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Calvin Buari was a powerful crack dealer in the Bronx. His street corner was known as “the corner on blood.” He flaunted his success with matching mink coats and hats. Then his friend and protege accused him of a double homicide. Buari was locked up for 22 years, all the while struggling to keep his case alive with a prison pay phone campaign.
When Calvin Buari called Steve Fishman seven years ago, he probably didn’t anticipate what would happen: his search for justice would be chronicled as a podcast. And in a completely unexpected turn of events, his case would be dismissed days before the podcast premiered.
Steve Fishman has devoted seven years of his life investigating the one murder story that would become Panoply’s fresh new podcast “Empire on Blood.” It debuts today and is possibly the second podcast to ever drop all episodes at once. “So you can have the whole story at once — like a book,” said lead producer Mia Lobel. Binge-ready, in other words.
“Empire on Blood” didn’t start out as a podcast.
“It was supposed to be a magazine story,” said Fishman, a career magazine writer who most recently spent the last decade as a staff writer for New York Magazine. Fishman pitched the story of a double homicide Buari claimed he didn’t commit. He was rejected five times.
“As a proposition, the story didn’t add up. The central character is an admitted drug dealer who helped bring crack to the Bronx in the early ‘90s,” said Fishman. “Panoply took a different view — that Cal is no angel didn’t close him out. He’s complicated; the moral universe is complicated.”
“This is a story about Calvin Buari’s journey through the criminal justice system,” said Lobel. “Social — criminal justice — is at the heart of ‘Empire on Blood.’”
“Cal’s flawed character made the story more interesting,” said Fishman of Panoply’s interest. “In part, Empire on Blood is about a series of people with good intentions whose good intentions don’t produce good results.”
“Empire on Blood” is a podcast that doesn’t necessarily takes sides — but it introduces you to all of them. The listener finds themself sympathizing with various characters in the story, at one point or another: the cops, the detective, even the person who allegedly framed Buari.
(Spoiler: Buari didn’t do it. But the DA’s dismissal of the case should have told you that.)
“We wanted that. ‘Empire on Blood’ is a true crime story — even a bit of a whodunit, but it’s really character-driven,” said Fishman, of the characters who are “never pure.” “They’re complicated. And that gives ‘Empire on Blood’ a richness.”
Fishman jokingly refers to how he “defected” to audio from his long career in print. His first podcast was “Ponzi Supernova,” an “electrifying” six-part series on Bernie Madoff’s $65 billion scheme.
“Audio was a revelation,” said Fishman of the burgeoning storytelling form. “It’s a really warm medium. It’s intimate, it’s loving. You can hear so many things in a tone of voice.” You can hear the relationships develop.
Calvin Buari is determined and tough, Fishman tells us. He can do 100 push-ups without a break. He hits rock bottom and then finds a legendary 85-year-old lawyer who takes on his case as his last case, leaving his hospital bed. But — without giving too much away — the lawyer could not continue the case, and Fishman had to tell him the terrible news.
“I’d never heard Cal cry. I didn’t know what to say. And you can hear all this. It’s happening in real time. Every time I hear that conversation I get emotional,” he said.
How does he feel about the story finally coming out? Nervous, but excited.
“I’m partly dreading to know how these characters — my friends, really — will think, and how they’ll be received by listeners,” said Fishman. “But I’m thrilled too. It’s great to have it alive in the world. And to have Cal alive, in the world.”
Buari was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, but Bronx Supreme Court Justice Eugene Oliver overturned his conviction last year, ordering a new trial.
“Each of these witnesses testified with sincerity, and remorse, at what they perceived to be a miscarriage of justice,” wrote the Justice about witnesses who came forward in recent years.
The Bronx district attorney’s office, which first initially pledged to appeal and retry, finally capitulated last Wednesday, March 21. The DA spokeswoman Patrice O’Shaughnessy said prosecutors determined that they would be “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.”
“I was there when Cal walked out of prison, the first time he’d ever seen the prison walls without shackles in two decades,” said Fishman of Buari’s release after 22 years of incarceration. Buari, he said, was close to an anxiety attack. “He was subdued, still taking it in. I tried to get him to celebrate it… but the idea of crowds worried him.”
Buari has started a business transporting family and friends of incarcerated people to the prison for visits.
“Cal is gifted with entrepreneurial energy, the same energy that had gotten him in trouble as a drug dealer,” said Fishman of Buari’s adjustment, who also indicated that intimacy, even with his girlfriend, was difficult for Buari, who had sequestered himself in prison. Buari took all of his meals in his cell, and wouldn’t leave — the other inmates were too dangerous.
“Once he walked free, it was hard to be free. That was shocking to me.” Buari was homeless for a time. “He lived in the back of the van he used to transport families to see inmates.”
Fishman’s journey creating “Empire on Blood” sounds complicated and urgent. So is the podcast.
Fishman arrived at Panoply with over 100 hours of tape — and that was not quite enough for expert storytellers Mia Lobel, Julia Barton and Emile Klein. They took a lot of raw material and turned it into “a dramatic, breathing, forceful narrative.”
Julia Barton, story editor for “Empire on Blood,” worked with Lobel before on the widely-acclaimed Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell.
“‘Empire on Blood’ is a story with a lot of strong personalities woven together in an almost operatic fashion,” said Barton on how the complex story was framed. And if you think the introduction sounds dramatic, don’t worry — the series only builds from there. “We saved some of the most intense material for the end.” And Steve Fishman’s role as host and reporter? “He becomes a character — someone who’s a bit salty, but also very empathetic and knowledgeable.”
“Empire on Blood” is as thrilling as any other true crime podcast, yes — but it is fueled by a need for justice.
“I hope it turns out to be a real crossover podcast,” said the editor. “Steve gathered all the elements of a thriller, but there was also room to explore the social, racial and political implications of this one man’s story.”
“Empire on Blood” is equal parts the story of drugs and murder in New York, and Calvin Buari’s journey for justice. And it’s just perfect that justice was served days before the release of this podcast seven years in the making.
You can finally listen to “Empire on Blood” — every single episode — today, on your commute back home.
(Header image c/o Calvin Buari, body image c/o Steve Fishman)