21 suits settled in narcotics unit case

Jose Duran , who owned a bodega in West Oak Lane that police raided in 2007, agreed to a settlement over his charges that they stole money and did damage. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Jose Duran , who owned a bodega in West Oak Lane that police raided in 2007, agreed to a settlement over his charges that they stole money and did damage. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Phila. officers accused of abuses against bodega owners are still under investigation.

Posted: May 21, 2012

The police squad repeatedly swooped down on bodegas and smoke shops, saying they were searching for the small plastic bags often used to package drugs. But merchants complained that the officers made off with cash and merchandise after disabling security cameras to mask their conduct.

The actions of the Narcotics Field Unit - in one case graphically captured by a camera with a backup hard drive - triggered a major scandal in the city in 2009. The result was an FBI investigation of the officers, dropped charges against some defendants, and numerous federal civil right lawsuits filed by people who said they were abused or framed by the squad.

Three years later, the five members of the squad are still on the police force, assigned to desk duty, and no charges have been filed. But the city has quietly settled 21 lawsuits for an average of $40,000, according Craig Straw, the chief deputy city solicitor.

"The officers could be cleared," Straw said. "The investigation has been dragging on."

One of the plaintiffs who agreed to a settlement, records show, was Jose Duran, who owned the Super One Market in West Oak Lane. A surveillance system in his store captured sound and images from a police raid Sept. 11, 2007.

On the video, one officer warned the others about "eyes," referring to the cameras in Duran's store, and then used pliers and a knife to cut the camera wires.

The suit by Duran, of South Jersey, states that the officers "willfully and maliciously cut, destroyed, and otherwise damaged surveillance cameras," and then stole money from the store.

In February 2008, Duran pleaded no contest to minor charges, alleging that he had sold small plastic bags that were characterized as drug paraphernalia.

At least three other store owners or managers who made allegations similar to those asserted by Duran also settled their lawsuits. Like Duran, they said officers cut the wires on security cameras and stole money during raids on their bodegas in 2007 and 2008.

A federal judge in July 2009 temporarily blocked some civil cases stemming from the raids, pending the outcome of the FBI investigation.

Federal officials said Friday that they would not comment on the status of the criminal investigation.

But clearly, as the settlements show, there has now been movement on multiple cases. On Friday, a federal judge directed both sides in an unsettled case to submit a trial schedule, attorney Clifford E. Haines said.

He said there had been settlement talks in the case, but he said of his clients: "The number they want, the city is not interested in."

Though Straw said the average settlement was $40,000, the owners of several small Latino corner stores have received somewhat higher payouts.

If criminal charges are filed against the officers, he said, the city could face a wave of new lawsuits.

In separate legal actions, some people arrested by the squad who pleaded guilty to charges are now seeking to overturn those cases.

The Public Defender's Office has filed court petitions to overturn 55 criminal convictions involving arrests by the officers. The matter is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Jeremy H.G. Ibrahim, one of the attorneys who recently settled a case with the city, said, "The federal probe is very viable, in my view."

He was representing a Kensington couple who asserted they were arrested based on drugs that police planted.

Ibrahim said that throughout the pretrial litigation on behalf of Lady Gonzalez and Alberto Nunez, police officials continued to cite the federal investigation when declining to divulge certain information.

"One of the things that was problematic throughout the entire pretrial process was that there was this 'ongoing federal probe' that kept being referred to during depositions," Ibrahim said. "It made it difficult."

The Dec. 14, 2007, drug arrests of Gonzalez, now 32, and Nunez, now 35, were spotlighted in articles about the squad published by the Philadelphia Daily News. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman in 2010.

Their reporting was based, in part, on interviews with a disgruntled confidential drug informant, Ventura Martinez.

He alleged that he and veteran narcotics Officer Jeffrey Cujdik sometimes falsified information about drug suspects to obtain court-approved search warrants.

That is alleged to have happened when the Gonzalez-Nunez house was raided by Cujdik, his brother Richard, and fellow narcotics Officers Robert McDonnell and Thomas Tolstoy.

Gonzalez contended that Tolstoy groped her during the search.

All four officers were subsequently reassigned to desk duty, followed later by another squad member, Thomas Deabler.

Jeffrey Cujdik, through his attorney at the time, George Bochetto, denied the allegations. The other officers have never publicly commented.

Bochetto said he no longer represented the Cujdik brothers and did not know the status of the federal probe.

The drug charges against the couple were later dismissed.

Ibrahim declined to disclose the amount of the settlement he received from the city. As for the federal investigation, he said: "My clients are still awaiting justice but are confident in the Justice Department."

Lawyers involved in the lawsuits say several people arrested by the narcotics officers pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit because they were convinced juries would believe whatever the police testified.

Attorney Maxwell S. Kennerly said his clients, Brian Hill and his sister Twania, felt they had no chance of getting fair trials on the initial arrest charges.

Hill was found guilty of drug and gun charges, spent four years in prison, and now is in a halfway house awaiting release.

His sister pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to two years of probation. Both are seeking to have those convictions overturned.

Kennerly said the city paid less than $100,000 total to resolve the suit. He said his clients wanted to resolve the suit quickly and "get on with their lives."

"Nobody is getting a windfall out of this," said Kennerly, of the Beasley Firm L.L.C.

He predicted other lawsuits would be filed against the squad as people who were arrested learn that they can get settlements, even though no officer has been indicted.

One lawsuit that has not been settled is the case Haines filed on behalf of Mercedes Basilio, her two minor children, and Basilio's sister Dolores Adelaida Basilio Peralta. It involves a March 26, 2008, raid in Feltonville.

Police found no drugs, but they made Peralta, who had just finished showering and was naked, get dressed in front of them, the lawsuit contends.

"The police broke into my clients' house and over the next three hours terrorized three women, one of whom was an 8-year-old child," Haines added. "They tore the house apart, and there was nothing in the house."

Haines and Ibrahim said none of his clients has been interviewed by authorities or asked to testify before a grand jury.

"I have no idea what's going on down there," Haines said. "It's mind-boggling to me."


To see videos

of the Sept. 11, 2007, raid on one bodega, go to: www.philly.com/

raid


Contact Mark Fazlollah

at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

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