No criminal charges for four Philly officers in 'Tainted Justice' cases

A video still of Officer Thomas Tolstoy of Phila. narcotics unit checking out a surveillance camera at a West Oak Lane grocery Sept. 11, 2007. Officer Jeffrey Cujdik is behind him.
A video still of Officer Thomas Tolstoy of Phila. narcotics unit checking out a surveillance camera at a West Oak Lane grocery Sept. 11, 2007. Officer Jeffrey Cujdik is behind him.
Posted: April 26, 2014

After years of investigation, federal and local prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges against four Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of lying about evidence on search warrants and stealing from corner stores during raids, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey told The Inquirer on Thursday.

One of the officers was also accused of sexually assaulting three women.

Sources familiar with the investigation said authorities cited weak witnesses and a lack of evidence as factors in their decision not to bring charges.

The officers - who were at the heart of a scandal that shook the department five years ago - now face possible disciplinary action from the Police Department. But it is likely they will soon be placed back on the street and even awarded lost overtime pay, according to sources with knowledge of department policy.

"The prosecution has been declined by the United States attorney and the District Attorney's Office," Ramsey said in an interview. After prosecutors dropped the case, he said, the department began an internal review to determine whether the officers had violated police protocols.

Internal Affairs "sustained several of the allegations, and we are in the process now of going through the charging process - the internal review for discipline against the accused officers," he said.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Thursday.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, lauded the decision not to bring criminal charges against the officers.

"There's nothing there that's criminal," he said of the allegations. "Nothing here is that drastic, where they should have been off the streets for five years."

The officers were the subject of a 2009 series by the Philadelphia Daily News that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

The series, "Tainted Justice," by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, detailed dozens of narcotics cases in which officers were alleged to have stolen, lied, and mistreated suspects.

The reporters later wrote a book about their work, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, published in March by HarperCollins.

Daily News editor Michael Days said Thursday that the newspaper's reporting was unassailable. "We very much stand by our stories," he said.

Days said the series was made up of "exquisite, excellent pieces reported by amazing reporters."

He questioned the depth and breadth of the criminal investigation. "How exhaustive was this process?" he asked. "And should it take four years to reach this conclusion?

"We're disappointed, obviously," he said, "but the citizens of Philadelphia should be even more disappointed."

After the stories were published, four narcotics officers were pulled off the street and placed on desk duty. Jeffrey Cujdik, his brother Richard, Thomas Tolstoy, and Robert McDonnell Jr. also had their service weapons confiscated and their police powers removed.

Through McNesby, the officers declined to comment Thursday.

The Police Department reported the allegations to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI, sources said, considering the matter serious enough to merit a federal investigation.

Federal prosecutors notified the department several months ago that they would not file criminal charges against the officers, sources with knowledge of the investigation said.

Authorities said they declined to prosecute in part because they considered the witnesses weak, the sources said.

Ramsey said Thursday that he believed the department had handed prosecutors a solid case.

"We wouldn't have brought it there if we didn't think it was a good case," Ramsey said. "But ultimately, it's prosecutors who decide charges."

After federal authorities declined to prosecute, sources said, police took the investigation to the District Attorney's Office.

Since federal authorities had "exhaustively investigated" and decided not to file charges, city prosecutors accepted their judgment on the merits of the case, said Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams.

"Absent some indication of impropriety in the federal process - and our review of the materials revealed none - there was no basis for duplicating those efforts," she said.

Last month, when it was clear that the officers would face no criminal charges, the department began an internal review of nearly five-year-old evidence.

The department's investigation had been suspended while the criminal investigations of the officers were underway, as required by law.

The allegations against the officers that were published in the Daily News were extensive - the product of hundreds of interviews and months of reporting work.

The series was cited by the Pulitzer committee as "resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal."

After the series ran, dozens of lawsuits were filed, and 55 criminal cases were challenged by defense lawyers who questioned the officers' credibility. In all, the city settled 33 lawsuits and paid settlements totaling $1.7 million.

Dozens of criminal cases that hinged on arrests made by Jeffrey Cujdik, the key officer featured in the stories, were interrupted by defense claims that he was not a credible witness. A judge eventually turned aside those petitions, ruling that the Daily News articles were not sufficient evidence to dismiss the cases.

Through McNesby, Cujdik declined to comment Thursday. Previously, his lawyer decried the allegations as "fictionalizations by professional liars, felons, and drug addicts."

In one Daily News article, an informant said Cujdik had lied about evidence in nearly two dozen narcotics cases. In some cases, the informant said, Cujdik wrote search warrants implicating dealers who had never sold drugs to his informant.

Other articles reported that Cujdik and other officers on his squad had entered corner stores, cut wires on surveillance cameras, and stolen cash. The officers then charged the stores' owners with possession of drug paraphernalia for selling small plastic bags that could be used to store drugs.

Several articles focused on three women, interviewed separately, who said Tolstoy sexually assaulted them during drug raids, fondling their breasts and, in one case, penetrating a vagina with his fingers.

Through McNesby, Tolstoy declined to comment Thursday.

Jeremy Ibrahim, lawyer for Lady Gonzalez, one of the women who said Tolstoy assaulted her, said he was disappointed in the prosecutors' decision. He said Gonzalez was never interviewed by investigators.

Sources say federal authorities conducted a separate investigation into the sexual-assault allegations. The outcome of that investigation remains unclear.

"What is troubling is that Lady Gonzalez and other women complained of being sexually assaulted, and throughout these five years, no one has reached out to them to get any information," Ibrahim said. "At the end of the day, these women have been victims of a crime. Any prosecution less than a criminal one is a slap in their face."

Bradley Bridge, the public defender who challenged the drug cases involving Cujdik, called it "surprising" that the officers would not be prosecuted.

"There is so much evidence that they engaged in criminal and improper activities," he said. "How the public could ever accept in the future that these officers could come to court and tell a credible story is beyond me."

Bridge has appealed a judge's rulings on his challenges, and the appeals are pending in Superior Court.

The department's internal review of the officers sustained several violations against Cujdik, a 17-year veteran of the force and the most public face of the scandal, sources said.

The allegations against Cujdik included renting a three-bedroom house in Kensington to a confidential informant, Ventura Martinez, in violation of department rules that govern relationships between police and informants.

On search warrants, Cujdik allegedly attributed information from other informants to Martinez so Martinez could be paid for helping with more arrests.

Martinez told the newspaper that Cujdik told him he could take money he earned as a confidential informant and use it to pay rent.

The internal charges that face all four officers are mostly for falsifying warrants, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

Cujdik faces several additional charges, sources say, but it could not be learned what specific allegations against him had been upheld.

Richard Cujdik was found to have searched a car without a warrant, the sources said.

In a move unrelated to the federal investigation, Capt. Joseph Bologna was found by the department to have failed to properly supervise Richard Cujdik because he was present when Cujdik searched the car, the sources said.

McNesby, the FOP president, said he was looking forward to defending the internal charges against the officers. He said the union had been "standing behind the officers from the minute it happened."

He said news coverage of the case had unfairly cast the officers as rogues. "These guys were persecuted in the headlines," he said. "I'm glad it's finally over for them and they can move forward to getting back on the street," he hoped as early as next week.

Ramsey said the department's investigation was complete, but its findings were still being formally prepared. Once they come across his desk, the commissioner said, he will be able to determine what penalties the men could face.

"I will take whatever action is appropriate," Ramsey said. "I can't comment further until I read the completed file."


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759

@MikeNewall

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