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Drug charges withdrawn, dozens more cases at stake over questionable narcotics squad

ANUMBER OF DRUG cases involving a recently dismantled and controversial narcotics squad were withdrawn Thursday, a move that defense attorneys across the city said was long overdue.

A NUMBER OF DRUG cases involving a recently dismantled and controversial narcotics squad were withdrawn Thursday, a move that defense attorneys across the city said was long overdue.

The reaction came on the heels of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey transferring five officers - Perry Betts, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Thomas Liciardello and Brian Speiser - and Lt. Robert Otto out of narcotics.

For years, the officers had been targets of numerous federal lawsuits - many of which the city settled - and mounds of Police Internal Affairs complaints.

Defense attorneys had complained to the District Attorney's Office about them and told judges that this group fabricated evidence, planted drugs, stole money and used excessive force.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to use them as witnesses in federal drug cases for at least two years, sources said.

And recently the D.A.'s office told Ramsey that prosecutors no longer wanted to use the testimony of these officers in drug cases due to credibility problems.

"I would characterize them as a group of cowboys who run roughshod over the truth to create criminal prosecutions," said Michael C. Schwartz, an attorney who is representing Theodore Carobine, who has filed a civil suit against Liciardello, Spicer, Betts, Reynolds and three other cops.

"It's a long time coming," Schwartz said.

Now, dozens of criminal cases are at stake. Those pending could be dismissed, while closed cases could be overturned, legal experts say.

Ramsey has transferred Betts, Spicer, Liciardello and Speiser to Center City districts and Reynolds to the traffic unit. Otto was moved to South Detectives.

None of the officers could be reached for comment and John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, did not return a phone call. McNesby reportedly has defended the officers, saying that they are hardworking and aggressive, and that the accusations are unfounded.

This is the second group of narcotics officers since 2009 that have been prohibited from working drug cases over allegations of misconduct. The first group was the subject of the Daily News' 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tainted Justice" series.

Guy Sciolla, a defense attorney in the city, said that many of the search warrants prepared by the squad in the recent cases were cookie-cutter with duplicate language and scenarios.

"It was always the same story and when you do that, even the district attorney is somewhat skeptical," he said. "How can it all be the same?"

Sciolla said that he talked to the D.A.'s office about his concerns, as did others.

He applauded Ramsey and D.A. Seth Williams for removing the officers from drug cases.

In an October hearing on a drug case, attorney Larry Krasner implored Municipal Judge Charles Hayden to take into account that the officers, including Spicer and Liciardello, have "integrity issues" and have been accused of theft.

"Obviously, when you steal money, drugs or both, you don't write on your police paperwork, 'Oh, by the way, I stole some money, drugs or both.' You have to cover it up. You have to falsify it. And you have to be prepared to testify falsely in court," Krasner told the court.

Michael Pileggi, who has several lawsuits against the squad, said that he expects some of those convicted to be freed as a result of the transfers.

"A lot of these guys are sitting in jail and shouldn't be," Pileggi said. "They're sitting there because these guys contrived stories or evidence was planted."

Bradley S. Bridge, an attorney with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that these officers "had been on my radar for a long time. Those names are all familiar because clients had complained that these officers fabricated evidence and perjured themselves."

Theodore Carobine, of Northeast Philadelphia, was 50 years old and had no criminal history when he was arrested in July 2009.

In his lawsuit, Carobine alleges that the officers planted methamphetamine in his house and took more than $2,300 and rings. He was jailed for five weeks until he could raise bail. Prosecutors later withdrew the case.

Christopher Conolly, of South Philadelphia, alleges in his lawsuit that on Dec. 20, 2010, Liciardello and another officer pulled him over after he had left his martial-arts class.

Conolly couldn't tell that they were officers because they drove an unmarked car with tinted windows and wore hooded sweatshirts, jeans and boots. He thought that he was going to get carjacked.

The officers cursed at him when he asked to see a badge and would not identify themselves. Fearing for his life, Conolly drove away and tried to call 9-1-1.

The officers caught up to him and Conolly got out of the car with his hands up. Liciardello threw him to the ground and slammed his head against the pavement and choked him with a flashlight, according to the lawsuit.

"If you don't shut up, I will put a f------ bullet in your head. Don't think I am kidding, I will blow your f------ head off," Liciardello allegedly told him.

Conolly was charged with recklessly endangering another person, resisting arrest and fleeing to elude a police officer. The charges were dropped and the city settled the suit.