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Up to 49 years in prison for an ex-Philly homicide detective who sexually abused witnesses and informants

The sentence for Philip Nordo capped a stunning downfall for the once-celebrated investigator.

Lawyer Michael van der Veen (left) and former Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo leave the Criminal Justice Center on May 10.
Lawyer Michael van der Veen (left) and former Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo leave the Criminal Justice Center on May 10.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

A former Philadelphia homicide detective was sentenced Friday to 24½ to 49 years in prison for sexually assaulting witnesses and informants in murder cases, capping a stunning downfall for the once-celebrated investigator.

In handing down the punishment, Common Pleas Court Judge Giovanni Campbell said Philip Nordo had exhibited a “disturbing capacity for cruelty” and “weaponized his power and influence” as a police officer. He said Nordo’s crimes amounted to a “betrayal of public trust ... in one of the worst ways imaginable.”

Nordo did not visibly react to the decision, and he declined an opportunity to address Campbell before his sentence was imposed.

His lawyer, Michael van der Veen, said afterward that Nordo “maintains his innocence and plans to appeal.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner, meanwhile, called Nordo’s crimes “a terrible abuse of [his] position, to coerce and victimize other people. While we take no delight in the downfall of anyone, this is a sentence that has been earned.”

Nordo, 56, was convicted this spring of rape, sexual assault, official oppression, and related crimes after a two-week trial in which three men told jurors that he’d approached them seeking information in homicide cases, then went on to force them into encounters that ranged from groping at Police Headquarters to unwanted sex in a Chinatown hotel room.

Prosecutors said Nordo also illegally steered $20,000 in reward money to one of the men, and suggested he may have played a role in leaking the confidential statement of another. And they said Nordo — who had been handpicked to serve on a special task force that handled complex or high-profile investigations — used the prestige of his position to intimidate his targets to stay silent.

At Friday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Brian Collins read statements from two of the victims in which the men described a deep sense of shame and trauma that has persisted since their encounters with Nordo.

One of them said his wife routinely has to wake him from nightmares that cause him to jostle in his sleep. The other said Nordo’s attempt to sexually assault him “destroyed my life.”

“I feel nothing but pain and sadness every day,” the man wrote.

Nordo’s attorneys had denied that he committed any crime, saying his accusers were not credible and that he had been a dedicated detective improperly targeted by a flawed and biased investigation. They said he had been given awards for his work, which often required him to build rapport with people who were prone to lying, and that he had been falsely accused of abuse by men with credibility issues and inconsistent testimony.

Van der Veen on Friday asked Campbell to impose a sentence of less than 10 years, saying Nordo had worked diligently to solve murders and had the backing of his family and friends. Van der Veen said more than a dozen of his supporters submitted letters to the judge that emphasized what they viewed as his good deeds and character, and with some saying they did not believe the charges against him.

Campbell, the judge, said the detective exhibited “sophisticated and invasive” tactics to target and exploit his victims.

Nordo “deeply enjoyed the control” he exerted over people, he said, and “violated the humanity” of those he subjected to abuse.

Nordo’s downfall began in 2017, when Internal Affairs started investigating accusations that he’d improperly paid a key witness in a murder case. At that point, Nordo had served in the Police Department for two decades, about half of those years in the Homicide Unit, where he had been regarded as a tireless investigator with a sprawling network of informants.

A few months into the investigation, Nordo was fired for what police officials said was “knowingly and intentionally associating, fraternizing, or socializing” with people connected to criminal conduct.

And the next year, a Philadelphia judge tossed out a murder case Nordo had investigated, citing what she called his “outrageous” behavior, including developing unusual relationships with key informants — interactions that were documented on recorded prison phone calls.

In February 2019, after a grand jury investigation, prosecutors charged Nordo with grooming and sexually assaulting witnesses during his time on the force. The three men who testified against him at trial offered graphic and emotional accounts of their interactions with him.

Prosecutors at trial also played several recorded phone calls between Nordo and men in prison, in which Nordo could be heard calling the men freaks, telling them to keep an open mind, and promising them jobs at a pornography business (investigators never found proof that such a business existed).

After Nordo’s 2019 arrest, the District Attorney’s Office began investigating cases he’d worked on to determine if they’d been marred by misconduct — an unprecedented undertaking, in part because of the scope of the review. Prosecutors believe Nordo helped secure around 100 convictions.

Judges have so far agreed to overturn at least 11 murder convictions in cases Nordo investigated — five of which prosecutors consider full exonerations — and the District Attorney’s Office is still reviewing dozens of others to see if they need to be remedied.