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Testimony begins in Philadelphia narcotic officers' trial

A Main Line prep-school assistant basketball coach told a federal jury Tuesday that Philadelphia narcotics officers robbed him blind during a 2007 search of his City Avenue apartment.

A Main Line prep-school assistant basketball coach told a federal jury Tuesday that Philadelphia narcotics officers robbed him blind during a 2007 search of his City Avenue apartment.

Their purported haul? A safe stuffed with $80,000 in drug proceeds, clothes, a pair of flashy sunglasses, and a DVD he had rented from Blockbuster.

What Robert Kushner appeared less eager to discuss, as he testified at those same officers' federal corruption trial, was what brought the police to his apartment in the first place. He was selling thousands of dollars worth of marijuana every week.

"That's what I did for business," he said. "But that's not who I am."

Kushner, a 32-year-old assistant coach at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, was the first government witness in the racketeering conspiracy case against six Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of shaking down drug suspects for years. In all, prosecutors allege, they made off with more than $400,000 in cash, drugs, and personal property all while fabricating police reports to downplay their takes.

"It was a terrible experience," Kushner said of his 2007 run-in with the officers. "I felt like I got robbed. I felt like I got cheated. I thought there is no way this was how the criminal justice system was supposed to work."

But when it came time to own up to his own crimes, Kushner squirmed, quibbled, and prevaricated on the stand.

And so, his testimony Tuesday appeared to buoy the narratives put forth by both the government and the defense.

Prosecutors have painted Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Linwood Norman, John Speiser, and Perry Betts as rogue cops who routinely ran roughshod over the rights of drug suspects, knowing that as criminals, they were unlikely to complain to police, about missing money, property, or drugs.

The story Kushner told Tuesday of his 2007 encounter with Liciardello, Reynolds, and a seventh officer, Jeffrey Walker, who has already pleaded guilty to corruption charges, fleshed out how federal authorities believe the group operated.

Kushner testified that when the officers, dressed in plainclothes, pulled him over along Ridge Avenue in October of that year, it took him hours to realize they were cops. He had half a pound of marijuana and $30,000 in his car at the time. But his first thought, he said, was that he had been caught in an elaborate robbery.

"They were rugged-looking guys - unshaven," he said. "They looked urban. They were yelling at me. They were cursing at me. They were aggressive, and all up in my face."

The officers handcuffed him, drove him to a secluded area, and interrogated him, asking questions on where they could find more money and drugs. It wasn't until they took him to a Fifth Police District holding cell that he knew for sure he was dealing with the police.

Never once, he said, did they read him his Miranda rights, present him with a search warrant, or officially place him under arrest. He began cooperating after 14 hours in a cell in which he was never officially arrested and gave up other drug dealers on a promise that he would not be charged.

But when he arrived back at his apartment on the 18th floor of the Executive House tower in Overbrook, more than the seven pounds of marijuana he had stashed there appeared to be missing. Also gone was the safe where he kept his profits as well as $750 on his nightstand, and clothes and shoes.

In all, he said, officers took nearly $81,000 from his apartment. The property receipt he received from the Police Department - a document that should have listed everything seized from his home - noted only $13,000 in cash had been taken.

When he called Liciardello back to ask him about the discrepancy, Kushner said, the officer's response set him on edge.

"You sure you want to accuse the Philadelphia police of stealing?" he recalled Liciardello saying. "It's a very serious offense."

Since then, he told the jury Tuesday, he has sought therapy to deal with depression and feelings of helplessness from the encounter.

But when it was their turn to question Kushner, lawyers for the six officers dug in with question after question designed to color him as entitled, none-too-bright, and eager to blame anyone for his problems but himself.

They have labeled all of their clients' accusers as "trashy riffraff" whose testimony is not to be trusted.

Asked how he became a drug dealer after a childhood in Bala Cynwyd and a college degree from George Washington University, Kushner appeared uncomfortable with the label.

Asked how much money he made dealing drugs, Kushner hedged again: "I made a lot of money. But I don't perceive it as making money, because I lost it all."

And pressed to explain how, if his 2007 arrest was such a turning point in his life, he could explain a subsequent arrest four years later for drug dealing in Montgomery County, Kushner responded:

"I felt like I got railroaded by these guys," he said. "I was desperately clawing at anything to get my life back to the way it was before I met these guys. Sometimes you go back to what you know best."

As for whether his current employer, Barrack Academy, knew of how he had previously made his money, Kushner said: "If you're asking me did I go out of my way to tell them any of this, I did not."

But it was Kushner's detailed testimony on all of the ways the officers allegedly violated his civil rights that prompted the sharpest exchange Tuesday.

How did he know so much about what Liciardello and the others were legally required to do? asked defense counsel Jack McMahon, lawyer for Reynolds.

"I'm highly educated," Kushner said. "I went to college."

McMahon quipped back: "Oh, you're practically a genius."

Testimony in the trial resumes Wednesday.