PHILADELPHIA – Six city narcotics officers used gangland tactics to shake down drug dealers, robbing them of large sums of cash and drugs for years, federal authorities charged in an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
The officers once held a suspect over an 18th-floor balcony and used a steel bar to beat someone else in the head, authorities said. Another suspect was held captive in a hotel room for several days while he and his family were threatened, they said.
The plan “was to identify suspected drug dealers and use extortionate means or threats to get their money and profits,” U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said.
The scheme ran from 2006 to 2012, when Officer Jeffrey Walker was arrested. He has since pleaded guilty and cooperated in the two-year probe. Walker and a colleague “stole and distributed a multikilo quantity of cocaine, like everyday drug dealers do,” Memeger said.
The officers arrested early Wednesday were Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser.
Defense lawyers said the allegations come from dubious informants – drug dealers and a convicted officer.
“I’m surprised the government will give them so much deference and credence,” said lawyer Gregory Pagano, who represents Betts.
All six officers will remain in custody without bail until a detention hearing Monday.
Officials said the six will be suspended by the department while police administrators take steps to fire them.
They were put on desk duty as the investigation unfolded, and dozens of cases have since been dismissed.
“I took them out of narcotics, but I left them … on the job,” said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who attended a news conference with the U.S. attorney. “I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that investigation.”
The charges in the 26-count indictment include racketeering conspiracy, extortion, robbery, kidnapping and drug dealing. The indictment lists a series of shakedowns that investigators said netted the officers as much as $80,000 in cash at a time, three kilos of cocaine and Rolex watches.
Most of the defendants face at least a seven-year mandatory sentence if convicted.
But the U.S. attorney acknowledged police corruption cases can be difficult to win. He said investigators have to build a rock-solid case before making arrests because “you know that a battle is coming when you get to trial.”
The Philadelphia district attorney’s office said it notified police two years ago that it would no longer rely on testimony from five of the officers, and as a result no open cases involving them remained. Cases involving the sixth officer, Norman, were now being reviewed, the office said in a statement.
“Now that the federal investigation has been completed, the district attorney’s office will review previous convictions involving the six officers and will take appropriate action,” the statement said.
Walker pleaded guilty in February to stealing $15,000 from a drug dealer in a plot that also involved planting drugs in his car. His lawyer had said he was cooperating in a wider probe of the drug trafficking unit.
Ramsey has made fighting police corruption a hallmark of his six-year tenure in Philadelphia.
Asked how he might end what has been a series of corruption cases within the narcotics unit, he complained that the police contract bars him from transferring officers between units or making other personnel changes without cause.
FBI Special Agent Edward Hanko, the agency’s supervisor in Philadelphia, said the public’s “confidence may be shaken, but it should be … bolstered” by the arrests.