Interview: The New “Empire On Blood” Podcast Is “Serial” On Crack

Cal Buari [Courtesy Panopoly]

During the early nineties, drug dealer Calvin “Cal” Buari ruled an intersection in the Bronx that the media dubbed “The Bloody Corner.”

Buari’s story is the subject of Panoply’s Empire On Blood, a new podcast that is basically Serial on crack: It has drugs, an ultra-violent double murder, and an incarcerated man who claims that he’s been wrongfully convicted.

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Back then, Cal seemed to be one of the most dangerous and flamboyant crack dealers in all the five boroughs, ruining neighborhoods while wearing mink,” journalist Steve Fishman says at the beginning of episode one.

In September 1992, Buari’s world came crashing down after drug dealers Elijah and Salhaddin Harris were shot dead in their car. Buari was charged with the murders. He insisted that he was innocent — but after most of his crew turned against him in court, he was sentenced to life in prison.

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Steve Fishman, a New York magazine contributing editor who interviewed scammer Bernie Madoff for his previous true-crime podcast Ponzi Supernova, has spent seven years following Buari’s fight to get his sentence overturned.

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Fishman told CrimeFeed about the first time he got a call from Buari:

There is this thing in Cal’s voice, this combination of desperation and helplessness, that comes through, and I suddenly find myself imagining that this guy has been in prison for 15 years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Fishman said.

Fishman said he became fascinated by the idea of “this guy running a campaign from a prison payphone.” He struck up an unlikely friendship with Buari. “The entire system was indifferent at best and really fighting him every step of the way. This is like Kafka,” Fishman said.

Steve Fishman in the studio [Courtesy of Panopoly]

But when Fishman tried to pitch Buari’s story to his editors, his subject’s criminal past made him a tough sell. “Cal is no angel. He brought crack to the Bronx. When I asked him if he should be in prison, he said, ‘Yeah, put me in prison for what I did, not for something you made up,'” Fishman told CrimeFeed.

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The case took over 20 years to unravel, and Fishman followed the multiple twists and turns in the story. They involved both the witnesses who allegedly lied to put Buari in prison, and the detectives and prosecutors who seemed determined to keep him there.

Along the way, he discovered that the prosecution’s star witness, Dwight Robinson — who was also Buari’s former best friend — confessed to the murders (though he later recanted).

I asked [Cal] if he was surprised, and he said, ‘That’s how the game is played,'” Fishman said.

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Fishman stressed that he does not believe that the detectives and prosecutors “set out to frame people,” but believes that their attitudes were partly a reflection of the era. “The attitude that was acceptable in the nineties was: ‘If he didn’t do this one, he did another. He’s a kingpin, and he’s got to go,'” Fishman said.

Back then, the Giuliani administration’s “broken windows” policing was making headlines. But today, Fishman says, activists and the Black Lives Matter movement have put the idea into the public consciousness that discourages prosecutors “to seek conviction over justice.”

Over the years, Fishman said Buari never stopped fighting to get out of prison. He finally got a break when a woman who lived in the building at the time of the murder came home for a family reunion and saw a poster put up by one of Buari’s supporters.

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Fishman became the first person to interview this eyewitness when he took a trip to North Carolina to meet her and her sister. In the podcast, he reveals what she told him that changed everything he believed about the murder.

He also covers the heart-stopping moment on May 5, 2017, when a judge announced that Buari’s sentence had been vacated. The following Monday, Buari walked out of prison in New York Hudson’s Valley, a free man.

It’s a beautiful thing,” Buari told friends and family members who had gathered to celebrate his release. “It’s still a continuous fight, but it’s so much better on the other side of the wall.”

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After his release, Buari relocated to Florida, where he is currently running a van service that he described as “the Uber of the prison service system.

The prosecution said that they were planning a retrial, but on March 21, 2018, the prosecution dismissed all charges against Buari.

Fishman said he still keeps in touch with Buari and said that Buari is putting the same “entrepreneurial skills” that worked for him on the streets and inside prison to good use. He said: “I believe that Cal is rehabilitated.”

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Read more:
Empire on Blood 

Mother Jones 

Buzzfeed 

Main photo: Cal Buari [Courtesy Panopoly]