THE POLICE Department's elite Narcotics Field Unit is supposed to go after big fish - kingpins who package mounds of drugs behind closed doors.
But Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and the officers who worked with him spent a lot of time shooting fish in a barrel.
Day after day, they busted mom-and-pop store owners, most of whom were immigrants with no criminal records, on misdemeanor charges for selling little ziplock bags, which police say are used to package crack cocaine and marijuana.
In six months alone, Cujdik's squad and another squad, which included his brother, Richard, raided 22 bodegas, boutiques, tobacco shops and other stores for drug paraphernalia, according to a Daily News analysis of search-warrant applications between July and December 2007.
That number is seven times more than the unit's 10 other squads combined. Those 10 squads - made up of more than 100 officers - raided only three stores during the same period.
The Daily News over the past three weeks has uncovered allegations leveled by 15 store owners that Cujdik, his brother, and officers who worked with them, destroyed or cut wires to surveillance cameras during the raids. Once the cameras went dark, thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise disappeared, contend the store owners, all of whom were arrested. Their stores were left in shambles. Before the officers left and locked the stores, they allegedly helped themselves to snacks, drinks and cigarettes, and left refrigerator doors open, spoiling the food inside. They swept merchandise from the shelves onto the floor, the merchants said.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that officers target merchants who sell the ziplock bags because the sales hurt the quality of life in the neighborhood by attracting drug dealers.
"It's a law and unless the law changes, it's enforceable," he said.
"The issue is whether the conduct of the police officers was appropriate. If it's found to be not appropriate, well, then we'll take care of it," he added.
Jeremiah Daley, who headed the Police Department's narcotics division from 1998 to 2002, said paraphernalia cases were not a priority during his tenure.
In fact, his officers had only a handful of such cases during those five years, he said.
"The main focus of the Narcotics Field Unit was to investigate violent drug-related organizations and neighborhood drug traffickers inside residential and commercial properties," Daley said.
The lopsided number of raids conducted by the two squads for which the Cujdik brothers worked, coupled with the store owners' allegations, has triggered concern as to the officers' priorities and motives.
Curtis Rider, who says the ziplock bags he sold in Pearl of Africa, his South Street store, were meant to hold jewelry, not drugs. He also claims narcotics officers who raided his place were more interested in stealing than in enforcing the law (Tiffany Yoon/staff photographer)
"Rogue cops were using [the law] as an excuse to harass, intimidate, steal from, and destroy your store and hurt your business," said Curtis Rider, whose Pearl of Africa store on South Street was among the 22 raided.
"They really wanted to just come in and get game [steal]. It was a nightmare."
A local criminologist characterizes store owners like Rider as "easy targets."
"These guys are low-lying fruit for a crooked cop," said Patrick Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers University who specializes in ways to combat crime and drugs.
"By all accounts, these cops are not playing by the rules . . . The number of raids that took place, it just reeks like last month's fish," he said. "There's no altruism in what they're doing. It's naked self-interest."
Jeffrey 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 became too close with his informants. Investigators are now looking at other officers who worked with Cujdik, as well as the store owners' allegations.
Cujdik, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, has been placed on desk duty and has been forced to surrender his police-issued pistol. His attorney maintains that Cujdik is innocent.
By law, it's illegal to sell any kind of container if the merchant knows "or should reasonably know" that the buyer intends to use it to package drugs.
Some of the 22 cases against the store owners were thrown out. In others, the merchants pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors. Still others were found guilty in court, but all got probation and fines or lesser penalties.
Their cases took months to weave through an overburdened court system, guzzling hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars.
Of the 22 cases, the officers said they found drugs in only three stores. In two of the three stores, the officers found minuscule amounts of marijuana - 0.5 and 0.3 grams, worth $5 or less. In both cases, a judge threw out the drug charge, citing lack of evidence, court records show.
In the third case, Officer Richard Cujdik and fellow squad members found 11 pounds of marijuana, worth $51,050, in the basement of a Logan record store. A judge sentenced the 65-year-old store owner, a first-time offender, to probation, court records show.
Despite one big drug bust out of the 22 raids, the officers spent hours raiding stores, sometimes hitting two in one afternoon.
On Sept. 19, 2007, Richard Cujdik and his squad raided two stores within 45 minutes. Six officers participated in both raids. Police used the same confidential informant - identified in court documents as #142 - to buy little bags, according to the search-warrant applications.
The buys were made as little as 15 minutes apart.
Officers obtained search warrants based on alleged ziplock-bag buys made by #142 in nine raids conducted by Richard Cujdik's squad during that six-month period in 2007.
At least one buy made by #142 has been called into question.
Richard Cujdik wrote in a search-warrant application that he had observed informant #142 enter a West Oak Lane grocery store to buy tiny ziplock bags at about 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2007.
The Daily News watched the time-stamped surveillance footage from that store between 4 and 5 p.m. and not a single customer asked for or bought a zip-lock bag.
At about 7 p.m., the Cujdik brothers and four other officers raided the store. They disabled the surveillance cameras, but didn't know store owner Jose Duran was capturing the raid on video because he had a hidden backup hard-drive.
The video, which was obtained by the Daily News and can be seen on philly.com, shows Cujdik and fellow squad members using their bare hands or a bread knife and pliers to disable Duran's surveillance system.
Although there is no video of the alleged looting, Duran alleges that the officers seized nearly $10,000 in the raid, but the property receipt filed by the officers said they confiscated only $785.
Two other raids during the same six months that did not involve the Cujdiks or their fellow squad members were very different.
For example, officers did not cut the camera wires when they raided Rivas Grocery on Ruscomb Street in Logan in July 2007, according to store owner Jose Duran (no relation to the West Oak Lane merchant). "They did not destroy," he said.
His attorney, Raymond Driscoll, said Duran did not fault the way the officers handled themselves.
"He had no complaints about their conduct in the store, how the raid was conducted or how he was treated in any way," Driscoll said. "He just didn't think he did anything wrong, and he was surprised to be taken to jail."
The next month, a raid of an Oxford Circle gas station was generated by neighbors' complaints. Officers documented an extensive investigation, according to the search-warrant application. The raid resulted in drug arrests after officers reported seeing marijuana buys nearby.
Rider, whose Pearl of Africa store on South Street sells primarily jewelry and artifacts, said the bags were for sale for about a month before the raid and only a few had been sold. He called them "jewelry bags."
"In no way did I think that I was going to be convicted over some jewelry bags," said Rider, 43, who was sentenced to probation. "It's just utterly ridiculous . . . It's almost the equivalent of getting locked up for selling knives, and police saying it's murder paraphernalia.
"The post office sells little bags for stamps, but of course it's not drug paraphernalia," Rider said. "It's only drug paraphernalia when you get [the little bags] from a store owned by Latino, African-American or Asian store owners." *