4 years after probe, no justice for victims of alleged cop misconduct

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jose Duran has a video showing officers using a knife and pliers to disable his surveillance system before they allegedly looted his bodega in a raid. But while Duran has lost his store, the accused cops have kept their jobs.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jose Duran has a video showing officers using a knife and pliers to disable his surveillance system before they allegedly looted his bodega in a raid. But while Duran has lost his store, the accused cops have kept their jobs.
Posted: January 25, 2013

JOSE DURAN thought he'd find justice after releasing a video that showed narcotics officers cutting wires to his surveillance cameras before they allegedly looted his bodega.

Instead, Duran has lost his business, his livelihood, his home, his dignity.

"It makes me angry. They stole my future. Everything," Duran said in a recent interview. "They must think I'm nobody. I believed in the American dream, and now I see that it's not. The cops - they stole it from me."

The Daily News obtained the video of the Sept. 11, 2007, raid and search of Duran's Super One Market, in West Oak Lane, and posted it on Philly.com in 2009 as part of the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning series, "Tainted Justice."

An FBI-led task force was launched at the start of the series after the Daily News reported that a longtime drug informant had accused Officer Jeffrey Cujdik of sometimes lying on search-warrant applications to gain access to suspected drug homes.

The probe mushroomed when the Daily News reported allegations that Cujdik and other members of the Narcotics Field Unit took cash and merchandise from corner stores after disabling surveillance cameras. Then came allegations from three women who said that a member of the squad, Thomas Tolstoy, fondled, groped or sexually violated them during raids.

Amid the revelations, five officers, including Cujdik and Tolstoy, were placed on desk duty. Today, nearly four years later, all but one, who retired, remain there.

The FBI interviewed Duran and other merchants shortly after the Daily News' reports, but never followed up, Duran said. None of the alleged victims has been asked to appear before a grand jury. And none of the women who alleged abuse by the police was ever contacted by the FBI or the District Attorney's Office.

Six members of another squad, also in the elite Narcotics Field Unit, were transferred in December, after the D.A.'s office said that the officers would no longer be called to testify in drug cases.

D.A. Seth Williams did not explain the decision, but federal lawsuits and citizen complaints to the police Internal Affairs Bureau accuse these officers of theft, physical abuse and planting and/or fabricating evidence.

As a result, 10 veteran narcotics officers in two squads are in a holding pattern, stripped of the job they were trained to do, but never charged with a crime and still getting paid.

They remain on the force with low-profile jobs, their credibility and reputations tarnished.

Cujdik, his brother Richard, Robert McDonnell Jr. and Tolstoy each earns about $62,000 a year as an officer.

The recently transferred officers - Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, Michael Spicer and Perry Betts - earn the same. Their lieutenant, Robert Otto, who was also moved out of narcotics, earns just over $81,000.

While in narcotics, the officers also earned large sums in overtime. In 2010, Liciardello, Spicer, Betts and Otto each added at least $54,000 to his base pay. Spicer earned $59,672 extra, bumping his total pay to $131,500.

The FBI will not comment about either squad. An FBI spokesman won't say whether the Cujdik investigation is dead or alive. But attorneys representing alleged victims say that they have heard nothing from the feds.

"The silence is deafening," said Jeremy Ibrahim, an attorney who represents some of the alleged victims of the Cujdik squad.

Back in 2005, the feds investigated at least some members of the recently transferred squad, but it is unclear what, if anything, came of the probe.

The D.A.'s office has withdrawn hundreds of drug cases involving both squads, including at least 260 since December that had been generated by Liciardello, Spicer, Reynolds, Speiser and Betts.

In the meantime, the city has settled 33 lawsuits involving Cujdik and his squad for a total of $1.7 million. The city has paid out $777,500 to settle 34 lawsuits against members of the other squad.

"That nothing is being done is perplexing to me," Bradley S. Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said of the investigation into Cujdik's squad.

"I have two words - crime pays," Ibrahim said. "The alleged victims accuse them of committing a crime. The city pays out money for their conduct, but they still have their jobs.

"The bad news is that misconduct appears to be rampant. The good news is that the District Attorney's Office [by dropping tainted drug cases] and Police Department [by taking the officers out of narcotics units] are responding to it," Ibrahim said.

"Sometimes the only way to fix a bad tooth is to do a root canal," he said, "and that's what's going on."

None of the narcotics cops involved has commented publicly. But John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said that the officers are innocent of any wrongdoing.

McNesby said he plans to file arbitration claims on behalf of Cujdik and his squad.

"From all indications, they've been cleared by the FBI," McNesby said. "You have to put them back on the streets and make them whole for the back overtime they're owed."

The lost overtime could exceed $1 million, he said.

"I screamed from day one that these guys didn't do anything wrong," McNesby said. "The people who accused them weren't reliable."

That the city paid $1.7 million to settle lawsuits against them means nothing, according to McNesby.

"The city," he said, "settles lawsuits for no reason."

No justice for Duran

At least 15 store owners told the Daily News that Cujdik and his fellow officers cut wires to surveillance cameras in their stores during the raids. Once the cameras went dark, thousands of dollars and merchandise disappeared, the merchants contend.

The mom-and-pop store owners, most of whom were immigrants with no criminal records, were arrested on misdemeanor charges for selling little zipper-seal bags, which police say are used to package drugs.

Duran said that after the officers took him to jail, nearly $10,000 in cash and cartons of cigarettes went missing. The officers guzzled drinks and scarfed down turkey hoagies, Little Debbie fudge brownies and Cheez-Its, Duran said.

The officers didn't know that he had a high-tech video system with a hidden backup hard drive. He has a 10-minute video, with audio, that shows the officers using a knife and pliers, standing on milk crates to disable his system.

"The FBI has proof - the video - and they still do nothing," he said.

Duran, 33, pleaded no contest to selling the little baggies and was sentenced to nine months' probation. He filed a lawsuit against the officers and reluctantly agreed to a settlement, but after he paid his attorney, he said, there wasn't enough left to keep his business.

Duran, who worked 13-hour days running his bodega, lost his lease after his arrest because his landlord didn't want to rent to someone charged with a crime.

Without the store, he couldn't repay those who had lent him money for the business.

"There wasn't enough to pay the debt," Duran said.

He couldn't afford his mortgage and had to sell his large South Jersey colonial. He now rents a smaller rancher on a busy street.

It took eight months for him to find a job, first as a maintenance worker. Duran now works the 6 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. shift as a butcher in the meat department at Costco, earning about $35,000 a year, as opposed to about $60,000 as a store owner.

"I couldn't operate a business no more because of what the cops did to me," he said.

"It's very wrong what happened, not just to me, but to other business owners," he said.

"The city don't do nothing to the cops. They don't fire them. If I stole, they'd throw me out of my job. . . . If you do something wrong and no one stops you, you keep doing it. It can happen again. And me - I just lost so much."

'It's just not fair'

Like Duran, the three women who allege that Tolstoy fondled, groped or sexually violated them during raids now fear cops.

None of the women has a criminal record. They don't know each other and spoke with the Daily News independently only after reporters tracked them down.

"It's just not fair," said Lady Gonzalez, who has since moved from her house on Thayer Street after the raid, during which, she said, Tolstoy lifted up her shirt and bra and groped her breasts.

Tolstoy took her house key and said he'd be back, Gonzalez said. She was terrified that he'd return.

"I couldn't stay there. We had to leave. It was just too much. I love my house, but it soured after that," Gonzalez said in a recent interview.

"If it would have been any other citizen on the street, he would be in jail already. I don't understand how he still has a job. He still gets to be a cop. He still gets paid. . . . It's like they didn't believe us. . . . He didn't just do this to me. He did it to other women. How does he get away with it?"

Both Gonzalez and Dagma Rodriguez, 36, say that Tolstoy asked them whether they had tattoos before he allegedly touched their breasts. He found no drugs or weapons on the women.

"It's always in my head. It's something that I cannot erase. I see a cop now and I freak out," Gonzalez said.

Rodriguez and Gonzalez won settlements from the city. Gonzalez took it upon herself to go to the Police Department's Special Victims Unit to report the alleged sexual assault. She never heard back from investigators.

Rodriguez and Gonzalez also told Internal Affairs.

"They [the cops] should have been fired," Rodriguez said. "That blue uniform gives them power and protects them. It's just wrong."

Attorneys are baffled as to why investigators have done nothing against the accused officers.

"I don't understand why the District Attorney's Office doesn't make a case of sexual assault when the witnesses have come forward," said Bridge, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. "You don't need any more than that. I don't understand why the Special Victims Unit isn't all over this. It makes no sense to me."

The third woman, to whom the Daily News granted anonymity, said that Tolstoy yanked down her underwear and jammed his fingers into her vagina. She began to bleed. When she tried to pull away, he grabbed her so forcefully, he ripped her shirt, she said.

That night, Oct. 16, 2008, she ended up at at Episcopal Hospital, where nurses ordered a rape kit and alerted the Special Victims Unit. Tolstoy was immediately taken off the street.

The D.A.'s office does not comment on cases in which charges have not been filed.

- Staff writer David Gambacorta contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @barbaralaker

comments powered by Disqus