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Mike Mcalary's Redemption

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They may have thought themselves gods but they were terribly mortal, consumed by such earthly vanities as ego and ambition.

That's what drove the late Mike McAlary, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News columnist of two decades ago.

That's what drove William Bratton, the city's police commissioner when McAlary's shadow filled the NYPD landscape.

That's what also drove some of Bratton's top aides.

Bratton said last week he saw McAlary's career as bracketed by two rapes -- one of an unnamed 27-year-old Yale graduate in Prospect Park; the other of 30-year-old Abner Louima inside a police stationhouse bathroom.

McAlary authored both of them.

"He went way out on a limb in the rape case, and that limb got sawed off," said Bratton of the rape in Prospect Park. "That's why the Louima case was so important to him. It was in some respects vindication for one of the worst moments of his life."

Relying on an anonymous police source, McAlary wrote -- inaccurately -- that the Prospect Park rape had never occurred and that the victim had made the whole thing up.

His stories led to a public outcry against him and the police department and nearly upended his career.

Indeed, the News' editors became so wary of McAlary's reporting that when three years later he landed the scoop of the century -- the sodomizing of Abner Louima in the 70th precinct bathroom that led to his Pulitzer Prize -- the News refused to run the story until its then police bureau chief John Marzulli confirmed it.

Bratton spoke about McAlary last week while touting his own Broadway debut in Nora Ephron's play about McAlary, Lucky Guy, with Tom Hanks playing McAlary.

Bratton appears in a video he says he "re-created" -- whatever that means -- depicting two news conferences he held in 1994 in which he apologizes to the rape victim for McAlary's column.

Bratton then dropped something of a bombshell, stating that contrary to accepted wisdom in the lingering back story, it wasn't police spokesman John Miller who was McAlary's source.

Bratton hinted at the real source -- another high-level police official and Bratton appointee whom he did not identify.

"The play brought back memories of the incident," Bratton added, citing a dinner at a now closed Second Avenue restaurant that sounds like his favored hangout, Elaine's, which was attended by Miller, McAlary, his lawyer Ed Hayes, the writer Tom Wolfe, and Michael Daly another Daily News columnist.

McAlary's source, Bratton told the NY Post's Michael Riedel, "was also at the dinner that night. Without giving away the secret, I now think that's who it was. It all made sense to me. The mystery was solved 15 years later. I owe Miller a drink for blaming him all these years."

Why Bratton wanted to reprise this embarrassing incident is another mystery. Virtually everyone in New York City knows he is angling to return as police commissioner. Maybe he saw McAlary's story as a way to keep his name before the public. Maybe he wanted to do a favor for Miller, who followed Bratton to Los Angeles when he became police chief there, and get him off history's proverbial hook. Maybe he harbors a grudge against someone else.

If the play brought back memories of the Prospect Park incident for Bratton, the incident also reflected the coziness that existed between high-ranking police officials and the reporters covering them in Bratton's day. Specifically, it reflected how Bratton and his top aides used the media -- the Daily News in particular -- to craft their images and advance their careers.

Let's start with Miller, a singular figure who moves seamlessly between the worlds of journalism and law enforcement.

Now a senior correspondent for CBS, he is probably the country's most knowledgeable law enforcement reporter. [Check out his interview with Aurora, Col. Police Chief Danny Oates after that city's movie massacre last summer or his more recent coverage of the Newtown school shooting.]

While denying at the time that he was McAlary's source, Miller appeared to foster the opposite impression when at an off-the-record news briefing the day before McAlary's first story, he told reporters at Police Plaza that investigators doubted the rape victim's account.

"This was not my finest moment or best judgment," he said last week to this reporter.

Three years later in the rape victim's libel suit against McAlary, Miller acknowledged he had provided some information to McAlary, although he maintained he was not McAlary's primary source.

"This court can only speculate on the motives that would lead Mr. Miller and others to discuss police doubts about Ms. Doe's claim of rape with a reporter of Mr. McAlary's reputation at such an early point in the investigation," Justice Charles Ramos wrote in his decision, dismissing the libel suit and blaming the police for McAlary's inaccuracies.

O.K, so if Miller wasn't McAlary's source, who was?

Let's return to that dinner at Elaine's that Bratton says the source attended.

Could the source have been Bratton's sidekick, Jack Maple, a transit lieutenant who Bratton appointed a deputy commissioner? Maple, though, was in bed with News columnist Michael Daly, not McAlary. Daly made Maple into a front page legend as the man responsible for the city's dramatic drop in crime.

Or could the source have been John Timoney, who Bratton appointed chief of department over 16 senior officers?

Timoney has had a stellar police career. After leaving the NYPD, he headed police departments in Philadelphia and Miami, and nearly became the police chief in Los Angeles after he took a flyer and applied as a last-minute candidate. Instead, the job went to Bratton.

Timoney, though, had a near-fatal flaw. That flaw was McAlary.

When in 1996, Mayor Rudy Giuliani passed over Timoney as Bratton's successor and instead appointed Howad Safir, Timoney told McAlary in a moment of inebriated bitterness that Safir was a "lightweight." McAlary quoted him saying so in a column.

As a result, Giuliani ordered Timoney out of Police Plaza, then tried to demote him and reduce his pension.

At Bratton's farewell dinner a few months later, speaker after speaker denounced McAlary for placing Timoney in harm's way. Yet Timoney defended him.

McAlary continued to stalk Timoney. The hero of his first novel was a police inspector whose daughter is a heroin addict. Those who knew Timoney saw parallels that McAlary's novel revealed.

Could Timoney be the source Bratton hinted at? If so, was this McAlary's way of repaying him?

Could Bratton be piqued at Timoney for trying to take the LAPD job away from him?

Timoney, who now advises the government of Bahrain, did not return an email from this reporter.

With editing from Don Forst.