaurant worker was also caught off guard by the recent gun trafficking charges involving Hart.
“That’s a little shocking” Figuera told Oxygen.com upon learning the news of Hart’s arrest. “[He] should’ve stayed in jail.”
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