Vacated Camden drug case may have had bearing on a killing

Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said, "The majority of these cases were probably valid arrests."
Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said, "The majority of these cases were probably valid arrests." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: June 12, 2012

In the violent and volatile drug underworld, the killing of Earl "Easy" Clary in September 2010 was neither surprising nor remarkable.

Clary, 29, was shot to death in a dispute with a rival dealer over narcotics trafficking along Sheridan Street in South Camden, according to police reports and investigative records.

"Easy was having a problem with the lower end of Sheridan Street," one informant told investigators. Another said that a few weeks before he was killed, Clary and an associate had "shot up the bottom of the block," wounding a worker for the rival dealer.

For years, drugs, money, and violence have been a lethal mix in dozens of Camden's beleaguered neighborhoods. Law-abiding residents are "under siege," a top police official said recently.

Clary's murder was one of 37 reported in Camden in 2010, most of them tied to the drug trade. With a population of about 77,000, Camden has one of the highest homicide rates in the country. As of Thursday, there had been 24 killings in the city this year, and most of those also have been connected to the drug underworld, according to Camden County authorities.

But there is a twist to the Clary case.

Brandy Hicks, the low-level dealer charged with the Sept. 27, 2010, homicide, could have been in state prison serving a four-year sentence for drug dealing at the time he allegedly gunned Clary down. Instead, Hicks, 29, was on the streets.

He was among nearly 200 suspected dealers whose cases were dismissed or whose sentences were vacated because of potentially tainted evidence submitted by corrupt city officers assigned to an elite antidrug unit.

Hicks, one of more than 100 defendants who are suing Camden and the state for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, contends in a lawsuit filed in federal court that members of the unit, including since-convicted Officer Antonio Figueroa, fabricated the case against him. Figueroa and others planted heroin and cocaine on him after stopping him on Westfield Avenue in September 2008, Hicks has alleged.

Found guilty of possessing and selling drugs in a school zone, Hicks was sentenced to four years in prison. He had served 589 days when the sentence was vacated. He was released March 31, 2010. Six months later, police say, he shot and killed Clary.

Hicks is now in the Camden County Jail, awaiting trial on murder and weapons charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

According to statistics compiled by the Prosecutor's Office, he is one of 24 defendants freed in the corruption scandal who have been rearrested. Most have been charged with narcotics offenses. There are also two robbery charges and a domestic-violence case. Hicks is the only one facing a homicide rap.

"There is violence associated with the drug trade," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk, who would not comment directly on the Hicks case. People who get involved in the business often see violence as a way to "move up" in the underworld, he said.

"It was a no-win situation for us," Faulk said of the decision to vacate convictions in connection with the police-corruption investigation. "The majority of these cases were probably valid arrests. I don't look at these as innocent people wrongfully convicted, and it offends me as a prosector that under the law they would be entitled to this remuneration."

It comes as no surprise, he said, that many of those who were released are again using and dealing drugs. For many, it's a way of life that a prison term is not going to change, Faulk said.

Even as he sits in jail, Hicks remains a plaintiff in civil litigation wending its way through federal and state court. The federal cases, with the City of Camden as the primary defendant, could take years to resolve. The state cases are less problematic.

Under New Jersey law, the Attorney General's Office is required to pay $54 for each day of wrongful imprisonment. Hicks' lawyer in the civil litigation, Richard D. Cordry, said the state cases were being processed and he was confident Hicks would be compensated. He is in line for about $32,000, Cordry said.

Hicks' claim was bolstered when Figueroa was convicted of conspiracy charges during a federal trial in December. A jury found he had routinely planted evidence, stolen money, fabricated police reports, and lied in grand jury testimony. Three other members of the unit, also named in Hicks' suit, pleaded guilty to similar charges and testified against Figueroa. Each faces up to 10 years in prison.

The sentencings, originally set for this month, have been put off until later in the year. Coincidentally, the disgraced former officers could stand before a federal judge at the same time Hicks goes on trial in state Superior Court for the Clary murder.

Last week on Sheridan Street, several neighbors said they remembered Clary, who was a familiar face in the neighborhood. They declined to talk about his shooting.

"I don't know about his business, but he was a good guy," one said.

The street, just off Mount Ephraim Avenue, is a mix of rowhouses, abandoned and boarded-up buildings, and vacant lots. Brick walls are marked with graffiti. The porch of a vacant building had been turned into a memorial for an 18-year-old who residents said had been shot and killed two weeks earlier. Instead of flowers, it was covered with nearly 100 neatly arranged bottles of beer, rum, vodka, and scotch whose contents had apparently been consumed in memory of the victim. There were also dozens of empty plastic vials and containers, the kind used to distribute crack cocaine.

Drugs and violence take a heavy toll on the block, according to a woman who said three of her grandsons had been killed in the neighborhood. She, too, remembered Clary's killing but wouldn't discuss it.

The evidence against Hicks includes an eyewitness identification by a friend of Clary's who was with him on the night of the shooting. According to a police report, Clary and the associate were sitting in a parked car when Hicks walked up. Clary got out and had a discussion with Hicks, the witness said.

The witness, who at first was reluctant to give officials Hicks' name, told one of Clary's sisters her brother had been shot by a man with a disfigured left eye. Hicks, nicknamed "Storm," injured his left eye in a BB gun accident as a child, police said.

"Easy was talking to the guy, not angry, just talking," the witness said in an initial statement to Sgt. Patricia Taulane of the Prosecutor's Office and Police Detective Jason Galiazzi. Taulane and Galiazzi are members of SMASH, the city's Strategic Multi-Agency Shooting and Homicide Team.

Clary and Hicks shook hands, according to the police report. But after Clary got back in the car, Hicks walked up, pulled out a chrome-plated pistol and fired into the vehicle.

Clary and his associate scrambled out the passenger side and ran down Sheridan Street. Hicks followed Clary, who turned onto Michael Street. Clary's associate, who had turned onto Pulaski Street, said he heard two more shots. Police found Clary lying dead in a vacant, trash-strewn lot. He had been shot in the head and body.

"Word on the street," according to the report, was that the dealer from the other end of the block had put a contract on Clary's life and that Hicks was a paid hit man.

Hicks denied he was the shooter. But on Aug. 17, 2011, after Clary's associate identified him as the gunman, he was arrested for murder.

No one can say with certainty that Clary died because of Hicks' early release from prison, Faulk, the county prosecutor, said last week. For one thing, he said, Hicks might have been out on parole by then even if his sentence had not been vacated.

Other underworld and law enforcement sources are more fatalistic. If a price had been put on Clary's head by a rival dealer and Hicks were not out of prison, then someone else would have taken the contract.

That, they said, is how the drug underworld works on Sheridan Street and throughout Camden.


Contact George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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