In 2008, a visibly frightened drug addict named Benny Martinez entered the offices of the Philadelphia Daily News and spoke to Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, two of the gritty tabloid newspaper’s investigative reporters.
Mr. Martinez, a confidential informant for a Philadelphia narcotics police officer named Jeff Cujdik, told the reporters that either the cops or the drug dealers he had informed on were going to kill him.
Mr. Martinez said that Mr. Cujdik used him to tell lies in the search warrants used to bust drug dealers. Mr. Martinez also claimed he rented a house from Mr. Cujdik and that their relationship had gone sour and Mr. Cujdik was evicting him. He showed the reporters his Landlord-Tenant Court paperwork, and he called Mr. Cujdik on his cellphone as the reporters listened in.
This meeting led the reporters to uncover serious allegations about Mr. Cujdik and his narcotics squad systematically looting bodega stores during raids staged owing to the owners selling Ziploc bags used by drug dealers. The officers destroyed video-surveillance cameras and cut wires, and one such act was captured on tape as the feed went directly to the owner’s home.
The reporters hit the street and interviewed 22 bodega owners, most of them recent legal immigrants, who had not called the police to complain about the thefts. Three women also told the reporters that one officer, Thomas Tolstoy, sexually molested them.
The series also led to five officers being placed on desk duty and the formation of an FBI task force investigation.
I contacted the two reporters and asked them why they took the word of Mr. Martinez, an informant who seems to me to be Philly’s answer to “Goodfellas” Henry Hill, over the word of a Philadelphia police officer.
“Benny gave us examples of fabricated search warrants,” said Barbara Laker. “He could pinpoint certain houses or certain jobs that were based on lies. We checked out everything that Benny said in addition to the documentation from Landlord-Tenant Court. I think that if the story didn’t move to the bodegas and the women with Thomas Tolstoy, there wouldn’t have been any book, any Pulitzer, any series. It would have stopped and been a simple story mostly about a cop and questions about his working relationship with an informant.”
“In the book, we describe how we found 22 merchants from all corners of the city, speaking all different languages, independently telling us the same story that these officers came in with guns drawn, smacked the video-surveillance cameras, and cut wires,” Ms. Laker said. “They all told us that the cops took thousands of dollars from the stores. They ate sandwiches there, guzzled drinks, and they took things like batteries, cellphones and lottery money. And they all independently told us the exact same story. For the women, we knocked on door after door where Tolstoy had been present during the raids. I would bet my children’s lives on the fact that they are telling the truth. Two of the three complained that very night and the third woman, the one we call ‘Naomi,’ she went to the hospital, and they did a rape kit. She could not name the officer. She didn’t know it was Tolstoy, but Internal Affairs knew it was him, because they pulled him off the street that very night.”
“This is not an anti-cop book,” Ms. Ruderman said. “It is not even necessarily about police corruption. The book takes you behind the scenes of an investigation done by a newspaper against the backdrop of the failing newspaper industry. Barbara and I don’t come off as angels in the book, and Jeff doesn’t come off all bad in the book. It is a story about characters, and it is a story about Philadelphia, and we tried to be as fair as we could about who we are and how we got the story. We could not have written the book or the series without really good police officers helping us, and I’m grateful to them. I think that good police officers represent the lion’s share of the officers on the street. They want to get rid the few bad apples, too.”
Finally, after five years, the FBI recently announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers, but Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said the officers will face internal charges.
On Monday, Commissioner Ramsey announced that Mr. Cujdik will be fired and three other officers face 30-day suspensions. There is also an ongoing criminal investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office into the sexual-abuse allegations against Mr. Tolstoy.