POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Apr 13, 2014
NEW YORK » The night the police came for Robert Aaron, he was at home in the Mott Street apartment where he has lived for the last quarter century, making a coconut pudding called tembleque. Aaron, whose legal name is Robert Aaron Vineberg, is a 57-year-old musician who has played with David Bowie, Wyclef Jean, Mick Jagger and Amy Winehouse, among others, a genial man with a pencil-thin mustache and a grasp of half a dozen languages. He is also a heroin addict who has sometimes sold the drug. On this night, Aaron said, his visitors did not ring the bell.
"They knocked down the door," he said, speaking in a grainy voice that matched his ruffled gray hair. "It was a no-knock warrant. They didn't say very much."
It was Feb. 4, two nights after the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead with a needle sticking out of his arm, and the police were acting on a tip that Aaron might have once sold heroin to the actor, according to a police official.
As the police jammed his apartment building's narrow hallways, Aaron said he led them to what they were looking for: 296 glassine bags of heroin, with a street value of close to $3,000.
"And then they called the press," he said.
Aaron, who had stayed largely in the background as a musician, was suddenly a national news figure, at the intersection of criminal justice, celebrity and the media. In the blur of instant news reports, he was presented as the man who sold deadly heroin to the beloved, Oscar-winning actor - a small-time user elevated to the big time.
For three decades he had been the type of addict who flew under police radar. With Hoffman's death, that came to an end.
At a Little Italy cafe near his apartment in March, Aaron took stock of what he had gone through. He was newly returned to his home from jail and a residential detox program, and he spoke to a reporter against the advice of his lawyer.
Since the night of his arrest, when a police official told reporters that an informer said he had seen Hoffman in Aaron's apartment sometime "in the past," the Police Department appears to have moved away from the Hoffman angle. The police and the district attorney's office both declined to answer questions about the tipster or the tip; when Aaron was formally charged - with possession of heroin with intent to sell - the indictment made no mention of Hoffman.
Aaron does not profess total innocence. Though he denies selling drugs to Hoffman, whom he described as a friend, he admits to possessing heroin and intending to sell some of it. Like many addicts, he said, he sold in small volumes to friends to support his own drug habit.
"I was my own best customer," he said. "I always say, a monkey can't sell bananas."
Instead, Aaron and his friends portrayed him as a victim of Hoffman's celebrity and death, his life uprooted by the media pressure for punishment.
He had spent more than two weeks at Rikers Island, sleepless and sick from drug withdrawal, then hid out at a hotel to escape reporters. At least one commentator - "that great legal mind, Danny Bonaduce," Aaron said - had suggested that he be prosecuted for Hoffman's murder. His apartment, where he lives with his longtime girlfriend, was sealed as a crime scene for nearly a month. He faces three felony charges, the most serious carrying prison time of up to 25 years, followed by possible deportation (he came to the United States legally from Canada as a teenager).
"At some level it's like the Salem witch trials," he said. "You can't have a witch hunt without a witch. I'm just unlucky enough to be the guy. You gotta have a human sacrifice, and that's what I am."
Robert Vineberg grew up in Montreal, a restless child with a piano-teacher father who discouraged him from pursuing a career in music. Robert didn't stick around long. He ran to New York as a teenager to record demos with his band and liked it enough to stay.
It was the late 1970s, when the city was bursting with new music. Experimental jazz, punk rock, hip-hop and salsa were all coming into their own. He wanted it all. He shed his surname and began busking in Latin bands in Times Square, taking home $150 on a good night.
It was also a period when heroin was cheap and readily accessible in New York, especially downtown. Aaron doesn't remember how or when he first tried the drug, but said it was easy to find then.
"We called it the golden age of dope on the Lower East Side," he said. "But the whole city was like that."
Aaron is matter-of-fact about heroin, dismissing the drug's deadly reputation.
"Some people die of an overdose of car crashes," he said.
Although he knew the stories of renowned musicians like Charlie Parker or Chet Baker who used heroin, he said he was never drawn to it for the romance.
"It's more like the thing itself," he said. "Honestly, I don't think anybody I know romanticized it as much as they liked it. It's got good qualities."
He hesitated, not wanting to be a promoter for dope, he said.
"A lot of times you have a deadline and you have to work for 24 hours. This lets you do it with no pain, no tiredness," he went on. "If I have to write a book, get me high - I'll have the book written in two weeks. You're lucid. And emotions don't affect you as much - your anger - it bottles up your feelings. It makes you more rational, or you think you are, anyway. You sleep wonderfully. I'm a lifelong insomniac."
He added, "Everything has its good points and bad points. The bad point is the dependence."
He restricted his heroin use to snorting, he said, because even among musicians, track marks carried a stigma.
As a musician, Aaron had ears for the whole city. The writer Glenn O'Brien, who lived in the same building on Mott Street, remembered Aaron working as an arranger for Haitian bands. Duke Guillaume, a saxophonist, played with him in jazz gospel ensembles. Karon Bihari sang standards and torch songs to his accompaniment. He played saxophone on David Bowie's "Modern Love" and toured the world playing keyboards for the rapper Wyclef Jean.
Aaron played flute, saxophone, clarinet and piano, then taught himself guitar, trumpet, bassoon, French horn and other instruments. And he picked up a working knowledge of Spanish, Creole, Cantonese, Wolof and Urdu, besides his native French and English.
"He was always evolving," said Eric Andersen, 71, a veteran folk singer who recruited Aaron to produce and play on several albums. "He is telepathic as a musician. He was completely dedicated and loyal to the job. Absolutely dedicated. He lived for his art. He personifies a cool that transcends the hot temperaments."
If drugs were a part of his evolution, they were not the center. For concert tours and a 3-year residence in Paris, he said, he stopped using heroin without much difficulty. James Chance brought Aaron into his punk-funk band James White and the Blacks in 1981 and has worked with him ever since, taking him on tours of Europe and Japan. In all that time, he said, Aaron's drug use never interfered with his playing.
"Not at all," Chance said. "He's always been a total professional. Robert's like the most versatile musician I've ever worked with."
Like other friends interviewed for this article, Chance spoke protectively of Aaron, whom he called "a real gentleman."
"There's a whole image that people get from the media about people who use narcotics, that they're completely crazy and unreliable," Chance said. "That's not necessarily true. There's a lot of people who are totally functional, and you would never know that they used anything. And Robert is one of them."
Hoffman's death brought new attention to heroin use in New York. After years of steady decline, heroin-related deaths in New York jumped between 2010 and 2012, the most recent year for which the health department has compiled statistics, to 382 from 209.
The amount of heroin seized in the city by authorities is also up. But even with the rise in fatalities, the rate of heroin-related deaths remained lower than it was for most of the previous decade, and other measures - visits to emergency rooms or self-reported use in the last year - remained well below mid-decade highs.
In recent years, New York has shifted its policy toward addicts who commit nonviolent crimes to support their habits. In 2009, the state Legislature granted judges the authority to divert addicts from criminal court to supervised drug programs. Though diversion has strong support, it remains relatively rare. In 2012, only 49 out of 5,806 people charged in Manhattan with drug felony crimes were diverted and dismissed.
But for Aaron, who had never been arrested before, judicial diversion was his first, best hope to avoid prison.
At a Midtown recording studio in mid-March, as he waited for a ruling on his petition to have his case diverted, Aaron said he felt as though he were living under a sword of Damocles. He was out on $200,000 bail - $50,000 higher than the district attorney had requested. At his bail hearing, Justice Edward J. McLaughlin, of state Supreme Court in Manhattan, characterized Aaron as having an "incessant, uncontrolled heroin addiction and no source of income."
In the studio, Aaron was doing his best to disprove the latter remark.
He looked tired and pale, slouching in a baggy black velour track suit with red piping. He was limping around the studio on a bad knee. His T-shirt read: "I don't suffer from insanity. I enjoy every minute of it." He had been up late the night before, he said, at a recording session for Peter Gabriel, and then had gone to group therapy for his addiction in the morning.
"You can see I'm tired," he said. "These people have the power to shut my whole life down, and they don't know anything about me. I think I'm doing pretty good under the circumstances."
The song for the day was a tango that the studio's co-owner, the Grammy-winning producer Jerry Duplessis, known as Wonda, intended to pitch to Aretha Franklin. Aaron's assignment was to add a one-man horn section and then some.
Beginning with a bass clarinet, he worked his way through his instruments, orchestrating on the fly. Tenor, alto and soprano saxophone lines countered the clarinet; melodica added an air of plaintive melancholy; piccolo darted over the fray.
He worked quickly, pausing between takes to smoke a cigarette and pick at a lingering grievance. "People say I don't work," he said. "I work all the time."
Friends of Aaron said that in recent years, as the music industry has declined, he has turned to selling drugs to make up for the lost income. Aaron disputed this.
"It's more traditional," he said of his reasons. "I have kids and grandchildren. I help support them. I have a drug habit. We have computers and Kindles, we go out to eat. So you try to make a little extra money and support your habit."
None of this made him a drug dealer, he said, drawing a distinction that seemed to mean a lot to him. "I wasn't the guy you could call up if you didn't know me," he said.
He added: "If some drugs got sold, it was to friends. It's better than people having to go out on the streets to look for something. You have a little extra, you sell it. It doesn't make you a drug dealer. It makes you an addict with friends.
"I didn't pay my rent from it. It was mostly a way to keep myself from having to spend everything I made on that."
Sometime last year, he met Hoffman through mutual friends. They were kindred spirits, he said, both private people. He avoided questions about whether the two used drugs together. But he said they talked and exchanged text messages about their addictions, with Hoffman urging Aaron to try Suboxone, a controversial prescription painkiller used to treat heroin addiction. The messages ended last fall, when the two men fell out of touch, Aaron said. Then, at the beginning of February, Hoffman died of an overdose of multiple drugs.
On March 26, McLaughlin denied Aaron's request for diversion to a drug-treatment program; Aaron said he planned to appeal. The judge's decision is sealed, as are the district attorney's papers opposing diversion.
Aaron remains convinced that he is being prosecuted only because of his association with Hoffman. As March turned to April, he talked more often about feeling "stressed" about his case and his legal bills. But he also managed to play a couple of local shows, one with Chance.
About Hoffman, he said: "People make choices in life, and they should be allowed to do whatever they want. And if that's his choice, I'm really sad but I respect his choice. He was an adult. He'd been doing it a while, he knew what he was up against. Nobody killed him. If you're looking for the person who killed him, you know who it was. Him. Nobody else. It's really sad, though. And more horrible is the way he's portrayed in death. Who needs that?"
During a phone call last Sunday, he talked generally about changing his legal strategy, about writing a book, about finding a gallery to sell the paintings he has been making in his apartment. As in previous conversations, he said he wanted the public to know the real man behind the crime reports. Why, he asked, couldn't an article about him concentrate on his music, without the tawdry drug stuff?
"The focus of this is to show who I am. The whole me is getting lost in the court case," he said. "No one knows who I am and what I do. They think I play at CBGB or something. I don't do $50 gigs. I walked away from more stuff than most people will ever get."
He claimed that he wasn't afraid of whatever punishment might await him, and he was not remorseful about his actions. But he wanted to be recognized.
"You can send me away for 20 years," he said. "But at least know who you're sending up the river."
John Leland, New York Times