Thursday, June 4, 2015
Robert Kushner said he told the truth when he took the witness stand as the prosecution's leadoff witness in the trial of six Philadelphia narcotics cops indicted for allegedly going rogue.
A jury verdict last month finding all six not guilty doesn't change any of that, the bulky 32-year-old former marijuana dealer said as he sat in a deli off City Avenue earlier this week offering more questions than answers in the wake of the high profile trial and what he said was "the perfect crime" committed by men sworn to uphold the law.
"I know what happened to me," Kushner said as he calmly recounted the same details he had offered the federal court jury when he took the stand back in March. "Those charges were valid."
Kushner, who lost his job as a basketball coach at a private high school after he took the stand and went public with his drug dealing past, said he had nothing to gain by lying and in fact had lost more -- a job he loved -- by taking the stand.
"I'm not suing the city (as dozens of other drug dealers arrested by members of the tainted Narcotics Field Unit are)," he said. "My arrest had been expunged because I was a first time offender. I had nothing to gain."
Kushner said he was not speaking for any of the other witnesses and could not comment on the validity of what they had alleged. But he repeated again and again that his story was true. Why the jury didn't accept it, he said, is a question that he asks over and over.
Only those who served on the jury have the answer to that and thus far none of the six men and six women who heard testimony during the seven-week trial and spent another week in closed door deliberations have commented publicly. (Any juror who would like to do so, is invited to contact bigtrial.net.)
A George Washington University graduate from Lower Merion who drifted into the drug underworld after graduating, Kushner does not try to sugarcoat his past or the troubling back story that is also part of his life.
His father, Alan, a chiropractor, was convicted of attempting to hire a hitman in 2007 to kill his wife, Robert Kushner's mother. The case was never mentioned during the trial, but it underscores the troubled and dysfunctional family background of the prosecution's leadoff witness. Testimony at Alan Kushner's trial in 2009 indicated the family estate was worth about $5 million.
Robert Kushner said he grew up in an economically comfortable home environment. But, he said, the family dynamic was less than harmonious. His father, he said, provided for him materially, but was not there in other ways. His father and mother were estranged long before his father allegedly sought to end the marriage through a murder-for-hire contract.
He used his father's case -- Alan Kushner was sentenced to 71/2-to-20 years and is now in jail -- in explaining his conflicted feelings over the jury verdict in the narco cops case.
"Do I think my dad did what he was accused of?" Kushner asks. "Yes. Do I know for sure? No."
But in the police corruption case, he said, "I know for sure what happened. I know what they did to me."
Kushner told the jury he had gone from a recreational marijuana user to being a big time seller by the time he was targeted by Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds and Jeffrey Walker, three members of the Narcotics Field Unit, in October 2007.
Liciardello, Reynolds and four other member of the Narcotics Field Unit were indicted in 2013 in a racketeering conspiracy case that alleged they systematically targeted drug dealings, stealing more than $500,000 in cash, valuables and narcotics and then falsifying police reports to cover their tracks.
Walker was not charged in that case because he had been arrested in an earlier FBI sting and agree to cooperate. He testified for the prosecution in the corruption trial. Among other things, Walker corroborated Kushner's testimony. But the jury, it would appear, found the corrupt cop no more credible that the 14 drug dealers who took the stand.
"Garbage bags" was one of the terms the defense used to describe the government witnesses, drug dealers and a dirty cop who were less than credible and who should not be believed.
"I can't speak for anyone else," said Kushner, who followed the trial in the media after he had his day in court. He rolls his eyes over the testimony of a suspected heroin dealer who had a loaded AK-47 in the apartment where he lived with his wife and five young children. The target, who denied he was a drug dealer, said he was kidnapped and threatened by the rogue cops and was forced to cooperate. He said cash was stolen from him and drugs and the assault rifle were "planted" by the cops during a raid.
Kushner said he also understands the jury's possible skepticism over the plumber suspected of dealing meth who said police stole $11,000 in cash from a safe in his house. The money, he testified, was to pay for his daughter's college tuition. And he understands how the panel might have found it hard to believe that the ex-state trooper who lived in squalor claimed that $14,000 in cash that he had secreted in the pocket of a pair of pants hanging in his closet was taken during another raid.
But how, Kushner asked, did any of that "undermine what I was saying?"
To recap his story: Kushner said he was stopped on the night of Oct. 16, 2007, as he was driving just off Ridge Avenue. He said Licardello, Walker and Reynolds emerged from an unmarked car and confronted him. At first, he said he thought, he was being robbed. He was taken to a secluded area where he was threatened and then driven to a nearby police precinct. Only then, he said, was he convinced that that three armed men were police officers.
He was placed in a holding cell where he spent the night while the three arresting officers headed for his apartment on City Avenue. They used his key to gain access and then ransacked the 18th floor unit, he alleged. They took clothes, jewelry and a safe hidden in his closet that he said contained $80,000 in cash, proceeds from his lucrative marijuana trade.
At the time, Kushner said, he was making "a couple of thousand dollars a week" selling from 10 to 20 pounds of marijuana. He said the officers confiscated $30,000 during the car stop, but reported seizing only $13,000. They also never mentioned the safe or its contents in any police report.
Walker testified that, under Liciardello's orders, he carried the safe down 17 flights of stairs and out of the apartment building. He said he, Licardello and Reynolds later split "chunks" of cash before he disposed of the safe by dropping it into a river. Federal investigators used trained divers to search for the safe after Walker began cooperating, but were unable to locate it.
Did the safe exist? That's one of the questions lead defense attorney Jack McMahon asked during a pointed cross-examination of Kushner during the trial. Was it "bolted" to the closet floor, as he told a grand jury? If so, how did the police get it out of the closet?
McMahon and Kushner also sparred over Kushner's comment that he was "highly educated," with the defense attorney emphasizing what he perceived as the witness' hubris.
Walker had testified that Kushner was the proto-typical target for the field unit -- a white, khaki-wearing college preppy. He said Liciardello liked to instill fear into that kind of target, someone who had little contact with the real urban underworld and who had little past experience with the justice system.
Kushner said he was afraid and then resigned to his fate when he was picked up and that Liciardello's offer not to arrest him if he cooperated was literally an offer he couldn't refuse. Kushner was, in fact, charged but with a lesser offense than he could have faced had police reported the amount of cash and marijuana he was dealing.
It was a trade off, he said, and one that he still regrets. He gave up information about others in the drug trade in order to cut a deal for himself. He said he was targeted and beaten by two men who showed up at his new apartment in Penn Valley in January 2008, apparently in retaliation for his cooperation. And he frankly admits he went back into the marijuana business and was eventually arrested again in Montgomery County in 2011. He was sentenced to three years probation in that case.
Ironically, he said, one of his business associates gave him up, just as he had given up others.
"I paid my debt and have a clean slate and I'm trying to move on," he now says.
But he's not sure where. He would like to get back into coaching, but knows that may not be possible. He's not working, but since he is living with his mother, he has no significant expenses. He is still receiving income from stock and bond investments his parents made for him when he was growing up. That is the residue of an economically beneficial upbringing.
"My family had financial resources," he said. "I had whatever I needed. I got a good education, but..."
His parents' troubled relationship, things were turbulent long before the alleged murder contract, left a void in his upbringing. That, he conceded, may have contributed to his lack of direction after graduating from college and his drift into the drug subculture. It is not, he said, an excuse, but merely an explanation. He admits that he was wrong and he contends that following his second arrest in Montgomery County in 2011, he put the drug dealing world behind him.
People wonder why the drug bust in 2007 and the horrific account of his dealings with the Narcotics Field Unit wasn't enough to scare him out of the drug business, he said. But he tells them he didn't see it that way.
"I didn't get a taste of reality at that point," he said. "I got a taste of crooked cops."
The entire experience -- from the time he was stopped in 2007 to the day last month when the jury issued its verdict -- has him questioning the criminal justice system.
"I'm sure they did a lot of good things," Kushner said of the three police officers involved in his part of the story. "Not everything they did was bad. They took dangerous people and drugs off the streets...But once they crossed that line, everything good gets erased."
Kushner paused, then shook his head.
"They crossed the line," he said.
Two hours after the interview in the deli, Kushner sent a lengthy email that concluded this way:
"I am very remorseful this happened and upset with myself for making bad decisions to enable something like this to happen to me.
"I take full responsibility for my actions and am not looking to place blame on other people. I just know this was the perfect crime scheme for the police as everything worked out in their favor. That's what makes this not guilty decision so difficult to accept and so unjustified."
"To answer the question you asked me before, this really does sour my belief in our federal justice system ... In this situation justice failed and did not prevail ... I wonder why the jurors came to the conclusion they did and I hope one will come forward and explain."
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.