2010Investigative Reporting

Drug raids gone bad

Shopkeepers say plainclothes cops barged in, looted stores & stole cash
By: 
Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
March 20, 2009


Sirilo Ortiz, former owner of Lycomings Grocery, re-enacts his ordeal with cops just five days after buying the Hunting Park shop. Ortiz says plainclothes officers entered his store aiming their guns at him. Maria Espinal (right) also was in the store when the cops arrived. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/staff photographer)



ON A SWELTERING July afternoon in 2007, Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and his narcotics squad members raided an Olney tobacco shop.

Then, with guns drawn, they did something bizarre: They smashed two surveillance cameras with a metal rod, said store owners David and Eunice Nam.

The five plainclothes officers yanked camera wires from the ceiling. They forced the slight, frail Korean couple to the vinyl floor and cuffed them with plastic wrist ties.

"I so scared," said Eunice Nam, 56. "We were on floor. Handcuffs on me. I so, so scared, I wet my pants."

The officers rifled through drawers, dumped cigarette cartons on the floor and took cash from the registers. Then they hauled the Nams to jail.

The Nams were arrested for selling tiny ziplock bags that police consider drug paraphernalia, but which the couple described as tobacco pouches.

When they later unlocked their store, the Nams allege, they discovered that a case of lighter fluid and handfuls of Zippo lighters were missing. The police said they seized $2,573 in the raid. The Nams say they actually had between $3,800 and $4,000 in the store.

The Nams' story is strikingly similar to those told by other mom-and-pop store owners, from Dominicans in Hunting Park to Jordanians in South Philadelphia.

The Daily News interviewed seven store owners and an attorney representing another. Independently, they told similar stories: Cujdik and fellow officers destroyed or cut the wires to surveillance cameras. Some store owners said they watched as officers took food and slurped energy drinks. Other store owners said cigarette cartons, batteries, cell phones and candy bars were missing after raids.

The officers also confiscated cash from the stores - a routine practice in Narcotics Field Unit raids - but didn't record the full amount on police property receipts, the shop owners allege.

In one case, the officers failed to document about $8,200, and in another, about $7,000, the store owners said.

In all eight cases, Cujdik applied for the search warrant and played a key role in the bust. The store owners were charged with possessing and delivering drug paraphernalia, specifically the tiny bags. In the cases that have been settled, judges sentenced the store owners to probation or less.

As for those broken surveillance cameras, officers have "no reason to cut camera wires or destroy cameras," said a high-ranking Philadelphia police official, who requested anonymity. "None whatsoever."

"It would look like they're trying to hide something," the official said. "It would look like they don't want to be on the surveillance camera themselves."

George Bochetto, an attorney representing Cujdik, said the store owners' allegations are false.

"Now that the Daily News has created a mass hysteria concerning the Philadelphia Narcotics Unit, it comes as no surprise that every defendant ever arrested will now proclaim their innocence and bark about being mistreated," Bochetto wrote in an e-mail to the Daily News.

"Suffice it to say, there is a not a scintilla of truth to such convenient protestations."

"They didn't do the right thing," said Moe Maghtha, who helps run his father's South Philly tobacco shop, which was raided in December 2007. "You're not allowed to sell those bags, OK. Just take them out. You don't have to rob my store and steal cigarettes."

At least three former police informants who worked with Cujdik told the Daily News that he often gave them cartons of cigarettes.

"When he raided a corner store, he'd give me cigarettes," said Tiffany Gorham, a former Cujdik informant.

Cujdik is at the center of an expanding federal and local probe into allegations that he lied on search-warrant applications to gain access to suspected drug homes and that he became too close with his informants. He rented a house to one and allegedly provided bail money to Gorham.

After a Daily News report detailing the allegations, authorities formed a special task force, composed of FBI agents and police Internal Affairs officers, to investigate.

The store owners' allegations of theft and damage to surveillance cameras could implicate, in addition to Cujdik, at least 17 other officers and three police supervisors, all in the Narcotics Field Unit.

"Taking property and not reporting it and not returning it - that's a crime," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union.

"It's like this unregulated little band of rogue cops, is what it sounds like," Walczak said.

The store owners typically had thousands of dollars in cash on hand at the time of the raids. The money came from lottery, cigarette and phone-card sales. They also used cash to pay wholesale grocery vendors and store rent or mortgages, they said.

Luciano Estevez, 39, a Dominican who co-owns the J R Mini Market in West Philadelphia, which was raided in August 2008, told the Daily News that he had about $9,000 in the store, but the police property receipt documented about $800, he said.

"They take money and don't write it down. They [are supposed to be] the law," Estevez said. "Taking money like that, I don't think that's right. We pay a lot of taxes."

Estevez, who came to the United States in 1985, is a lot like other store owners who were interviewed by the Daily News - immigrants who live here legally and have no prior criminal records in Philadelphia. They commonly open their shops just after dawn and close long after dark.

"I believed in the American dream. I still do," said Emilio Vargas, who owns the building that houses the Dominguez Grocery Store, on Potter Street in Kensington, which was raided in March 2007.

"I believed that if you work hard, you get ahead. But everything changed after this," said Vargas, 29, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1996.

"I never had a drug in my hands. I never been in trouble. I used to believe in justice in America. I don't know now. It makes me question the justice system."

During the raid, Vargas said, Cujdik and fellow squad members confiscated $700 in phone-card money that he kept in a cigar box, $1,500 in a bag to pay vendors, $200 in the cash register and $1,400 from his pocket to pay the mortgage - totaling $3,800. The police property receipt that the officers filed, however, reports that only $1,456 was seized.

"They opened the fridge doors and took juices - energy drinks," Vargas said. "They emptied it."

A judge dismissed all charges against Vargas after ruling that prosecutors failed to present their case in a timely fashion, according to court records.

Rattled by the ordeal, Vargas said he now works in another grocery store, far from the rundown Kensington neighborhood of the Dominguez Grocery.

"I didn't want to go back," he said. "It was too much for me. I didn't want anything like that to happen again."

The store owners interviewed said they paid hundreds of dollars in bail and legal fees after their arrests. They lost thousands more because their stores were shuttered for periods of days or weeks.

"All my store was messed up," said David Nam, 62. "I found my wallet and my keys thrown on the floor. . . . Cigarette boxes all over floor. I think of this and get a headache."

His son, Steven Nam, said he found chocolate-bar wrappers on the floor.

"While they [the cops] were walking around, they helped themselves to Snickers and drank sodas," he said.

The ACLU's Walczak, who handles police-misconduct and immigration-rights cases, said foreign store owners who struggle with English are "easy targets" of police abuse because they're not likely to file complaints or "raise a fuss."

"[The officers] seem to be preying on what is a particularly vulnerable population," Walczak said. "It's really sad."

Danilo Burgos, president of the city's Dominican Grocery Store Association of more than 300 members, said one member recently alleged that police cut video-camera wires and stole $5,000 while searching his store. The store owner told Burgos that he didn't want to report it.

"Most of these people just want to earn a decent living and go on about their business," Burgos said.

And many Dominicans often are afraid to speak up because they come from a country where police are notoriously corrupt.

"Back home, police get away with everything, including murder," Burgos said.

"They fear something similar could happen to them here."

Moe Maghtha, who moved to the United States from Jordan in 1999, said his father's experience with Cujdik and the other narcotics officers has left him too scared to operate his South Philly tobacco shop.

"If he sees cops now, he freaks out," Maghtha said. "My dad never been in jail. My dad never been in trouble. Now he's like a little kid that got bit by a dog. He won't go out."

Maghtha, 23, said he had to give up his job as a satellite-dish technician to take over his dad's store. Maghtha's father, 53, recently suffered heart problems and did not want to be interviewed or allow his name or the name of his store to appear in this article.

The raid on the Maghtha shop happened on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2007. Maghtha's father had just finished tallying about $14,000 in cash. Maghtha said he was on his way to the store to relieve his father, who'd planned to deposit the cash at a nearby bank.

Maghtha said he arrived just after Cujdik and six other officers had burst into the shop. The officers told Maghtha to stay outside. He watched through the window as an officer used wire cutters to clip wires to all four security cameras in the shop, Maghtha said.

The officer, who wore a navy blue jacket and a baseball cap, kept his head down as he cut the wires so the camera wouldn't capture his face, Maghtha said.

Police arrested Maghtha's father for selling little bags that he had ordered from a local tobacco wholesaler.

When Maghtha opened the store a few days later, he couldn't see the floor because of the mounds of dumped coffee grinds, candy wrappers and crushed cigarette cartons, he said.

Nearly 40 cartons of Newports were missing, Maghtha said.

The officers left a copy of the property receipt, prepared by Cujdik and signed by Cpl. Mark Palma, which stated that the officers seized $7,888.

Palma did not return a phone message yesterday.

"My dad said, 'There is no way, because I know how much money I had that day. I had counted it all up so I can take it to the bank and pay the wholesaler,' " Maghtha said.

Last August, a judge found Maghtha's father guilty of possessing and selling drug paraphernalia and sentenced him to nine months' probation, court records show.

He appealed the case - and then narcotics officers came back.

On Nov. 6, 2008, 11 months after the first raid, officers returned, alleging that they witnessed three people buying drugs from Maghtha's dad at the shop.

Police found no drugs in the store during the raid, court documents show.

"My dad never seen drugs in his life. He don't know what drugs look like," Maghtha said.

Maghtha and his uncle contend the officers raided the store to retrieve video footage from the first raid.

Maghtha had saved images on a shop computer of an officer, wearing a baseball cap, clipping the wires during the December 2007 raid, he said.

When the cops returned, an officer put a gun to the head of Maghtha's father and demanded the video, said Maghtha's uncle, Abdallah Sarhan.

"The first question that he asked was, 'Where is the videotape?,' " said Sarhan, 33, who was helping out at the store that evening.

The same officer then slapped Maghtha's father across the face, Sarhan said.

"I said, 'You don't have the right to slap him. Why you touch his face?' " Sarhan said. "I never, ever, ever in my life see something like this."

Four days after the raid and the arrest of Maghtha's father, he re-opened the store and discovered the computer that controlled the video surveillance system was gutted, Maghtha said.

"They took everything from the computer - the hard drive, the DVR [video] card, the DVD and CD-ROM player," Maghtha said.

Maghtha's father was charged with drug dealing. The case is pending.

Most store owners interviewed for this report said that when the plainclothes cops barged through their doors, they believed they were being robbed at gunpoint.

Sirilo Ortiz said that on the evening of Nov. 1, 2007, he had emerged from the basement of Lycomings Grocery in Hunting Park to see a gun barrel pointed at his face.

After Cujdik and his squad members burst into the store, they cut the wires to the surveillance camera with wire cutters, he said, then looted the store.

Ortiz, 39, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1996, had owned the store just five days.

One cop took a Black & Mild, a slender cigar, from the shelf and started to smoke, said Ortiz, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

The officers took three brown boxes from his kitchen and loaded them with food, he said.

"It was like they was shopping," said Maria Espinal, who was working in the kitchen and saw the cops take boxes stuffed with packaged goods.

The cops put a gun to Espinal's head, too, she said, before identifying themselves as police. "I thought I was going to die," she said.

Ortiz said he had about $500 in his pocket and $700 in the cash register. But the police recorded taking a total of only $918 on property receipts.

Ortiz said he took a plea deal and served six months' probation and 25 hours of community service for selling the tiny plastic bags.

He was so depressed and anxious, he lost 25 pounds and could no longer work in the store, he said.

"I couldn't take it no more," said Ortiz. "Every time someone opened the door, I thought something bad would happen."

He gave the store to his brother and now drives a cab.

"Cops are supposed to take care of people and do the right thing," Ortiz said. "I don't trust them anymore. You're supposed to trust the police, but they're the ones you can't trust.

"They weren't supposed to be the ones."