Journalists Say 'Protect And Serve' Became Steal And Abuse
About six years ago, drug user Benny Martinez knew his life was in danger. But he was running out of options.
He couldn't turn to the police after he burned his bridge as an informant. And he couldn't turn to his street friends — since he'd been snitching on them. So he turned to the press.
The ensuing investigation by Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman uncovered allegations of corruption within the police department's narcotics squad, including falsified warrants, robbing innocent store owners and sexual assault.
Laker and Ruderman's work led to an FBI probe, and earned them a Pulitzer Prize. They share the story behind the story in a new book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you are a fan of the police procedural, in other words, cop shows, then you are probably familiar with the occasional storyline of the cop who crosses the line. So he might get a little too physical with suspects or a little too close to informants. In the fictional version, it's all in the name of justice and all's well in the end. But what if crossing the line means making up false information, robbing innocent storeowners, sexually assaulting women and it's not all right in the end? That's the story that two reporters of the Philadelphia Daily News uncovered in their 10-month series for the paper back in 2010 acting on a tip from a frightened police informant.
The reporting eventually led to a Pulitzer Prize and FBI probe and now a new book that tells the story behind the story. It's called "Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love." Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker are the authors. I caught up with them recently when they were in town for a book signing. And before we begin, I should mention that this conversation contains details and language that some listeners might find disturbing. That said, I started by asking Wendy Ruderman to tell us about Benny Martinez, the police informant who got the story started.
WENDY RUDERMAN: Benny Martinez had been a drug informant for seven years, which is an incredibly long time. And what was happening was he was working with this one officer, Jeff Cujdik, and Jeff Cujdik had some real estate. So he Jeff was renting him a house. In Philadelphia, being a drug informant is actually a job. You get paid for every door knock you do in which drugs are exchanged. You get a $100 if a gun is found. So the money that he was making was flowing back to the police officer in the way of rent.
MARTIN: Why did Benny come to you?
RUDERMAN: Benny was looking for some protection. He was fearful of his life. He was afraid that either the police officer wanted him dead or the drug dealers on the streets wanted him dead because what had happened was he and Jeff Cujdik set up a big-time drug dealer who had enough resources to hire a very high-powered attorney. Who that attorney then hired a private investigator and suspected that Benny had set him up. So basically, had Benny followed around by the private investigator who took pictures of Benny coming out of Jeff's house and establishing that they had this relationship that crossed the line.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, what did you think was wrong? And then, secondly, what turned out to be even more wrong than that?
RUDERMAN: Well, they had - basically, they had a financial arrangement. So that went against police department protocols. You can't have a financial relationship with your police informant. And so they also had a built-in financial incentive, the rent, to make drug buys. But the problem was that they were running out of people to set up. So basically, Benny, who had a drug habit, was going to places and not doing the buys because he didn't want people to know that he was the informant. So they were sort of making things up.
MARTIN: But it went far beyond that.
BARBARA LAKER: Yes.
MARTIN: So, Barbara, maybe you want to pick it up there.
MARTIN: When did you realize it was actually bigger than that?
LAKER: It went way beyond that. When - after we started running the first stories about the relationship between Benny and Jeff Cujdik, Wendy got a call from an attorney who represented a merchant in Philadelphia, a Jordanian man. And he said, you know this squad you're writing about? Well, they came into my store. And they raided the store for these little Ziploc baggies that some of the corner stores sell. And in turn, they came in and they busted the video surveillance cameras, ripped wires out and looted the store.
And we remembered that from going through all these search warrants that we had - so for the first part of our story, we remembered that a lot of these merchants all across the city, all four corners of the city, had been raided by this same squad where other squads did not raid these corner stores, mom-and-pop stores. So we went back to this room that has all the search warrants, and we went through hundreds upon hundreds of warrants and picked out the ones where this squad raided bodegas - is what we call them in Philadelphia - these corner stores. And we tracked down these merchants across the city. And independently, across the board, they all told us the same story.
MARTIN: Which was what? Because some people might say, OK, well, so maybe it's against the law to be selling these little Ziploc baggies because those can be considered drug paraphernalia.
MARTIN: So, Barbara, what's so terrible?
LAKER: What was so terrible is these cops came in - a lot of these merchants didn't even know they were cops. They had - they were in plain clothes with just police on the back. And they dismantled the video surveillance cameras or cut out the wires so there would be no record of what they did in the store. And what these merchants told us they did is after these people were arrested, they looted the store. A lot of these merchants were hard-working immigrants who dealt mostly in cash. They paid for all the merchandise in cash, the rent. Everything they had was in cash in the store. And they all told us that the cops not only took cash but took batteries, cell phones, anything they could get their hands on - lottery money, and then left the stores in shambles and arrested these immigrants who had these stores.
MARTIN: And lied about how much money - 'cause they actually had to invoice...
MARTIN: ...They had to invoice things that they took in for evidence. But what these store owners also told you is that they lied. They said they took a thousand when in fact they took 7,000 or...
LAKER: Right. The police have to fill out a property receipt. When they raid a house or a store, they have to itemize what they took. And they're able to legally confiscate things if they do arrest someone for drugs or whatever. None of these stores that we used had drugs in the store. They just had these little baggies.
MARTIN: And did these people have arrest records? Were these people who were known bad citizens as it were?
LAKER: None of them did, not one single person who we used. And they all went on the record with us, and none of them had criminal records.
RUDERMAN: Yeah, and I think what was...
MARTIN: That's Wendy.
RUDERMAN: This is Wendy, yeah. What was so extraordinary about it is this had been happening to them for quite a while, and I think each store owner felt alone in this. Like they sort of - they didn't tell anybody about it. I mean, they came from countries in which the police are corrupt, which, you know, people disappear - those kind of countries. And so they felt like this was maybe part of the street tax, like we're just going to just be quiet about this. And they didn't realize that it was happening all over the city. I mean, we had people from, like Barbara said, the Jordanian man and then Korean, Dominican, Chinese, Vietnamese - all different people told us the exact same story.
MARTIN: And if you're just joining us, we're talking with Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker. They won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2010 with the Philadelphia Daily News in a series of articles that exposed police corruption in the city. They're telling their story in a more complete way in a new book titled "Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love." Now I want to mention that what was going on in Philadelphia at the time when the series began. About half a dozen police officers had been killed that year in the line of duty, that people were not impressed with this reporting if that's fair to say. You got a lot of criticism for it, Wendy, if you want to tell that part.
RUDERMAN: Yeah. We began the series at a time when an inordinate number of police offices were being killed, and it was horrible. And the mood in Philadelphia was very pro-police, understandably so. They have a very dangerous job. So our first series was basically cops skirting the law to set up drug dealers. So Barbara and I even wrote a story that let out a big-time drug dealer. He was looking at federal charges, and he was a drug dealer. But because they cut corners and lied on the search warrant, the feds had to let him go.
MARTIN: Well, it wasn't just that people just criticized you. Let's just be a little bit more clear about shall we. I mean, that a police blog listed your home addresses. People expressed the hope that you would be raped...
MARTIN: ...And that you would call 911 and that no one would come and things of that sort. Did that ever - I mean...
RUDERMAN: Yeah, I mean, there is a website - it's not defunct. But there was a website in Philadelphia, and police officers would post things about what they wanted to happen to us, which is they hoped we got beaten, raped. They nicknamed us the Slime Sistas, which, you know, we, to this day, like, kind of joke with each other about. But it was serious at the time. The Fraternal Order of Police, which is a very powerful union in the city of Philadelphia, held a big press conference right after we ran the first stories to debunk our stories and say, really, we were, like, the lowest of low. You know, one step beneath a drug informant is a Daily News reporter is the way they termed it.
MARTIN: Did that affect your reporting?
RUDERMAN: No, because at this point we were already - we were working on the stories about the merchants and the bodegas, and we believed in this story. And when you believe there's something that horribly wrong and such a wrongdoing done by people who are supposed to protect and serve us, we weren't going to let go. So we weren't going to walk away from this. And in fact, it made us want to fight harder to find the truth.
MARTIN: Tell me about the sexual assault aspect of the story.
RUDERMAN: Right. Well, we had been hearing all along that there was one officer who his nickname was the Boob Man. And even police officers outside of Philadelphia who were in narcotics and worked closely with the Philadelphia police knew he had a fetish for large-breasted women. And during raids, he would take them into separate rooms, like back rooms, and he would pull up their shirts and fondle them. And in one really terrible case, he shoved his fist up a woman's vagina. And she was just so traumatized by it that she went to the hospital that very night, and they did a rape kit. And internal affairs had known who this cop was, and they took him off the street. But the thing is then she disappeared because she began to get threats from the cops. And so...
MARTIN: How do you know she got threats from the police? How do know that's who was threatening her?
RUDERMAN: Right, that's a good question. Go-ahead, Barbara.
LAKER: There was a - she lived in a neighborhood in Philadelphia. And at one point, there was a police car that drove up and saw her walking along the street. They had her get in the car, and they threatened that she better drop it or she'd be sorry.
MARTIN: So let's fast-forward here. What has happened as a result of this? You've demonstrated that people are creating false information in order to arrest people who may or may not be guilty, but that's what trials are for.
LAKER: Correct, yeah.
MARTIN: You find out that people are raiding these storeowners under - let's just call it a pretext - and stealing their merchandise. And then at least one person sworn uniformed police officer is using the pretext of these raids to fondle and sexually assault women. What's happened?
RUDERMAN: Well, that's the outrageous part of it that these officers, they're still on desk duty. They've been riding a desk. They don't have police powers. They don't have - they're not able to have a badge or a gun, but they're still collecting their paychecks. They're still building up their pensions. The FBI won't say whether they're finished their investigation or what is the status of their investigation. None of the women have appeared before a grand jury or even been brought in to be questioned nor have the bodega owners, the shop owners. And we - Barbara and I really feel that if these women were not minorities, if these shop owners were not minorities, if this was happening in a more middle-class, suburban area, there would be consequences.
MARTIN: Now the city has paid out in damages, has it not?
MARTIN: I mean, there have been lawsuits. And who has that money gone to? It's something like $2 million to settle lawsuits. Who has received that money?
LAKER: It's gone to some of the merchants and two of the three women who sued the city. And the city has settled without saying they're guilty of anything, but they have settled. But I think that one of the most - other outrageous parts of the story is that one of the merchants who actually had a backup video in his store that he provided us, he has lost his store. He's had to sell his house. And so he has lost his faith in America and the American dream.
MARTIN: Well, why? Why has he lost his store because of this? Why?
LAKER: Because he was charged with this misdemeanor for having the little baggies. And then he owed money to lawyers because of the criminal case that he was charged with. And so he's lost a lot of money so he could no longer afford to keep the store. And the women, too, they feel like nobody has heard them.
MARTIN: Does it make you crazy a little bit that more has not occurred to bring accountability to people who behaved in this way, you know, wearing the badge, representing your city?
LAKER: Definitely, it really does 'cause these - the women who talk to us, and same with the merchants, I mean, they really put themselves out there. And we see what they did as courageous. And for them to not even be questioned by a grand jury or be interviewed I think is - I mean, it eats at us every day that that hasn't happened.
MARTIN: It's a hard question to answer but why do you think that hasn't happened? Does either of you have a theory about that? Wendy, you started to offer some thoughts about that.
RUDERMAN: You know, it's very frustrating. We've heard that the FBI doesn't do sex crimes so they're waiting for the District Attorney's Office to do something about this officer and the women. And that the DA's office says, well, we're waiting for the FBI to finish its investigation. But I also think that Philadelphia is - one of its problems is it's a big union town. The union has a - all the unions really have a stranglehold on the city. And it just seems like in Philadelphia the Fraternal Order of Police, they're like kingmakers. They can make a mayor. They can break a judge. They basically control a lot of the political powers that be, and people are terrified of the Fraternal Order of Police.
MARTIN: What do you want people to draw from this?
RUDERMAN: Even when we were writing the part of the story where they were cutting corners to lock up drug dealers, we still believed that that was wrong and that that should have a light shined on it because it's a slippery slope. If it's maybe the drug dealer one day, maybe it's someone like me or you the next day. So we don't feel like police officers should be able to break the law to enforce the law. Yes, we got backlash, but letting people know that this was going on was important to us.
MARTIN: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker are investigative reporters with the Philadelphia Daily News. Their work earned them the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. They recall that entire experience in a new book titled "Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love." And they were kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
RUDERMAN: Thank you.
LAKER: Thanks so much for having us.
MARTIN: We should mention that we did reach out to the Philadelphia Police Department. A spokesman there says the department has not had a chance to read the book. But they say they take all allegations of misconduct or corruption seriously. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.