The July 4, 2007, telephone call for Loretta Veale was official: a Philadelphia police homicide detective informing her that her gun had been linked to a murder.
"It was horrible, a nightmare," Veale, 67, recalled yesterday. "It was the first time I knew it was missing."
Veale was not a careless gun owner. In truth, her late husband's entire firearms collection was gone. So were her mattresses, furniture, the sterling silver flatware her mother gave her as a wedding gift, appliances, power tools, several safes, and her recent, still-unopened clothing purchases from QVC.
What was worse, authorities say, was that the men who looted Veale's Bustleton home were city employees - members of an anti-blight program supervised by the Department of Licenses and Inspections that was supposed to mow high grass and clean up outdoor debris for elderly and disabled Northeast homeowners.
And the coup de grace: a $17,854.72 bill from L&I for cleaning up Veal's Greymont Street home. She said she had to take out a reverse mortgage to pay the bill - on top of the thousands of dollars she spent living for months in a hotel while she replaced her furniture.
Yesterday, Veale got satisfaction of a sort when District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced charges against nine current or former city workers - including two L&I supervisors - who allegedly cleaned at least five homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of possessions.
"I've already told [prosecutors] that I'll be there if they have to wheel my hospital bed into the courtroom to testify against them," Veale said. "They are a lying bunch of bastards. Excuse my language, but there's no other word for them."
Abraham was not much kinder, calling the nine supervisors and crew of the city's Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP) little more than "home invaders."
"This was organized to be a clean-and-seal operation, which very rapidly became a clean-and-steal operation," Abraham said at a news conference at her Center City offices.
Mayor Nutter had no sympathy for those charged: "If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. We have no tolerance whatsoever for this sort of activity in our government."
Nutter said he expected CLIP to continue, noting that the program's workers are no longer involved in "clean and seal." That work, which helped reduce a 10-month backlog of cleanups to 10 days, is now done solely by L&I employees.
Although two L&I supervisors were among those charged, Nutter spokesman Doug Oliver reiterated Nutter's "no-tolerance policy" and said it was wrong to blame an entire department on the "mistakes of a few."
Abraham said the Philadelphia grand jury probe showed that between June 2006 and January 2008, the nine allegedly looted five houses in Northeast Philadelphia.
The crew allegedly looked for handguns to resell on the illegal market, Abraham said, but also made off with cash, silverware, and even furniture.
All five houses - and maybe many more - were occupied by poor or elderly and disabled individuals who met the CLIP criteria of being unable to maintain their property's exterior.
The CLIP crews were supposed to mow grass, clean up trash and debris outside, and make small repairs, such as fixing broken window glass, to reduce visible blight in the neighborhoods.
Instead, Abraham said, the crews arrived and, without court orders or legal authority, broke in or ordered homeowners to leave their properties. In some cases, Abraham said, the homeowners returned to find the trash that the crew was supposed to remove was the only thing left.
"Some people complained, but nobody did anything," Abraham said, noting that one homeowner who complained to CLIP supervisor Rycharde "Rick" Sicinski was told, "Get a lawyer."
Sicinski, 55, of the 9300 block of Germania Street in the Pleasant Hill section of Northeast Philadelphia, is a 26-year city worker who is now a supervisor and codes specialist with L&I and is one of the nine charged.
Also charged were Henry Turrentine, 52, of the 800 block of Brighton Street in the Castor section of the Northeast, an abatement services supervisor with L&I and a 22-year city employee, and Algie Cuffee Sr., 57, of the 100 block of East Tulpehocken Street in East Germantown, who Abraham said retired last year from his job as a CLIP crew chief.
The others charged were CLIP crew members who allegedly worked under the direction of Sicinski, Turrentine, and Cuffee, including Cuffee's son, Algie Jr., 23, now of Upper Darby; Wilfredo Cintron, 40, of the 3400 block of B Street in Kensington, an L&I abatement worker hired four years ago; and Jermaine Adderly, 33, of the 1500 block of North Wanamaker Street in West Philadelphia, a six-year city worker assigned to a CLIP crew through the mayor's Community Service Office.
Also charged were former CLIP crew members Lamont Williams, 37, of the 800 block of East Woodlawn Avenue in East Germantown; Anthony Scarcia, 31, of the 4200 block of Knorr Street in Mayfair; and William Roldan, 29, of the 7000 block of Rising Sun Avenue in Burholme.
All but one were arrested yesterday, and Abraham said the last had arranged to surrender. The nine are charged variously with operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, theft, burglary, receiving stolen property, and related charges.
City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, who brought CLIP to the Northeast in 2002 to try to improve "quality-of-life issues" in some neighborhoods, said she was stunned by the charges.
"I am very upset," Krajewski said. "This was a very good program. What happened here has to be a few bad apples that you find in every barrel."
Krajewski aide Patty-Pat Kozlowski said the office had never had a citizen complaint about the program. Since 2002, she said, CLIP crews in the Northeast have cleaned up 15,000 properties, removed 8,000 abandoned vehicles, cleaned graffiti from 4,000 buildings, and trimmed or removed trees from 3,000 lots.
"All I can say is, let the chips fall where they may," Krajewski added.
Do you think you were a victim of employees of CLIP - Philadelphia's Community Life Improvement Program?
Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said many more poor or elderly homeowners in the Northeast might have been robbed of property during cleanups by program workers.
She urged people who believe they have additional information for prosecutors to contact Assistant District Attorney Sharon Piper at 215-686-9582.EndText