Thursday, April 9, 2015
Mistakes were made in the investigation of six Philadelphia Police Department narcotics investigators, an FBI agent told a federal jury from the witness stand today.
But the agent, John Hess, would not agree with a defense argument that the 26-count indictment charging the veteran officers with going rogue and stealing more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and valuables from drug dealers was a rush to judgment.
Hess also said he could not answer what Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek called the fundamental question in the case -- how high and how wide had corruption spread through the Philadelphia Police Department?
"I still don't know for certain," said Hess, one of the agents who conducted the two-year probe of the narcotics unit.
Under cross-examination by defense attorneys, Hess acknowledged that the government dropped four of the 26 counts in the original indictment shortly before the trial opened last week in U.S. District Court. Two of the counts were dropped because of conflicting statements made by a government witness. But two others were canned because one of the officers charged in the incidents was either on vacation or off duty when the crimes were allegedly committed.
"Obviously we missed this. We made a mistake," Hess said when defense attorney Jack McMahon showed him police work records indicating that Brian Reynolds, one of the officers charged, was on vacation on March 7, 2010.
The indictment originally accused Reynolds of taking part in the shakedown and robbery of a drug dealer on that date.
McMahon, who has emerged as the lead defense attorney in the case, then asked if the FBI had made an error when Reynolds was charged with another incident that occurred on the night of June 23, 2011.
Records indicated Reynolds had worked an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift that day.
"Another mistake?" asked McMahon, his voice rising.
"Yes," said Hess in the same quiet, controlled manner that marked his four hours on the witness stand.
McMahon, whose volatile examination style has drawn caution warnings from Judge Eduardo Robreno, and the other members of the defense team have used their cross-examinations to raise questions about the motivation and credibility of the prosecution's witnesses -- most of whom are admitted drug dealers. Today the defense also zeroed in on the motivation of the government.
A continuing theme from the defense side of the aisle is that investigators and prosecutors were selective in who they questioned and what they asked because they had determined in advance that the six narcotics officers were guilty.
Hess, for example, was questioned in detail about how he and other investigators corroborated the testimony of the drug dealers who claimed they had been threatened, beaten and robbed by members of the narcotics unit.
The officers, Reynolds, Thomas Liciardello, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser, were members of a Narcotics Field Unit that routinely conducted drug investigations in some of the city's worst neighborhood. The indictment lists 19 "episodes" between 2006 and 2012 in which authorities allege the police officers abused their power and stole cash, drugs and other valuables from their targets.
The jury has already heard testimony from a half dozen drug dealer victims. The trial ended today with Michael Procopio on the stand. His testimony will resume tomorrow morning. Procopio claims $18,000, a stash of oxycontin and a Rolex watch were stolen when the officers arrested him in December 2008.
But the focus of today's testimony was Hess' account of the investigation and the approach federal authorities took with the Philadelphia Police Department and several of its ranking members.
Hess said investigators were not able to independently verify many of the claims made by witnesses in the case with regard to the amount of money, drugs and jewelry allegedly taken by the rogue unit. He also said he knew of no attempts to interview neighbors of two drug dealers who each claimed they were threatened by being hung over the railings of their apartment balconies.
At another point in his cross-examination, the agent conceded that several Police Department supervisors with some knowledge of the various "episodes" detailed in the indictment were never questioned and that others were interviewed months after the indictment had been handed up.
One police lieutenant, who ironically is now assigned to work with an FBI drug squad, was not questioned about what he saw during a raid on the apartment of drug dealer Michael Casciolo.
Casciolo has testified that he was beaten, choked and held over the railing of his 19th floor apartment balcony. In response to a question from McMahon, Hess said he was not sure how long the lieutenant was at the scene and didn't know "if he saw anything."
McMahon, his voice rising, his face turning red, said, "You don't know the answer to if unless you go talk to him."
Hess said he did not question another police lieutenant because "I don't think he was going to tell me the truth."
"Oh, you decide (who is truthful)," McMahon replied, his voice again rising.
Later, speaking of the same lieutenant, Hess quietly and calmly added, "We made a judgment ... I didn't think it would be helpful."
Hess also said that two high ranking department supervisors were not questioned even after they were assured that nothing they said could be used against them. He said the supervisors wanted the interviews to take place in the department's Internal Affairs office. They also asked that the interviews be videotaped and requested that they be given copies of the tapes.
Hess said federal authorities would not agree to those conditions.
McMahon and other defense attorneys have hammered away at the government's failure to tape record and video tape witness interviews, implying that investigators could more easily manipulate testimony if their statements were not recorded.
McMahon was still muttering about the investigative techniques and what he contended was a lack of a genuine search for the truth as he exited the courtroom for today's lunch break.
"This wasn't Sherlock fuckin' Holmes," he said to no one in particular.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.