THE SUN hung low in the sky as Franchezka Garcia followed the police cruiser in her minivan through the battered streets of West Kensington.

Garcia's stepfather, Jose Castro, sat handcuffed in the cruiser's back seat that warm spring evening.

Minutes before, Garcia, 26, her boyfriend, Jay DeJesus, 22, and Castro, 46, had stopped for gas at Front and Lehigh. Castro went inside the mini-mart for a pack of smokes.

As Castro emerged from the store, Garcia saw Officer Joseph Sulpizio stop, search and handcuff him. She thought that he was taking Castro to the police district, so she and DeJesus followed in her minivan.

But she grew puzzled - frightened, even - when the police car turned off Front Street and rolled to a stop on a deserted stretch of Tusculum Street. The block is an urban wasteland, sandwiched between a teetering chain-link fence obscured by overgrown weeds and a graffiti-marred brick wall.

Garcia and DeJesus pulled over about 25 feet away and watched.

In the shadow of an abandoned factory, Sulpizio took Castro from the patrol car and rifled through his jeans' pockets, taking out cash. Castro was carrying $500 in pay from the scrapyard where he worked.

Garcia and her boyfriend said they saw Sulpizio stuff the bills into his right back pocket. Sulpizio then uncuffed Castro and told him that he was free to go.

"Stop! You got my money!" Castro said he yelled after Sulpizio as he walked to his police cruiser that April 16 night.

Garcia dialed 9-1-1.

It wasn't the first time that Sulpizio, a narcotics officer with Strike Force North, had been accused of theft. He'd been taken off the street twice since 2008 for allegedly stealing money from people he detained but never arrested.

At least two high-ranking narcotics supervisors have repeatedly contacted the Internal Affairs Bureau - in memos and phone calls - to voice concern that Sulpizio might be a thief.

Next month, Sulpizio is scheduled to go before the Police Board of Inquiry to explain why he took Castro to Front and Tusculum and failed to radio in his whereabouts.

Yesterday, Commissioner Charles Ramsey removed Sulpizio from street duty for a third time after the Daily News asked Sulpizio's superiors for comment.

"I benched him," said Ramsey, who added that the department had taken Sulpizio's gun from him.

Ramsey said Sulpizio had been told that he's "under investigation for allegations of misconduct. We became aware of the story, and our investigation was compromised. Once the story breaks, I can't leave him out there.

"We're doing all we can to eradicate our ranks of officers who engage in acts of corruption and misconduct," Ramsey said.

In a telephone interview with the Daily News Wednesday night, Sulpizio denied having taken money from Castro - or from anyone else.

"I've worked in narcotics for 13 years, and I do my job and I do it right," he said. "And I've never, ever taken money from anyone. I record any money I confiscate [in drug investigations] on a property receipt."

Sulpizio, an 18-year veteran appointed to the Narcotics Strike Force in 1997, is well-known in some North Philadelphia neighborhoods. Some residents told the Daily News that they know him not only by face, but also by the squad car he typically drives - N142.

"I know him, and I know the car he drives," said Jose Colon, 46, who lives on 4th Street near Clearfield. "He [steals] when he's by himself. Everybody in this neighborhood knows he's stealing. He's stealing money from everybody."

Attorney Richard Shore represents a North Philadelphia man who claims that Sulpizio stole $3,640 from his house.

"I think it's obscene," Shore said. "Police have an obligation to uphold the law. When they cross the line, they're undermining the very neighborhoods that they're supposed to be protecting."

'My bad'

It was about 7 p.m. on July 5, 2008, when Sulpizio and his partner, Officer Gregory Fagan, stopped and searched three men on suspicion of drug possession at 18th and Ontario, in North Philly.

Sulpizio patted down Preston Fulton, 19, while Fagan searched the two other men. No drugs were found.

"[Sulpizio] gave back our IDs and said, 'You have a nice day,' " Fulton told the Daily News.

Fagan and Sulpizio drove off. That's when Fulton discovered his $500 was gone.

"I jumped up," Fulton said. "I yelled 'em down and said, 'My money was with my ID! You took the money!'

"They kept going. I know they heard me."

Fulton dialed 9-1-1. Lt. Aisha Perry, a 39th District supervisor, arrived on the scene minutes later.

She got on the police radio and asked the officers who stopped Fulton to return. Sulpizio arrived and strolled out of the car.

"He went right up to [Fulton], patted him on the shoulder and said, 'My bad,' " said Karen Allen, 51, a witness.

Sulpizio handed the money back to Fulton, with Perry and two other 39th District officers watching, according to a confidential Internal Affairs report obtained by the Daily News.

Sulpizio and Fagan said they didn't realize until they flipped open their police laptop that they still had Fulton's cash and ID, according to the report. Fulton, however, contends that Sulpizio returned his ID without the money.

Sulpizio apologized to Fulton and told Perry that he made a mistake and simply "forgot" to return the cash.

Perry wrote up an incident report and contacted Internal Affairs.

Staff Inspector Jerrold Bates, of Internal Affairs, concluded that the theft allegation could not be proved or disproved.

But Bates also concluded that Sulpizio and Fagan "failed to conduct a proper investigation." Sulpizio was pulled off the street for 73 days. He was given a written reprimand for "neglect of duty."

In the recent interview with the Daily News, Sulpizio described the incident as a simple "miscommunication" between him and his partner. He mistakenly thought that his partner had already returned Fulton's money.

'It was a bunch of lies'

About 9:30 p.m. on March 24, 2009, Sulpizio and five other officers were doing drug surveillance in West Kensington.

Officer Christopher Hulmes said he saw a man knock on the door of James London's home, on Mutter Street near Westmoreland, and hand him an unknown amount of money, according to the police report of the incident. London shut the door and returned a minute later to give the man a clear baggie with small, dark-green objects inside.

Hulmes told Sulpizio what he'd seen. Sulpizio approached London, who stepped away and attempted to close the door in his face, the police report said.

Sulpizio forced his way inside. "They never had a warrant for the house," said London's attorney, Richard Shore.

"There was a lot of commotion. [London] was looking out to see what was happening. He may have said something, something derogatory to police," said Shore, who declined to elaborate.

Police found no drugs or drug paraphernalia in London's home. Sulpizio arrested London and confiscated $20 from his pocket and $610 from a black box on the kitchen table, the police report said.

But Shore and London's live-in girlfriend, Linda Keller, 25, said that the black box contained $4,250 and that Sulpizio pocketed all but the $610 that he recorded on a property receipt.

Keller said the money had come from returned bail on an unrelated Florida case involving London.

"I'm mad because they didn't find anything," she said. "It was a bunch of lies."

London was charged with drug dealing. His case is pending.

Cash in a brown paper bag

Just before 9 p.m. on Aug. 18, a community activist who has lived in Kensington more than 50 years looked out his second-floor bedroom window and saw car N142 parked on the sidewalk in front of the Richmond Post Office, on Willard Street near Emerald.

The activist, 59, a retired court employee who didn't want to be named, told the Daily News that a tall, white officer was alone inside the car with the interior light on. The officer removed about 10 stacks of money, bundled in rubber bands, from a brown paper bag.

He held the money to the light and scrutinized each bill.

"He was looking to see if it was marked money," the activist said. "When I realized what he was doing, I turned off the light so he couldn't see me watching him from the upstairs window."

The officer repeatedly stretched up in the driver's seat and stuffed bills into what appeared to be his pockets, the activist said.

The next morning, the activist called the police commissioner's hot line to report what he'd seen.

"I gave them the number of the police car, the time he was there, the time he left," he said.

On that night, Sulpizio worked a 4-to-midnight shift. He was assigned to car N142, according to a police-assignment sheet.

His unit was conducting a drug surveillance on Jasper Street near Wensley Street, not far from a post office.

Sulpizio told the Daily News that he routinely drives car N142, but that he knew nothing about the complaint involving the money in a brown paper bag.

"I have no clue about that," he said. "You tell me. . . . I have no idea what you're talking about."

Lt. Kevin Long, of Internal Affairs, confirmed that the bureau had received the report, but that it inaccurately listed the location as "Willis Street." No such street could be found, Long said.

Since the tip was anonymous, Internal Affairs couldn't clarify the location, he said.

Later that month, on Aug. 28, Sulpizio and other unit members conducted a drug surveillance on 4th Street near Clearfield, in North Philly.

Mayra Guzman, 40, was at Episcopal Hospital with a sick friend when her daughter called to say that police officers were inside her 4th Street rowhouse. She rushed back to find her house torn apart.

The officers arrested Omar Gomez, 22, the boyfriend of Guzman's daughter. Police said they saw Gomez dealing drugs on the street.

Officer Patrick Banning testified at a preliminary court hearing Tuesday that Sulpizio had searched Guzman's house. Banning said that no drugs had been found.

Guzman said she soon discovered that $1,500 that she had hidden in her sofa cushions was missing. The officers never gave her a property receipt for the money, she said.

Guzman, who doesn't speak English, spoke with the Daily News through Jose Colon, a family friend.

"That money was from her SSI check," Colon said. "She needed that money to pay bills. She's mad because she can do nothing."

Colon said Sulpizio - in the N142 car he typically drives - is well-known in the neighborhood as a cop with sticky fingers.

"He likes to do a lot of stuff to the Spanish people because he knows that some Spanish people don't speak English, and he takes advantage of that," Colon said.

'I have no concerns'

Jose Castro never understood why Sulpizio stopped and handcuffed him at the gas station on Front and Lehigh that April night.

"I told the officer, 'I have $500. I work. I do not sell drugs,' " Castro said in an Internal Affairs statement.

After Sulpizio searched him and found nothing, he removed the handcuffs and returned Castro's money and cell phone.

Castro said $300 was missing. "Give me my money," Castro said he told Sulpizio.

"He left with the money," DeJesus said. "How can a cop take someone someplace to rob them?"

"The cop got power," he said. "He steals people's money. It's just not right."

Sulpizio admitted to Internal Affairs that he drove Castro to Front and Tusculum, but never explained why. The investigator never asked, according to the IAB report.

When asked the same question by the Daily News, Sulpizio said: "I think it was a miscommunication. I was stopping the wrong person."

Sulpizio also said that he wasn't aware that Castro had lodged a complaint about money. He denied having taken any cash.

The night of the incident, Sulpizio's supervisor, Capt. Debra Frazier, contacted Internal Affairs and requested that Sulpizio be immediately removed from the street pending their investigation, police sources said.

Sulpizio was off the street from April 19 to May 6. Internal Affairs put him back in narcotics just two days after an investigator interviewed him about the case.

Internal Affairs didn't sustain the theft allegation but charged him with "neglect of duty" for not following proper police procedure when he detained Castro.

He's pleaded not guilty and is slated to go before the Police Board of Inquiry next month.

"I have no concerns because . . . I've never ever taken money from anyone," Sulpizio said.