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Phila. couple sue city; allege police planted drugs

Two Philadelphia narcotics officers taken off street duty because of an ongoing probe have been sued by a Southwest Philadelphia couple who contend police planted drugs seized during their June 2007 arrests.

Two Philadelphia narcotics officers taken off street duty because of an ongoing probe have been sued by a Southwest Philadelphia couple who contend police planted drugs seized during their June 2007 arrests.

In Philadelphia's overburdened criminal court system, such allegations are common and usually greeted skeptically, especially when made by people with criminal histories.

Though the lawsuit filed May 28 by Gloria Lewis and Hikean Riley is far from won, part of their claim may hinge on discrepancies in the charging documents filed in their cases by narcotics officers Robert McDonnell and Jeffrey Cujdik.

The warrant that McDonnell filed after the June 5, 2007, search of Lewis and Riley's unit in the Paschall Apartments listed the items seized as a gun, proof of residency, drug-related paraphernalia, and an unspecified amount of U.S. currency, but no illegal drugs.

McDonnell's official arrest report, filed the next day, 15 hours after the search at 72d Street and Paschall Avenue, alleges that the search team discovered 20 sandwich bags containing marijuana in the drawer of a computer desk.

On the floor outside the bathroom, the report alleges, police found a man's boot containing nine sandwich bags filled with a total of 33.6 grams of crack cocaine.

McDonnell estimated the crack cocaine had a street value of $3,630 and the marijuana bags $40 each. Also found inside a woman's boot was a loaded .38-caliber five-shot revolver and two boxes of ammunition, according to both the search and arrest reports.

The discrepancy between search warrant and arrest report is striking because McDonnell's sworn affidavit of probable cause used to persuade a judge to authorize the search described a monthlong probe of crack dealing in the housing project.

The undercover work, McDonnell alleged in court documents, included him, Cujdik, and a confidential informant identified as No. 224. McDonnell alleged that drug buys were made from Lewis or Riley on May 1, May 31, and June 4, 2007.

Riley and Lewis were arrested outside the complex on June 5, 2007, according to McDonnell's arrest report. Riley was working on his 2001 GMC Yukon and a search of his person yielded $65, according to the arrest report. Lewis was arrested outside the front door of her apartment, searched, and found with $47, the arrest report said.

Although the text of the lawsuit has not yet been filed, Lewis and Riley's attorney, Leonard R. Parks, said the essence of their claims was that "drugs were planted in their home during the police search."

Neither Cujdik nor McDonnell has responded publicly to allegations against them as a result of the investigation by police Internal Affairs and the FBI.

Cujdik's attorney, George Bochetto, said yesterday he had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. Bochetto has argued that allegations made against police officers by felons cannot be believed. Both Lewis and Riley have felony convictions.

In addition to the two officers, the suit names as defendants the city, an unidentified sergeant in the police Narcotics Field Unit, and the unidentified confidential informant.

For the couple, the 2007 charges had mixed outcomes. Lewis, 56, and Riley, 38, opted for a nonjury trial Oct. 21 before Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford A. Means.

Lewis was acquitted but Riley was convicted of drug and gun charges and sentenced to the mandatory five to 10 years in prison. He is serving his sentence at the state prison in Coal Township in central Pennsylvania.

Although Lewis still faces trial on a firearms charge, that trial is unlikely in the near future. The District Attorney's Office has moved to continue any case in which Cujdik or others whose names have surfaced in the probe might have to testify.

According to court records, Lewis, who has a 10th-grade education and is unemployed, has struggled for years with schizophrenia and depression as well as drug problems.

"Right now she's still struggling with the notion that her husband is doing time and will be for a long time," Parks said of his client.

The current probe by a city-federal task force began in February after Ventura Martinez, a veteran paid confidential informant, publicly alleged that he and Cujdik sometimes falsified information to obtain search warrants in drug cases.

No one has been charged, but McDonnell, Cujdik, his brother Richard, and a fellow narcotics officer, Thomas Tolstoy, have been taken off the streets and assigned to desk duties pending the outcome of the probe.

The allegations against Jeffrey Cujdik have already resulted in the dismissal of criminal charges against two alleged drug dealers.

The Defender Association has filed petitions seeking new trials for 52 people convicted through the work of Cujdik and Martinez, known officially as Confidential Informant 103.

And two other federal civil-rights lawsuits have been filed against all four officers and five other narcotics officers.