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An ex-Philly homicide detective’s fall from star investigator to accused rapist

The DA's Office charged Philip Nordo with preying on male witnesses. An Inquirer review of jailhouse phone transcripts and court documents sheds light on the charges — and on the extent to which convictions he helped win may be jeopardized.

Philip Nordo.
Philip Nordo.Read morePhiladelphia Police Department

Rhaheem Friend said he never called anyone else from jail.

When he wanted to talk about his pending criminal case or shoot the breeze about the Eagles, he dialed up Philip Nordo, a Philadelphia homicide detective who was counting on Friend to testify in a pending murder case, according to call transcripts reviewed by the Inquirer. Between June 2015 and January 2017, the two spoke on the phone more than 50 times.

Sometimes, they cryptically talked about other inmates, and Nordo — who also improperly placed $400 on Friend’s inmate account — often asked how Friend’s fellow prisoners were treating him behind bars.

“He’s good people," Friend said of his cellmate during a call March 13, 2017.

“I imagine he is, if he’s taking care of you, too,” Nordo replied.

“Yeah … on that note … ,” Friend said with a laugh.

Nordo laughed: “On that note … ." Then he added: “So he, he gonna take care of me too, right?”

“Absolutely,” Friend replied.

The discussions between Nordo and Friend may take on renewed significance now that Philadelphia prosecutors have charged Nordo with raping and intimidating male witnesses during his career on the force. As part of a grand jury presentment unveiled Tuesday, prosecutors alleged that Nordo also asked prisoners to identify gay inmates, and that he groomed young men for assaults that sometimes occurred in interrogation rooms or prison visiting rooms.

The presentment is heavily redacted, and it is not clear whether the conversations between Nordo and Friend played any role in prosecutors’ case. But those conversations — as well as recorded prison phone calls between Nordo and other witnesses expected to testify alongside Friend — led a Common Pleas Court judge last year to let a murder suspect walk free.

Even in a city where police scandals have included claims of systemic brutality and misuse of informants, law enforcement officials said after Nordo’s arrest that they had never before heard similar allegations. And the fallout is almost certainly just beginning.

Defense attorneys across the city already have begun reviewing convictions that Nordo helped secure, to see if more cases should be tossed. An Inquirer review of court records shows that the ex-detective — who was fired in August 2017 — testified in at least 28 cases between 2004 and 2016, and was listed as an arresting officer in 65 cases during that period.

In another twist, Michael T. van der Veen, who previously represented Friend, is now Nordo’s attorney. Van der Veen said Friday that he did not represent Friend in the murder case involving Nordo, and that Nordo maintains his innocence. Van der Veen said he has not been able to view the extent of the allegations against Nordo because much of the presentment is blacked out.

“We’re filing motions to bring these allegations to the light of day so that we can conduct a proper investigation and mount an appropriate defense,” van der Veen said. He also plans to ask that Nordo — currently being held in protective custody in Northampton County without bail — be granted the opportunity to post bail and be released before trial. He said that Nordo, married with two children, is a “family man.”

Commissioner Richard Ross said in an interview that he has seen no evidence suggesting that any of Nordo’s colleagues were aware of his alleged behavior. Ross said that Nordo — known for working round the clock — frequently worked alone and apparently “was able to manipulate a lot of people in the system” into trusting him.

“What may have happened in this case is a failure of oversight from a supervisory standpoint, in what Nordo was doing and what type of latitude that he had,” Ross said. “But [there was] not anyone who clearly knew what he was doing.”

Early warning sign?

Nordo, a third-generation cop, joined the Police Department in 1997 and became a detective in 2002.

The grand jury presentment alleges that his first crime occurred in 2005, when prosecutors say he obtained a signed confession from a robbery suspect after ordering the man to masturbate in the interrogation room. The document accuses Nordo, then working in the East Detective Division, of touching the man, kissing him, and massaging his penis.

The next day, the presentment says, the man reported the incident to police, and crime-scene investigators collected evidence. Testing supported the man’s assertion that he had ejaculated inside the room, the document says. Ross said the case was referred to the DA’s Office, but Nordo was never charged or disciplined.

The DA at the time, Lynne Abraham, said in an interview Friday that she could not recall the case and therefore could not comment on it.

Ross said: “I think what happened is they weren’t able to prove that Nordo had anything to do with it. It was one word against the other.”

Prosecutors, in the presentment, alleged that Nordo keenly understood that power imbalance.

“Nordo admonished several victims that if they came forward to report the assault, authorities would not believe the victims because he was a detective and they were not,” the document says.

Promotion to Homicide

Nordo was promoted to the Homicide Unit in 2009 and quickly was assigned to a special task force often charged with working difficult investigations, including identifying the so-called Kensington Strangler, a man suspected of terrorizing the neighborhood by raping and killing women, then leaving their bodies out in public.

That case, which attracted national attention, ended in 2012, when Antonio Rodriguez was convicted and sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Not all of Nordo’s cases were high-profile. He often earned praise from his bosses for working suspected drug killings in Overbrook Park, neighborhood disputes in East Mount Airy, and botched robberies in North Philadelphia. The former commander of the Homicide Unit, Capt. James Clark, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

Andrew Pappas, a public defender, was the first to subpoena the phone calls between Nordo and Friend after hearing about the detective’s relationship with Friend. Pappas said he was “shocked” at what he heard in the calls, which helped lead to his client’s acquittal in 2017, then precipitated the downfall of a murder prosecution.

“I think just the brazen way in which [Nordo] was doing all of this, he never thought anybody would look,” Pappas said in an interview.

Jerome Brown, a defense attorney, said Nordo behaved unusually when interacting with his client about a decade ago.

After the man initially refused to give a statement to Nordo, Brown said, probation and parole officers went to the man’s house and threatened to throw him in jail.

The man, whom Brown declined to identify, agreed to talk to Nordo without Brown present to avoid imprisonment. And according to Brown, the man got a call from Nordo weeks later asking him to come to a Center City hotel room. Brown said that his client believed that Nordo was propositioning him for sex, but that the man left the room before anything happened.

Brown declined to say what steps, if any, he took to report that alleged incident. But he said he was left with a distinct impression of Nordo: “He wouldn’t stop at anything to get a statement."

Ross said he believed that Nordo’s alleged crimes stemmed from a desire to “[take] advantage of people.” Asked if Nordo’s alleged misdeeds were indicative of a do-anything-it-takes culture in the Homicide Unit, the commissioner said: “No. Absolutely, categorically not.”

Reviews to come

Bradley S. Bridge, a public defender who has overseen the reversal of about 1,500 tainted narcotics cases in Philadelphia, said it was all but certain that new claims of misconduct against Nordo would emerge — even if they don’t relate directly to Nordo’s alleged sexual crimes.

In recent years, Bridge and the DA’s Office have developed a procedure for reviewing drug cases, but he said comparing that process with what’s required in examining homicide convictions is akin to contrasting “removing a splinter and open-heart surgery.”

Private defense attorney Earl Kauffman said some cases might not be worth fighting.

A client of his, Lloyd Butler, 38, was convicted in a 2014 trial that featured testimony from Nordo. But prosecutors presented two other strong witnesses, Kauffman said, and a judge likely would consider their statements in any challenge to the conviction.

Still, some other cases connected to Nordo may be on more tenuous ground.

Sherman McCoy, 26, was convicted largely due to a statement he gave to Nordo, according to his trial attorney, Jack McMahon. Nordo is not accused of sexually assaulting McCoy, but McMahon claimed Nordo “manipulated” his client, who has an IQ of 60, into signing a statement implicating himself.

The DA’s Office said it had provided information about Nordo to “multiple” defense lawyers. Court records indicate McCoy’s appellate attorney, Karl Schwartz, was among them.

Schwartz declined to discuss the case but appears to have made good use of the information. In January, he asked the appeals court to send the case back to the Philadelphia court to determine if McCoy should be given a new trial. The appeals court promptly agreed.

No date has been set for the next listing. Prosecutors did not say if they planned to defend the conviction.