Long trail to officers' arrests

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Internal Affairs and the FBI have long worked to bring down the accused unit, but cases were tough to make. One reason: Complainants were "people with long criminal histories that have a motive for complainingagainst people just to get them off their back."
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Internal Affairs and the FBI have long worked to bring down the accused unit, but cases were tough to make. One reason: Complainants were "people with long criminal histories that have a motive for complainingagainst people just to get them off their back." (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Despite allegations of about 30 incidents reported as far back as 2002, internal investigations of the narcotics squad never got traction until late in 2012.

Posted: August 04, 2014

Chris Conolly had just left his martial-arts class in South Philadelphia when his car was pulled over by narcotics officers.

He was surrounded by men in hooded sweatshirts, jeans, and Timberland boots - with one holding what looked like a gun. Conolly feared he was being carjacked. He asked one of the men to call the police.

"Are you kidding me?" the man replied, cursing. "We are the cops."

The encounter ended with Conolly under arrest, charged with resisting arrest and fleeing police. But first, he said, the plainclothes officers choked him with a flashlight, stamped on his hands with their boots, and pounded his head against the pavement.

One officer kept his gun trained on the back of his head, he said. "If you don't shut up, I will put a bullet in your head," Conolly said the officer told him as he cried out.

Prosecutors later dropped all charges against Conolly in the 2010 encounter. Two years later, the City of Philadelphia paid up - $65,000 in taxpayer money to settle his lawsuit.

The suit was another in a raft of litigation against members of the Philadelphia police South Narcotics Fields Unit alleging wrongdoing dating back more than a decade. Yet despite allegations of about 30 incidents reported as far back as 2002 - and $500,000 in settlement payouts - it took years for the Police Department to take decisive action against the squad.

It didn't fire them. It didn't even transfer them. Internal Affairs investigations cleared them again and again.

The civil suits and Internal Affairs complaints alleged almost precisely the same wrongdoing that was laid out in detail Wednesday in a federal indictment against six officers in the elite Narcotics Field Unit.

The 42-page grand jury indictment said the squad railroaded defendants with bogus warrants, terrorized and assaulted suspects during raids, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and cocaine (reselling the drugs), and generally acted as a law unto themselves in 22 episodes over seven years.

Philadelphia lawyer Michael Pileggi, who has brought about 20 suits against narcotics officers since 2003, said police brass and a weak Internal Affairs Division gave them a pass for far too long.

"There should have been bells that went off suggesting that these guys had to be scrutinized," Pileggi said Friday. "They should have had some mechanism here for transferring these guys to another unit. They certainly were on notice."

In an interview Friday, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who took office in 2008, pointed out that Internal Affairs and the FBI had long worked to bring down the group, but that cases were tough to make.

For one thing, he said complainants were "people with long criminal histories that have a motive for complaining against people just to get them off their back."

"You've got to sort though all that," he said. "You really have to take your time and make sure you got enough that can stand up."

The FBI launched an investigation of the officers in 2005 but failed to make headway.

Two years later, the Police Department and the FBI tried again, Ramsey said, conducting a joint probe that stalled in 2009 for lack of evidence.

The next year, Ramsey opened up yet another investigation.

The big break came last year, when the FBI arrested narcotics squad member Jeffrey Walker on robbery and gun charges. He began cooperating with investigators, "giving us dates, times, and locations," Ramsey said, setting the stage for Wednesday's charges.

For years, Ramsey said, he and other commissioners had been hamstrung by labor rules that barred police brass from transferring officers.

"Listen," Ramsey said, "I would love to have that ability to be able to move people who get those kinds of complaints."

Under a new contract with police made public Thursday, police commissioners will have greater freedom to rotate officers through posts in narcotics and Internal Affairs.

By most accounts, Thomas Liciardello, 38, was the leader of the indicted officers, a bantam-sized, cocky officer with a dozen years in the 90-member Narcotics Field Unit. The unit's mission is to take down major dealers - and not to waste time on so-called buy-and-bust sales, a kind of transaction Liciardello once described in a deposition as a "street job."

Year after year, he and the others racked up massive overtime - Liciardello's total pay was almost $126,000 in 2011, his last full year with the narcotics squad - and posted dramatic stats in seized guns, drugs, and cash.

The other indicted officers are Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, and Michael Spicer, all in their 40s and almost all with as much time or more in the unit as Liciardello.

The officers' lawyers say they were wrongly accused, set up, in the words of one, by "a bunch of police-hating drug dealers."

Betts, for his part, told The Inquirer in 2008 he was stunned when a judge doubted his testimony in a drug case and acquitted a defendant police said they arrested with two pounds of cocaine and $1,300 in cash.

"You put your life on the line every day, sacrificing yourself to protect the public," he said. "I was just very surprised that a person with a kilo and a loaded .45 would be let go."

Pursuit becomes personal

For Pileggi, pursuit of the squad became unusually personal.

After he filed several suits against the officers, they countersued, accusing him of bringing frivolous actions that falsely portrayed them as liars and thieves. In a letter to the department, a lawyer for Pileggi also said the squad had begun harassing and threatening Pileggi's law clients and telling people he would be disbarred.

At one point, the letter said, Liciardello showed up at his office uninvited and fired questions at him about his marriage and family. He told Pileggi he was "investigating" him, the letter said.

Pileggi's first major case unfolded after the squad arrested Samuel Dupriest in 2002.

In an affidavit underpinning the arrest, Reynolds wrote that a confidential informant had identified Dupriest as a "main supplier of a drug organization."

During surveillance, the officer said, he watched Dupriest drive to various West Philadelphia stash houses in a black Cadillac and receive money from street sellers of crack cocaine.

The narcotics unit obtained a search warrant for Dupriest's house based on the information. But when the officers arrived, they found no drugs or cash.

For good reason, Pileggi argued in 2004 at a civil trial. For the dates on which Reynolds said he had observed Dupriest stopping at stash houses, Pileggi produced records showing that his client, a Peco subcontractor, was actually working on utility meters miles away.

Dupriest's black Cadillac was parked at the utility's office in Jenkintown, his boss said.

Still, Dupriest spent more than three months in jail before prosecutors dropped all charges against him.

He sued in 2003. Despite the city's attempts to have the case dismissed on grounds that police were immune from such suits, U.S. District Judge James T. Giles pressed forward, finding there was no immunity for making deliberate misrepresentations of fact.

Days into the trial, the city settled for $95,000 - to date, the largest single payout involving the officers.

"At that time, that was a pretty big settlement amount," Pileggi said. "That was a watershed event."

After the settlement, city lawyers urged the Police Department to assign Internal Affairs to look into the case. They said Liciardello may have fabricated the surveillance in the case.

Disciplined for infractions

In the end, Internal Affairs found nothing wrong in how the officers handled the Dupriest case.

Internal Affairs investigators, in their final report, suggested Dupriest might have somehow taken a break from work to deal the drugs.

Though he was named in 15 separate complaints, Liciardello was found to have violated department rules only twice. In 2003 and 2005 reports, Internal Affairs faulted him for carrying out illegal searches.

In the 2003 report, investigators said Liciardello, Reynolds, and other officers lacked a required search warrant in 2002 when they went into a West Philadelphia house looking for a suspect.

Asked later in a deposition what additional training he had received as a result, Reynolds said he was told to reread the police directive governing arrests.

In the other episode, Liciardello entered a suspected drug dealer's home without a warrant for what Internal Affairs called a "walk around," spotted cocaine, and then prepared an affidavit to search the place, an Internal Affairs report said.

Though the U.S. Attorney's Office later adopted the case for trial and defended Liciardello's actions, the City Solicitor's Office found in its own legal review there was no basis for the warrantless search.

The Police Department found Liciardello guilty of violating its rules. It's not clear what discipline, if any, was imposed.

In another report, in 2007, Internal Affairs reported that Reynolds said in an arrest warrant he saw a suspect sell drugs twice in one month - when the man was a resident of a reform school miles away in Montgomery County.

In a civil case, Pileggi presented evidence that head counts showed the man was at the reform school on the days he was accused of selling drugs.

Internal Affairs said the matter amounted to nothing more than an "incorrectly identified" suspect. It brought no charges.

'Incredibly suspicious'

By January 2005, defense lawyers had begun to compare notes.

When Philadelphia attorney William T. Cannon was hired to represent Shante Hall - a West Philadelphia man arrested in 2003 on drug and gun charges - his research into the narcotics unit's record left him "incredibly suspicious," the lawyer said Friday.

"Their search warrants were just paste jobs," Cannon said. "They always followed the same format."

In a July 15, 2003, affidavit seeking a warrant to search Hall's home, Liciardello wrote that narcotics officers had received a tip from a confidential informant that Hall was dealing crack cocaine out of his home.

He said he later witnessed Hall leaving his house "carrying a white plastic bag in his hand" that Hall later exchanged with another man who was shown to be selling crack cocaine for cash.

That setup mirrored almost exactly the narrative Liciardello and others had used in dozens of their cases.

In each, an unnamed informant pointed to the suspect, the suspect was observed carrying drugs in a white or black plastic bag that he traded for money. In two separate cases, Liciardello offered the same specific description of the bag: the kind of black bag that comes from a local Chinese store.

And as with Hall, Cannon found, rarely did the officers find contraband once a search was conducted.

"Drug dealers do not carry small quantities of drugs around openly in plastic bags . . . when a typical quantity would easily fit into a shirt pocket," Cannon wrote at the time.

Cannon laid out his suspicions in a 2005 memo to Robert Reed, a top prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia. He cited six cases brought by Liciardello and Reynolds under circumstances similar to Hall's. City prosecutors had withdrawn the charges against many of the defendants.

Several other suspects arrested by the narcotics officers, Cannon noted, had sued the city alleging civil rights violations. Another pattern had emerged.

"City of Philadelphia attorneys have regularly settled these cases rather than leave a determination of the credibility of Officers Reynolds and Liciardello to a federal jury," he wrote.

By that time, the city had settled at least five lawsuits involving members of the Narcotics Field Unit alleging excessive force, false arrest, and illegal searches at a total cost of more than $155,000 by 2005.

Hall's name was added to that growing list in 2010. As a result of his arrest, his car and home were seized. The city settled his suit for $15,000.

After Cannon's memo to the U.S. Attorney's Office and a subsequent meeting, federal prosecutors withdrew their case against Hall.

But he was later convicted in a new case on drug charges. So, as it happens, was Dupriest.

Still, the FBI opened an investigation into the officers' conduct at Reed's prompting. Not long after, federal prosecutors stopped accepting cases stemming from arrests made by the officers.

"It seemed to me that this was information that they had never really received before - to the extent I was providing it," Cannon said, recalling his 2005 exchange with prosecutors. "This was eye-opening to them."

A bombshell in court

In city court, some judges and prosecutors were growing suspicious, too.

Then Lawrence Krasner, a veteran Philadelphia civil rights lawyer, dropped his bombshell.

In fall 2012, Krasner, representing a group of accused drug dealers, told a judge in open court that Narcotics Field Unit officers had been stealing from dealers.

"There was information about the theft of a lot of money, maybe $49,000, during the bust of the drug house," he said.

Moreover, Krasner said, law enforcement officials had told him the officers had "engaged in a pattern of theft and other falsification during drug arrests."

Municipal Court Judge Charles Hayden ordered the District Attorney's Office and Police Department to hand over internal information on 11 narcotics officers, including five of the six now facing federal charges. Hayden asked about any allegations that the officers had stolen money or faked probable-cause warrants for searches or arrests.

Seven weeks later, District Attorney Seth Williams informed Ramsey that his office would no longer accept testimony from Liciardello, Reynolds, Betts, Speiser, and Spicer. Williams said his prosecutors would no longer call them to the stand in criminal cases.

At last, Ramsey felt he had critical mass. In December 2012, he pulled the officers from narcotics, benching them with desk jobs.

He also publicly acknowledged they were targets of a federal investigation. That probe went into overdrive in early 2013, when an undercover FBI informant caught Walker on tape scheming to set up a South Philadelphia drug dealer.

In a bid to win leniency, Walker turned against his former colleagues, setting the stage for last week's indictments.

All of this is sure to fuel more lawsuits and lead authorities to dismiss hundreds of drug cases tied to the officers.

For his part, Ramsey said he wanted to keep digging and take an in-depth look at the commanders who supervised Liciardello and the rest.

"I either have lax supervision, people who knew and turned a blind eye - or people who are doing it," he said. "We need to find that out."


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy

Inquirer staff writers Mark Fazlollah, Mike Newall, Dylan Purcell, and Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.

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