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Saturday, February 6, 2016

The False Arrest of Arkady Flom

Much of the information for this post was taken from of a story appearing in the July, 1991 issue of The Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Flom's case was widely reported in newspapers around the country.

     Flom was one of a million chess players that was unknown to the chess world, but he sounds like an interesting guy. Not a lot is known about him other than his fleeting moment of dubious fame when he got arrested in New York City in back 1988. 
     A native of Kiev, Flom had earned a degree in veterinary medicine in 1955 and enjoyed a comfortable life by Soviet standards, but as a Jew, he was increasingly dismayed over religious discrimination. For Flom, the straw that broke the camel's back was when his son was kept off the fencing team. He suffered a heart attack in 1979 and the Soviet authorities finally allowed him to leave for the United States. 
     He arrived in Brooklyn, New York and when his health didn't improve and his marriage broke up, he turned more and more to chess. Several days a week he would make the one hour subway ride from his home in Brooklyn to 42nd Street in Manhattan where chess players gathered on the sidewalk near the New York Public Library. Some enterprising individual rented sets, tables and chairs for them to use and the players typically wagered a few dollars on the games. 
     Around noon on Monday, August 16, 1988 Flom was sitting at a table waiting for a game when a young man, apparently a construction worker on his lunch break, sat down and asked if he wanted to play. Flom said he did and he usually played for two dollars. It was obvious to Flom that his opponent was a beginner because he won easily and so Flom proposed a second game. Only this time the guy was to pay Flom a dollar for a lesson and Flom would show him where he was making mistakes. The man turned out to be an undercover cop. He gave Flom the money then an undercover female officer hung a badge around her neck and bravely emerged from the crowd to handcuff Flom. 
     As other players and passersby looked on in amazement, the 67-year-old Flom was arrested for gambling and hauled off to the police station. There he was fingerprinted, photographed and charged with promoting gambling and possession of gambling equipment...a chessboard and pieces.
     Flom was advised that he could make a single phone call and the only person he knew to call was an elderly neighbor whom he asked to call his sons who lived out of state. Apparently, the woman, who spoke Russian, did not fully understand or didn't care because his sons never got the message.
     Flom was then taken from the police station to jail to await arraignment. There he was ordered to remove his shoelaces and belt and empty his pockets. He was also forced to give them his heart medication which he took three times a day. Flom, who had never been in trouble before, protested that he was sick and advised the police that he suffered from a heart condition. 
     No matter. He was put in a filthy, stinking cell with about 60 other men and there was no place for him to even sit down. Eventually, Flom and about a dozen others were chained together and taken by van to another jail. They arrived shortly after midnight and Flom, who had been suffering through his ordeal for 12 hours, was beginning to have chest pains. A medical person examined him and gave him back his pills then sent him to Beekman Hospital; he was having a heart attack.
     At the Beekman emergency room he was only given pain medicine and allowed to lie down for several hours before he was returned to the first jail he had been in. From there, he was transported back to the second jail. Assigned to a cell with one other prisoner, he was given a cheese sandwich and coffee, but not feeling like eating, he gave them to his cell mate. There was only one bed which Flom offered to his cell mate, choosing to spend the night sitting up. 
     The next morning he was taken to a holding cell where he spent several hours before being taken into the courtroom.   It was a confusing scene for Flom what with men in suits, obvious criminals, prostitutes and other assorted folks all over the place, including some sleeping on benches. Flom was represented by a public defender named Michael Butchen. 
     Butchen told the judge, Herbert Adlerberg, that he didn't think Flom was guilty of gambling. It was a chess game, not a three-card monte scam and the whole affair was ridiculous. Butchen also informed the judge that Flom had never been in trouble before and all he did was offer a cop a chess lesson. The judge asked the prosecutor, a woman name Deborah Steiger, how what Flom did constituted gambling because he (the judge) didn't see it. Steiger agreed and asked the charges to be dismissed.
     Flom told them, “I am a sick man. I got two heart attacks. I told them and now...they arrested me. I am not a gambler. I play chess 40 years. I never was a gambler. They put my case now. What does that mean?” The judge advised him to talk to his lawyer, as if he had one. However, a month later Flom did have a lawyer, Charles Krupin who often represented Russian speaking clients, and he sued the city for a million dollars for wrongful arrest
     The question was, why did a city that averaged seven murders a day and lead the nation in armed robberies even bother with a guy like Flom?  One officer testified they did it because they had received an anonymous phone call informing then that there was illegal activity going on at that location. The director of the neighborhood planning board testified that while they had a few complaints, most people didn't object to the chess players and they were never a big problem.  Besides, 87 years before Flom's arrest New York courts had determined that Flom wasn't gambling because chess is not a game of chance. Flom did not play chess any more after his arrest and his heart condition continued to worsen. 
     Flom never collected on his lawsuit though because he died before the case was settled out of court. Five years after filing the lawsuit, in 1993, it was settled for $100,000. His relatives share, after legal fees, came to $66,000.