Lawyers for indicted Phila. officers attack government's case

Thomas Liciardello, 38, a 19-year veteran with 12 years in the Narcotics Field Unit.
Thomas Liciardello, 38, a 19-year veteran with 12 years in the Narcotics Field Unit.
Posted: August 06, 2014

Defense lawyers for six Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of robbing and violently attacking drug dealers took aim at the criminal case against their clients Monday, calling it a series of weak allegations built on the testimony of "trashy riffraff" and one rogue officer.

They also accused federal prosecutors of omitting key facts in laying out their indictment, including that many of the raids now deemed criminal acts were witnessed by police supervisors and members of other law enforcement agencies. And at least one raid, lawyer Gregory Pagano said Monday, earned Officer Perry Betts a commendation from Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

"The alleged victims in this case are motivated by revenge, greed, and selfishness," Pagano wrote in court filings submitted Monday on Betts' behalf. "Many have sued demanding monetary damages, and many have filed . . . petitions seeking to have their sentences and convictions vacated. All stand to personally benefit from any convictions in this case."

Those statements marked the first substantive rebuttal to the government's allegations since the officers' arrests last week on racketeering conspiracy charges, and offered a glimpse of their likely defense strategy should the case go to trial.

They came on the same day as a contentious three-hour bail hearing, during which two U.S. magistrate judges adopted conflicting views of whether the officers posed an ongoing danger to government witnesses.

Judge Timothy Rice granted Officers Brian Reynolds, Perry Betts, and Linwood Norman release from custody under house arrest, but ordered Thomas Liciardello - the group's purported ringleader - held in federal detention.

Judge Richard Lloret also ordered Officer Michael Spicer held until trial before recusing himself from the cases of the five other former officers, citing his recent employment in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Officer Jonathan Speiser's bail hearing was postponed.

"It's a jaw-dropping series of crimes," Rice said. "But the question is: If I let them out on the street until trial, are they going to continue to be a danger?"

More than most detention hearings, which typically focus only on a defendant's risk of flight and the danger he or she might pose to the community, Monday's proceedings evolved into a full-scale defense attack on the government's case.

Prosecutors allege that the group, led by Liciardello, for years ran roughshod over the rights of suspected drug dealers, breaking into their homes, stealing their money, beating them up, and then falsifying police reports to cover up the crimes.

Ramsey has said the Police Department investigated the officers for years, but it was not until one of their own - Officer Jeffrey Walker - agreed to cooperate with the FBI that authorities had the ammunition they needed to seek indictments. Walker pleaded guilty in February to robbery and gun charges in a separate federal case.

In court filings, defense lawyers were quick to condemn Walker's role in the case.

"The government now takes . . . unfounded and unsubstantiated cases, and with a wave of the wand from a drowning, despicable rat, turns garbage into gold," wrote Reynolds' lawyer, Jack McMahon.

Speaking in court Monday, prosecutor Anthony Wzorek shed further light on the investigation. The FBI asked Walker to flag all the group's cases in which illegal activity occurred, he said. Those that became part of the federal case were ones in which the drug suspect's story corresponded most closely with the version Walker laid out for federal authorities.

"This case is in many ways outrageous, with people being hung out over balconies, people having their teeth knocked in, people being hit on the back of the head with steel bars," he told Rice. "Don't let them hide behind their badges."

Despite Ramsey's recent depiction of the officers as rogues it took years for the department to stop, he continued to reward them for their work even after acknowledging they were under federal investigation, the officers' lawyers said in court.

Many received commendations up until last year. Betts, Pagano said, was singled out for his work in one of the incidents that has become part of the case against him.

In that incident, the officers are accused of forcing their way into Warren Layre's West Sedgwick Street machine shop in 2011. Liciardello allegedly kicked in Layre's teeth, while another officer purportedly kicked him in the groin and hit him in the head with a steel bar before stealing thousands of dollars.

Ramsey's subsequent commendation cited the role Betts and his fellow officers played in the Layre case - an investigation that led to the seizure of 19 guns and nearly $200,000 worth of crystal meth.

"Your performance during the incident reflects credit to you and the entire Police Department," Ramsey wrote.

Wzorek noted Monday that Ramsey's citation was reflective of efforts during a months-long multiagency investigation into Layre, not the attack on him that is now part of the federal case.

But it wasn't the only incident in which the defense team quibbled with the facts as laid out by prosecutors.

In one of the indictments' most eye-opening allegations, prosecutors accuse Walker and Norman of dangling suspected drug dealer Michael Cascioli over the balcony of his 18th-floor City Avenue apartment during a 2007 raid.

Cascioli's arrest was later touted by the department as a successful operation that took more than $1 million worth of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms off the streets and led to the seizure of nearly $500,000 in drug proceeds. Furthermore, members of several other law enforcement departments participated in that raid, the defense lawyers said.

"It is incredible that the police officers indicted in this case would have engaged in acts of violence and theft in the presence of Philadelphia police commanders, the FBI, Montgomery County detectives, and the Maryland police," Pagano wrote in a motion filed Monday.

Cascioli's conviction was vacated this year under agreement from the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office because of its ties to the indicted officers.

Lawyer James J. Binns pointed to the incident Monday as another one twisted to portray his client, Spicer, in the worst possible light.

"Whatever courtroom he's tried in, I'm going to walk him out of there as a not-guilty police officer hero," he said. "This case is overblown beyond your wildest dreams. There's a lot of sizzle here, but no steak."


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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