He was a college-educated marijuana dealer with $80,000 stashed in a safe in his high-rise apartment and a framed picture of mob boss John Gotti hanging on the wall.
The cops, he said, stole the safe and seven pounds of marijuana he had in the apartment and then taunted him about the picture.
"You're not John Gotti, buddy," Robert Kushner said he was told in a cell phone conversation with Thomas Liciardello, a narcotics investigator who, authorities allege, was the leader of a rogue group of Philadelphia police officers who stole cash and drugs, intimidated drug dealers and falsified police reports to cover up their actions.
Kushner, the first witness called in the racketeering conspiracy trial of Liciardello and five fellow officers, took the witness stand in U.S. District Court this morning and told a jury that he had experienced all of that after being taken into custody, but not formally charged, on the night of Oct. 16, 2007.
A 26-count federal indictment alleges that Liciardello, co-defendant Brian Reynolds and a third police officer, Jeffrey Walker, took $30,000 in cash during a car stop of Kushner just off Ridge Avenue. They then placed him in a holding cell in the Fifth Police District and went to his apartment in the Executive House on City Avenue where, authorities say, they ransacked the 18th floor unit.
The indictment alleges the three police officers took a safe, containing $80,000, out of the apartment.
Kushner said they also took seven pounds of marijuana and lots of "his stuff," including expensive sun glasses, several pairs of high-priced sneakers, other clothes and a DVD he had rented from Block Buster.
Kusher said he was being held in the police station cell when he was handed a phone and heard Liciardello's voice and the comments about Gotti. That, he said, was how he learned the police were in his apartment. The next day, after being released, he saw the results.
"The apartment looked like a tornado had hit it," he said, later adding, "I felt violated."
Kushner, 32, is the first of more than a dozen drug dealers who are expected to take the stand in a case built around what the indictment alleges were a series of "episodes" in which members of the Philadelphia Police Department's Narcotics Field Unit stole more than $500,000 in cash and drugs from drug dealers they had targeted.
Testifying for more than three hours, Kushner told his story first under questioning from the prosecution and then repeated many of the details under intense cross-examination from defense attorneys. Dressed in a gray suit, shirt and tie, the stocky, bearded George Washington University graduate engaged in a verbal sparing match with Jack McMahon, the attorney for Reynolds who challenged almost every part of Kushner's account.
The cross-examination was designed to underscore the fundamental question jurors will have to answer: Who do you believe, the cops or the drug dealers they arrested?
Kushner, who grew up in Bala Cynwyd and attended Lower Merion High School, said he began dealing marijuana while in college. He reluctantly admitted he expanded his business after graduating. He said he was earning "a couple thousand dollars" a week at the time he was stopped in 2007 and that he quickly agreed to cooperate with the narcotics officers after they promised that he would not face any charges.
He later said he felt "railroaded" and "cheated" by Liciardello and the other officers and said his decision to cooperate and give up information about other drug dealers left him depressed and in need of psychological counseling.
He said arrest reports and property confiscation statements were falsified and did not paint a clear picture of what had happened and what had been seized. A police report of the October 2007 incident indicated police had seized $13,000, not $30,000 from Kushner car and made no mention of the safe or the $80,000 Kushner said was inside it.
But he acknowledged that he opted not to challenge the reports because he believed the money would have been taken from him any way as drug proceeds.
"I decided to let it go," he said. "It wasn't worth it...I wasn't going to get it back no matter what."
Under cross-examination by McMahon Kushner said his drug business expanded from low-level dealing -- he said he just wanted to make enough so that he could "smoke for free" -- to a lucrative operation that covered his expenses like rent, food, clothing and entertainment. He said he did not have a job for any significant length of time after graduating from college in 2004 and lived primarily on income from stock investments his parents had made for him and on the sale of marijuana.
"I didn't set out to be a kingpin," he said at one point.
McMahon asked about the photo of Gotti, who the lawyer described as a notorious murderer and "arch criminal." He asked if that was someone Kushner admired or aspired to be like.
"I was just a fan of the mob, of mob movies," the witness said, adding that he also had pictures of other celebrities and sports starts like Michael Jordan hanging on his walls.
Gotti, McMahon shot back, was not a movie mobster, but a real gangster. The lawyer then sarcastically asked if Kushner had a picture of Al Pacino from The Godfather movies.
"Actually, I did," Kushner said, adding that it was not from The Godfather, but rather from Pacino's role in Scarface.
Ironically, Pacino's character in that movie, Tony Montana, was a notorious and violent drug kingpin.
Kushner said he currently works part-time as a basketball coach for high school students, but declined to name the school or institution. He said he is living with his mother and supplements his part-time salary with money from his stock investments.
"Never did I plan to get to the point where I got to," he said of his marijuana dealings. He said he stopped selling drugs in 2011 following an arrest in Montgomery County. He said he is currently on probation in that case. The drug charge that grew out of his 2007 arrest was expunged under a program for first-time offenders.
Kushner said Liciardello told him he would be wise not to register any complaint about Philadelphia Police stealing from him. But he also admitted that when he was the victim of a home invasion in which he was beaten, he contacted Liciardello for assistance. Kushner said he believed the home invasion and beating were retaliation because he had cooperated with police and given up the names of drug dealers and suppliers.
He said he finally agreed to cooperate and tell his story after being contacted by the FBI in 2013. By that point, Walker, a member of the narcotics unit, had been arrested by the FBI in a sting operation after he allegedly stole drugs and cash from an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer.
Walker, who is also expected to testify, was described as a disgruntled and "ostracized" member of the narcotics unit and as a "train wreck both professionally and personally" by Gregory Pagano during an opening statement to the jury before Kushner took the stand.
Pagano represents Perry Betts, another police officer on trial. In addition to Liciardello and Reynolds, the other police officer defendants are Michael Spicer, Linwood Norman and John Speiser.
The trial resumes tomorrow before Judge Eduardo Robreno. One of the drug dealers whom Kushner fingered for police, Michael Cascioli, is expected to take the stand.
Cascioli, who lived one floor above Kushner at the Executive House on City Avenue, was targeted by Liciardello, Betts, Spicer and Norman in November 2007 after Kushner named him as a drug supplier, authorities allege. The indictment charges that the officers went to Cascioli's apartment where he was punched and threatened and at one point held over the balcony of his high-rise apartment.
Authorities allege that the rogue police officers stole $8,000 worth of property from Cascioli.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.