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Victims in 'Tainted Justice' series outraged at lack of charges

Victims outraged that prosecutors won't press charges against rogue narcotics squad.

Jose Duran of South Jersey owned a bodega convenience store in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. He is sharing video footage of police cutting video camera wires while raiding his store. This photo was taken on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at his South Jersey home.  ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
Jose Duran of South Jersey owned a bodega convenience store in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia. He is sharing video footage of police cutting video camera wires while raiding his store. This photo was taken on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at his South Jersey home. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWSRead moreDN

THE OWNERS of 22 bodegas and corner stores across Philadelphia believed that the narcotics officers who had sliced the wires to their surveillance cameras before allegedly looting their stores would be charged with theft and vandalism.

Three women thought they, too, would find justice after one of the officers, Thomas Tolstoy, allegedly sexually assaulted them during raids.

So yesterday, when these victims learned that federal and local prosecutors had decided not to file criminal charges against the cops, they were shocked and outraged.

"I think it's awful, just awful," said Dagma Rodriguez, her voice quivering. She told the Daily News in 2009 that Tolstoy groped her and fondled her breasts during a raid.

"Think about it. If it was anyone other than the police with a badge, they would do something and they would lock them up. But because they're cops, they got off. It makes me sick."

Defense lawyers were equally incensed.

"I'm deeply disappointed that after all the evidence, they did not see fit to prosecute a case in which there was ample injustice that occurred that can only be rectified by prosecution," said Bradley S. Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

"The officers involved behaved criminally and should face appropriate consequences for their actions," he said. "They should not be absolved from responsibility."

In a series of 2009 articles that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, the Daily News uncovered allegations of widespread misconduct and abuse by officers in a Narcotics Field Unit squad.

The series, "Tainted Justice," led to creation of an FBI-directed task force after the Daily News reported that a longtime drug informant had accused Officer Jeffrey Cujdik of lying on search-warrant applications to gain access to suspected drug homes.

The probe mushroomed when the People Paper reported allegations that the squad took cash and merchandise from corner stores during raids. The cops charged merchants with misdemeanors for selling little zipper-seal bags, which police say are used to package drugs.

The Daily News subsequently obtained a video of Jose Duran's West Oak Lane store during a September 2007 raid. In the video, the officers are seen slicing wires to Duran's surveillance system before they allegedly stole nearly $10,000 in cash and cartons of cigarettes. After the cameras went dark, the officers guzzled drinks and scarfed down turkey hoagies, Little Debbie fudge brownies and Cheez-Its, Duran said.

Then came allegations about Tolstoy, with one woman telling the Daily News that he had digitally penetrated her vagina. The woman walked to the hospital, where a rape kit was ordered. She didn't know the name of the officer, but the police Internal Affairs Bureau took Tolstoy off the street that night.

None of the women or merchants had criminal records.

Five officers, including Cujdik, his brother Richard, and Tolstoy, were placed on desk duty. Five years later, all but one, who retired, remain there.

(The articles led to a recently published book by the prizewinning reporters, Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.)

In 2009, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey asked the FBI to open an investigation, saying the allegations were "very troubling."

About five months ago, the U.S. Attorney's Office informed Ramsey that it declined prosecution, he said yesterday.

"So then we took the file and gave it to the D.A.'s office for its review," the city's top cop said.

Last month, the D.A.'s Office told Ramsey that it, too, declined to prosecute.

"Federal authorities exhaustively investigated this matter over a period of several years and determined that prosecution was not warranted," Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the D.A.'s Office, wrote in an email last night.

"Absent some indication of impropriety in the federal process - and our review of the materials revealed none - there was no basis for duplicating those efforts."

Ramsey said he turned the investigative files over to the Internal Affairs Bureau, which has "sustained several of the allegations" against some of the officers.

The officers could face disciplinary action, but Ramsey said he couldn't be more specific since he had not yet seen the Internal Affairs findings.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, applauded the decision not to bring criminal charges against the officers.

"They're happy. They knew all along that they hadn't done anything wrong," he said. "I said from Day One that all of these guys were aboveboard."

McNesby said he wants to meet with the officers to determine where they want to be assigned once freed from desk duty. He expressed doubt that any would want to work in narcotics again.

He criticized the Daily News, saying that the newspaper had "persecuted" the officers.

"It was death by headlines," he said. "The paper just took words from an informant who wasn't very credible."

Daily News editor Michael Days said yesterday that the reporting was thorough and solid.

"We very much stand by our stories," he said.

Days described the series as "exquisite, excellent pieces reported by amazing reporters." He said he was disappointed that charges will not be filed.

"Justice is not often served in Philadelphia, particularly when it comes to the poor," Days said.

McNesby said the FOP may attempt to recover lost overtime - money the cops would have earned had they not been placed on desk duty. This theoretical overtime for the officers could exceed $1 million, he has said.

The city already has paid out $1.7 million to settle 33 lawsuits filed by bodega owners and two women in these cases.

Danilo Burgos, the former head of the 300-member Dominican Grocers Association, was taken aback when told that the officers would not be prosecuted.

"This is just another insult to the Hispanic community," said Burgos, who is running for state representative in the 197th District. "It's pretty disheartening. We put all of our efforts into cooperating [with the investigation]. But at the end of the day, justice isn't being served."

The merchants and women interviewed yesterday said investigators didn't take the allegations against the cops seriously.

The FBI interviewed Jose Duran and other merchants shortly after the Daily News reports but did not follow up. None of the alleged victims has been asked to appear before a grand jury. And none of the women who alleged abuse by police was contacted by the FBI or the District Attorney's Office.

"The victims were not even interviewed," said Jeremy Ibrahim, a lawyer for some of the alleged victims. "It's perplexing. I want to know from whoever ran the investigation what reason they had for not speaking with the victims so they could assess their claims. It makes no sense."

Lady Gonzalez, who told the Daily News that Tolstoy lifted up her shirt and bra and groped her breasts, said she has lost faith in the criminal-justice system.

"Cops get locked up for a lot less than this. There was sexual contact, harassment and lies. I just don't get it," she said, her voice shaking with emotion.

"They raided people's homes based on lies. There was a pervert - a cop - who was sexually molesting women and they were robbing stores. They're caught on camera, yet they get away with it," she said.

"They're letting these cops go so they can go right back out there and do it again.

"How can this happen in America?"