Stories of shakedowns, brutality, kidnapping, and theft have dogged a group of the city's Narcotics Field Unit officers for nearly a decade. But despite multiple investigations, cases against them never stuck.

Federal prosecutors set out to change that Wednesday, laying out a sprawling racketeering case against six of the unit's former members. The charges paint them as rogue cops running roughshod over the rights of their targets, confident that few would believe anyone who dared complain.

As the years went on, the 26-count indictment suggests, Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser became only more brazen.

Between February 2006 and November 2012, it states, they stole more than $500,000 in cash, drugs, and personal property - all while using extreme force, and falsifying police reports to downplay their takes.

Targets who resisted, prosecutors say, were dangled over balconies, threatened with the seizure of their homes, held in dank hotel rooms for days, or beaten as the officers kept score on who could inflict the most debilitating injuries.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey described the allegations as "one of the worst cases of corruption I have ever heard."

"Words just don't describe the degree to which their acts have brought discredit," he said. He blamed the city's contract with its officers for his inability to transfer the six officers years earlier, despite suspicions that emerged as early as 2005.

Their arrests, during predawn raids Wednesday, threaten to throw dozens of their past cases into doubt and reopen a pipeline of civil rights lawsuits from suspects they arrested that has already cost the city at least $777,000.

The District Attorney's Office has sought the dismissal of hundreds of cases tied to the six indicted officers.

"Our clients have been waiting for this day for some time now," said Jonathan James, a civil rights lawyer who represents clients in dozens of suits against the men. "They look forward to the day when these officers are punished by the very law they hid behind in their efforts to illegally charge our clients."

Lawyers for the six officers denied the allegations against their clients at an initial appearance Wednesday in federal court. All of the officers entered not-guilty pleas to charges including racketeering conspiracy, civil rights violations, robbery, and extortion, and were ordered held without bond pending a hearing scheduled for Monday.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said his office would seek to hold the defendants in custody until trial, calling them flight risks and dangers to their community.

"My client is a good, decent family man, presumed innocent by law," Jack McMahon, attorney for Reynolds, said in an interview Wednesday. "These are merely accusations by a bunch of police-hating drug dealers."

Some of those arrested Wednesday have been fighting similar allegations for years. Ramsey benched four of the officers in 2012 amid the widening federal investigation.

Federal and city prosecutors had for years refused to take cases involving some of the six, saying that frequent complaints lodged against them undermined their credibility in court.

An attorney representing an accused drug dealer specifically raised concerns in January 2005 with then-U.S. Attorney Robert Reed, noting in a letter a pattern of "unlawful practices" employed by Liciardello and Reynolds. Records show that the FBI investigated both, but that no charges were ever filed.

Two years later, the Police Department, aided by the FBI, launched its own investigation into Liciardello. It was closed in 2009 due to lack of evidence, Ramsey said Wednesday.

More than 14 Internal Affairs complaints against Liciardello and Reynolds alleged illegal searches or false arrests, but nearly all were found to be unsubstantiated.

In the midst of the scrutiny, Liciardello, Reynolds, and a third member of the unit, Jeffrey Walker, filed suit against Philadelphia trial lawyer Michael Pileggi, saying multiple civil rights suits he had filed on behalf of clients alleging abuse had unfairly tarnished their names.

Pileggi's insurance company settled the case for a relatively small sum. But in an interview Wednesday, the lawyer said all of the allegations in his client's lawsuits "came to fruition [in the federal case] - beating up, false arrests, stealing."

The key to unlocking the current case came from one of their own, law enforcement sources said. Walker, a 24-year veteran of the force, became a key cooperator after pleading guilty in February to federal robbery and gun charges.

He told a federal judge he planted nearly 28 grams of cocaine in a South Philadelphia drug dealer's car last year and later stole $15,000 and five pounds of marijuana from the man's house.

In the months after his arrest, Walker identified dozens of other incidents involving his former colleagues, which federal investigators used to build their case, authorities said.

They include a November 2007 incident involving a drug suspect identified in court filings only as "M.C." Encountering the man outside his City Avenue apartment, Betts dragged him inside and shoved him against the wall as the others beat him and asked him to point them to money or drugs, the indictment said.

Walker told authorities that Liciardello ordered him and his partner, Norman, to do whatever it took to get a password to the man's PalmPilot, so Norman hoisted him over an 18th-floor balcony until he gave in.

Other officers stole more than $8,000 in personal property and ordered a pizza while they waited with money found in the man's house, prosecutors said.

Though court filings Wednesday identified the group's alleged targets only by initials, several people have previously spoken out about their run-ins with the narcotics officers.

Warren Layre, 61, told The Inquirer in an interview last year that the officers beat him with a steel bar and kicked in his teeth during a warrantless raid on his machine shop on West Sedgwick Street in June 2011. Speaking to a reporter two years later, he pulled back his lip to show the gaps in his teeth that remained.

According to Wednesday's indictment, Liciardello reported less than $7,000 of the $41,158 they seized from Layre's shop.

He has since sued the officers and accused them of planting methamphetamine in his shop to justify their assault. All charges against him were later dropped.

Theodore Carobine, 55, caught the attention of a Common Pleas Court judge, who tossed the drug-possession case against him in 2009.

He has since sued the officers, saying Liciardello, Reynolds, and Spicer illegally raided his Northeast Philadelphia home, planted meth in a bedroom, and stole $10,000 he had saved for his daughter's school tuition.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that the crew recorded in police reports only about $8,000 was seized.

Carobine's lawsuit and at least 60 others arising from the squad's actions have been put on hold by a judge.

Over the course of seven years, authorities say, the crew, led by Liciardello, plundered Rolexes, iPods, a Calvin Klein suit, and even $6,000 in federal flood-relief money from other victims.

"That many of the victims were drug dealers, not Boy Scouts, is irrelevant," said Edward Hanko, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia office. "This corrupt group chose to make their own rules. Now they will have to answer for it."

Ramsey suspended the six officers Wednesday for 30 days with intent to dismiss.

If convicted on all counts, all the officers except Speiser face up to life in prison. For Speiser, the maximum term is 40 years.