Former Philadelphia police officer sentenced in heroin scheme

James Venziale had pleaded guilty.
James Venziale had pleaded guilty.
Posted: May 10, 2011

A former Philadelphia police officer who was commended four times by the department was sentenced Monday to 42 months in federal prison for a scheme to rob a drug dealer of heroin and resell it for cash.

James Venziale got a break from the mandatory minimum of five years, or 60 months, because of his cooperation with federal prosecutors.

"It's no secret that investigations of police corruption often run into a police code of silence," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony J. Wzorek. "I know it's a real fact of life."

Looking gaunt, Venziale, 32, said he owed many people an apology, "especially the Philadelphia Police Department" and his wife and children.

In March, Venziale took the witness stand at the trial of his former patrol partner, Mark Williams, and testified that they had netted $3,000 each after they robbed a heroin dealer during a bogus traffic stop. The 2010 robbery was a sting operation orchestrated by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and no heroin reached the street.

Williams, 27, was arrested with Venziale. In part as a result of Venziale's testimony, Williams was convicted after a trial and is awaiting sentence. Venziale pleaded guilty in February.

About two dozen of Venziale's relatives and friends appeared in court to support him. His wife, Jennifer, gave a tearful plea for leniency, and friends described him as a good father and neighbor who was active in his church.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III acknowledged that Venziale had received commendations for valor, but said it wasn't sufficient for a police officer to be honest "99 percent of the time."

Testimony at Williams' trial showed they had planned other robberies that were never carried out. "You had time to think about it. They were not momentary lapses of judgment," Bartle told Venziale.

"I assume you wouldn't want your children to take drugs," Bartle said. "You didn't think about somebody else's children. Very selfish."

Venziale has three children, and Bartle acknowledged they would suffer because their father was in jail.

"I take no pleasure," Bartle said. "I wish I were not sitting here imposing sentence."

Venziale's attorney, John F. Renner, had asked for a 12-month sentence because of Venziale's extensive cooperation and his record as an officer. In 2004, Venziale responded to a robbery in progress and struggled with a suspect, who while handcuffed pulled out a hidden gun and shot another officer in the hand. Venziale was one of three officers who returned fire, and the suspect later died.

The shooting was controversial. The other officers fired a total of 27 shots at the suspect, and Venziale fired once.

In a 2005 incident, he confronted a man with a knife who was on top of an elderly lady, wrestled the man off her, and took him into custody, Renner said in a court document. The other commendations were for arrests while on patrol and on plainclothes duty.

At Williams' trial, Venziale described how they had pretended to arrest dealer Angel Ortiz so the drug supplier would think the heroin had been seized by police and they could resell it in New Jersey.

"We took Mr. Ortiz to around the corner . . . and released him," Venziale said at the trial, prosecuted by Wzorek and Assistant U.S. Attorney Maureen McCartney.

Later that day, Williams and Venziale met Ortiz and a federal undercover agent who was posing as a money launderer. In a parking lot, they received a bag stuffed with $6,000 in cash. Venziale said he split the money with Williams.

Despite being suspicious of the "money launderer," the officers staged the robbery anyway, said Venziale.

Venziale and Williams were arrested with a third officer, Robert Snyder, who is to be sentenced Tuesday along with his wife, Christal. She helped set up the robbery with Ortiz, her relative by marriage.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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