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One Camden police officer was convicted and another acquitted

One Camden police officer was convicted and another acquitted after a four-week trial in U.S. District Court in a case that involved falsifying reports, planting evidence and stealing money.

One Camden police officer was convicted and another acquitted after a four-week trial in U.S. District Court in a case that involved falsifying reports, planting evidence and stealing money.

Antonio Figueroa, 35, was convicted of three of five counts in what federal prosecutors called at attack on "the foundation of the entire criminal justice system."

A fellow member of the Special Operations Unit on trial with him, Robert Bayard, 33, was acquitted of all charges.

Figueroa clasped his head in his hands as the guilty verdicts were announced. Looking stunned as he exited the courtroom, he declined to comment.

"We're disappointed in the verdict," said his attorney, Ralph A. Jacobs, adding that an appeal was planned.

Inside the courtroom, moments after the verdicts were read, Bayard gave his attorney a bear hug. He sat down and then wiped his eyes. His wife, Donielle, who had been in the courtroom for the entire trial, also wiped away tears as she sat in the spectator's benches.

Bayard's attorney, Robert N. Agre, said the jury of four men and eight women may have swayed by the improbability of the prosecution's claim that Bayard started to break the law just three days after joining the elite unit on July 28, 2008.

The two men were charged with one, overall count of conspiring, with three other officers, to violate the civil rights of Camden residents in connection with 13 incidents in 2008 and 2009.

Figueroa was charged with four other similar, separate counts, as was Bayard.

Both men were acquitted of what may have the most publicized incident, involving a Camden man, Ron Mills, 46, who in the official police report written by Bayard was accused of throwing a bag of drugs on the ground and eluding officers after a foot chase in January 2009. The result was the fugitive warrant. But Mills weighs more than 300 pounds and walks with a cane

Mills contended that he was merely waiting for a friend at a vacant house when the officers showed up searching for drugs. Mills said he knew nothing about any drugs, and the officers told him to leave.

It was six weeks later officers assigned to the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force arrested Mills based on the police report that prosecutors now say was faked to justify the search and criminal charges.

A city detective concerned about the discrepancy between the Bayard report and Mills inability to run contacted internal affairs. City police later asked the FBI to investigate.

Mills, who could not post $75,000 bail, spent five months in jail before being released in 2010.

Attorneys for the Bayard and Figueroa had argued that no one officer was responsible for the accuracy of a report, because the author typically relied on being provided accurate information from a number of officers.

Defense attorneys had attempted to shift blame to three other former Camden police officers who had previously pleaded guilty, particularly ex-officer Jason Stetser, who testified on behalf of the prosecution.

Among the other officers present at the January, 2009 incident was Stetser and a second former officer, Kevin Parry. Both testified for the prosecution.

Outside the courtoom, Bayard referred questions to Agre, who did not know if his client will seek to return to the Camden force.

"I don't think he has had time to reflect on what he wants to do," he said.

Deputy U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said "It's difficult to speculate," on why the jury split its verdict. "We certainly respect the jury's decision," he said.

Sentencing for Figueroa is scheduled for March 16.

The jury before U. S. District Court Judge Robert Kugler heard detailed testimony about 13 incidents involving the elite crime-fighting team Camden police established in 2008 to crack down on drug dealers and violence in the city's toughest neighborhoods.

Prosecutors alleged the five officers almost immediately started planting drugs on suspects and stealing cash discovered during searches. They were also accused of lying to state grand juries and writing falsified reports to bring unjustified criminal charges.

The FBI started investigating in 2009 after being tipped by city police, and the federal investigation and subsequent indictments have resulted in state prosecutors' dismissing charges or erasing convictions of some 200 people. In most instances, those arrested had pleaded guilty to drug possession and related offenses.

Stetser, 33, of Waterford Township, pleaded guilty in June 2010. He was known on the street as "Fat Face" and had a reputation for aggressively going after drug dealers. His father, Jim, was a Camden officer who retired in 1989.

In addition to Stetser and Parry, 31, a former sergeant, Dan Morris, 48, pleaded guilty after retiring from the force following an auto accident while on duty. Each faces 10 years in prison and sentencing is scheduled early in 2012.

Bayard, who is married with three children, has a degree in criminal justice from Widener University and joined the Camden force in 2006. Nearly a dozen friends, co-religionists and co-workers from previous jobs testified on his behalf.

Figueroa joined in 2003. Figueroa, a Camden native, earned a GED, later took community college courses, and left a job in a graphic-design company to join the force, Jacobs said.