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Exclusive: Inside a Cop-Killer’s Final Hours

Detectives have painstakingly pieced together Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s path between arriving New York and his murder of two police officers—and what they found is chilling.

As he fled the murder scene, Ismaaiyl Brinsley left behind a clamshell-shaped Styrofoam food container that evidenced not a trace of food.

“Clean as a whistle,” says a senior investigator involved in the case.

But video snippets from Brinsley’s long trek on his way to killing two police officers show him carrying what is almost certainly the same container just as you would if it held something to eat.

“As if he didn’t want to tilt it,” the investigator says.

Or maybe as if what he really wanted was for everyone to believe there was food inside it as he walked at least 2.3 miles through the streets of Brooklyn.

And this led detectives to decide that the container, in fact, held the Taurus Silver automatic that Brinsley used to assassinate Officer Rafael Ramos and Officer Wenjian Liu.

“We believe the gun was in it the whole time,” the investigator says.

With that conclusion, the detectives added another piece to the puzzle of exactly where Brinsley went and what he did between stepping off a bus in Manhattan at mid-morning on Dec. 20 and striding up to a patrol car in Brooklyn just before 3 p.m.

The puzzle is now on its way to completion thanks to the untiring efforts of scores of detectives who take it as both a duty and a privilege to work this case.

“This is the highest honor a detective can have, investigating the murder of a fellow police officer,” the investigator says. “Whatever it takes, it’s an honor.”

The NYPD’s continuing goal is to establish every possible fact surrounding the killing of Ramos and Liu.

“I think we owe it to them,” the investigator says. “So much of this is not explained.”

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The investigator notes that Brinsley was clearly a disaffected individual with serious personal troubles and few real friends, an itinerant described by acquaintances as a “couch crasher” and an “apartment surfer.” He posted on Facebook about wanting to do something “right” and meaningful. But exactly how that translated to killing cops and those two particular cops may remain a mystery, leaving the Ramos and Liu families to wonder why.

“There’s a lot of unknown,” the investigator says. “We want to give the families and the other cops, too, as clear a picture as we can.”

The detectives learned early on that Brinsley had arrived by bus in Manhattan. They picked up video of him at West 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, then in the subway at West 42nd Street, walking in the tunnel from Eighth to Seventh Avenue. He there hopped a southbound Q train.

A surveillance camera at the Atlantic Terminal Mall in downtown Brooklyn clearly shows him not long afterward, carrying the Styrofoam container in his left hand while holding a cellphone to his ear with his right. The phone is apparently the one he took from his girlfriend after shooting her outside Baltimore and heading for New York. He had left behind his own phone, which contained video footage of him at a demonstration in Union Square in Manhattan, likely on Dec. 1.

The girlfriend’s phone would later be found stashed under the covering of a radiator inside a mall vestibule. Video shows that he also entered Applebee’s and a Buffalo Wild Wings at the Atlantic Terminal, but in both instances he left without sitting down to eat.

The challenge for the NYPD was to retrace Brinsley’s path between there and where he committed the murders. Detectives worked their way backward from the crime scene, interviewing hundreds of people and studying video after video after video along the possible routes.

“Bodegas, private residences, apartment buildings, you name it,” the investigator says. “Hit or miss. Then we start getting some hits.”

After a hit, they would adjust the search to the most likely route from there. Some of the video was crystal clear, but in other footage the figures were just fuzzy shadows in black and white. And the cameras on the busier streets would show hundreds of people going past.

“It’s literally a game of ‘Where’s Waldo?’” the investigator says.

The detectives were helped by Brinsley’s distinctive coat, olive green cloth with brown leather arms and a round patch with an arrowhead on the breast.

Altogether, the detectives spotted him in 30 videos. The detectives located and spoke to one person whom Brinsley had asked to help him upload something. The person had declined, but Brinsley had just accepted the refusal and continued on with his food container, walking neither fast nor slow, giving no sign of being disturbed or violent.

Along the way, Brinsley turned into a drug store, but it is not clear whether he bought anything. He stopped at one point to ask someone directions to a particular housing development. He seemed to get a little turned around on the way but managed to reach what might have been presumed to be his destination. He just walked around the periphery of the development and proceeded on.

During his trek, Brinsley twice passed within a block of a police stationhouse and he almost certainly saw cops along the way. But he kept going, from the Atlantic Terminal to Myrtle Avenue, east along there, then briefly up to Park Avenue, then back to Myrtle. He had posted a video of himself more than a year before praying at the Al-Taqwa mosque, but that is up on Fulton Street, apparently away from his route on Dec. 20. He continued to hold that food container as if it contained food, giving no sign of being capable of doing what he was about to do.

“That kind of is what’s most disturbing about this,” the investigator says. “It would almost be less disturbing if he was showing some kind of sign he was a homicidal maniac.”

He appears only normal, even in video footage from just two minutes before the shooting. Myrtle Avenue had taken him to Tompkins Avenue, and he stopped to speak to two men who would later tell police that he inquired about their gang affiliation, asking if they were “blue or red.” They said they were neither. He urged them to check out his Instagram account. He then told them to watch what he did next.

Yet another video catches the sounds of the gunshots and shows Brinsley standing by the parked radio car.

After walking block after block holding that container, he had suddenly discarded it and was now clutching a gun.

Other footage shows him fleeing, keeping to a quick walk, jogging briefly, then walking again as he heads for a subway station.

He shot himself there, ending his life and likely any chance of police determining why he chose to target Ramos and Liu rather than cops he likely saw earlier at the Atlantic Terminal and in the street.

But the families of the murdered officers will know that the NYPD will have done everything humanly possible to establish whatever is knowable. The detectives are still at it, seeking to account for a period of time when Brinsley may well have paused to sit somewhere.

They had hoped the autopsy would show Brinsley had eaten something that would point them in the right direction. Pizza would have narrowed it down, though anything that suggested a deli would have left them with many more possibilities to check out.

“Turkey sandwich, you’re out of luck,” the investigator says.

But the medical examiner reported that Brinsley had eaten nothing at all. The detectives and the rest of the NYPD are pressing on, feeling honored to be doing it, their efforts a tribute to the fallen comrades who no doubt would have done the very same for them.

Call it an act of love.