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The sexual assault trial for a former Philly detective opened with clashing visions of his time on the force

Prosecutors said Philip Nordo exploited the prestige of his position to attack vulnerable men. But his attorneys say he was a dedicated cop who is wrongfully accused.

Former Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo, right, leaves the Criminal Justice Center with his lawyer, Michael van der Veen, last week.
Former Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo, right, leaves the Criminal Justice Center with his lawyer, Michael van der Veen, last week.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philip Nordo was a star Philadelphia homicide detective for a decade, hand-picked to serve on a special task force assigned to high-profile or complex investigations.

But his tenure in the department was depicted in two vastly different ways Monday, as prosecutors and Nordo’s attorneys delivered opening statements in his trial on sexual assault charges.

Prosecutors — who have accused Nordo of abusing witnesses during his time on the force — said he was keenly aware of the power his job afforded him. They said Nordo exploited the prestige of his position to commit his crimes against vulnerable men, forcing himself on them in cars, hotel rooms, and even an elevator at Police Headquarters.

“This case is about power and corruption,” said Assistant District Attorney Brian Collins.

The detective, he said, “had all the power to do what he wanted.”

Nordo’s attorneys, meanwhile, said his prestigious assignment was the result of his dedication to fighting crime in a violent city. Nordo was given awards during his time in homicide, Michael van der Veen told jurors, and was frequently lauded by his supervisors for working at all hours of the day and night.

Those accusing him of wrongdoing, van der Veen said, “are criminals, and liars, and thieves,” who have offered inconsistent stories, without corroborating evidence, to wrongfully accuse a decorated investigator.

“It takes dedication to be a top homicide detective,” the lawyer said. “And Phil was.”

Those dueling portraits offered an indication of how each side might seek to frame the allegations against Nordo at his trial, which is expected to last several weeks.

The District Attorney’s Office charged Nordo in 2019 with crimes including rape, sexual assault, and official oppression. Prosecutors have also accused the former homicide detective of defrauding city reward funds, and the DA’s Office in recent years has been overturning convictions tied to him due to his alleged misconduct (though that aspect of the case is unlikely to be part of the trial).

Collins told jurors Monday that prosecutors will present three main witnesses. Each has accused Nordo of varying levels of assault.

One of them, Collins said — an informant in the 2012 fatal shooting of Officer Moses Walker — said Nordo steered $20,000 in reward money his way, then, years later, raped him in a Chinatown hotel room.

Another man, a former prison guard, said Nordo harassed him and ultimately tried to assault him in a car. And a third man — also an informant for Nordo — said the detective tried to kiss him and touch his groin in an elevator at Police Headquarters, Collins said.

(Prosecutors dropped a host of related counts last week after saying they’d been unable to locate a fourth witness who had been expected to testify.)

Van der Veen said each of the three witnesses had provided inconsistent and contradictory accounts over time. He also said they were “threatened” by prosecutors seeking to concoct stories in an otherwise-baseless case against Nordo.

And although Common Pleas Court Judge Giovanni Campbell barred van der Veen from casting the prosecution as a political effort of reform-oriented District Attorney Larry Krasner, van der Veen told jurors that Krasner’s office was siding with witnesses who lived in the city’s “underbelly” over a detective who spent his career seeking justice for victims of violence.

“The DA has chosen to believe the informant over the informed,” van der Veen said.

Nordo has denied wrongdoing, and last week rejected an offer to plead guilty to four charges.

Prosecutors have not specified what sentence they might seek if he’s convicted.

Testimony in the case began late Monday morning, but was not expected to resume until Tuesday because of a severe weather forecast.