Thursday, May 15, 2014

My Crime Beat Column: Busted - My Q & A With Wendy Ruderman & Barbara Laker, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Reporters And Authors Of "Busted"

In my Washington Times review of Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, I noted that the story began in 2008, when a visibly frightened drug addict named Benny Martinez walked into the offices of the Philadelphia Daily News and spoke to Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, two of the gritty tabloid newspaper’s investigative reporters.

Martinez, a confidential informant for a Philadelphia 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.

This meeting led the reporters to uncover allegations that a rogue narcotics unit systematically looted bodega stores during raids and three women claimed to be sexually molested during the raids.

These allegations were presented in the reporters’ Daily News series, Tainted Justice, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and later in their book.

Benny Martinez seems to me to be Philly’s answer to Goodfellas Henry Hill, so I contacted the reporters and asked them why they took his word over the word of a Philadelphia police officer. I offered their response in my Washington Times piece.

“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. “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.”
My interview with the two reporters took place a short time before the FBI, after a five year investigation, announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey later said the officers would still face internal charges.

Earlier this week, Commissioner Ramsey announced that Jeffrey Cujdik will be fired and three other officers face 30-day suspensions. And there is also an ongoing criminal investigation by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office into the sexual-abuse allegations against Thomas Tolstoy.

Below is my interview with Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker:

DAVIS: Congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize and the book. I thought the book was interesting; especially that it was about Philly, where I grew up and where I live today. Why did you write the book?

RUDERMAN: When we first won the Pulitzer Prize, Hollywood types started looking into the series that won and we started getting phone calls from people who wanted the story for nothing. We really wanted to have some ownership of the story. If anything was going to be expanded upon the series we wanted to be the ones with literary control of it and to make it our own. We don’t know anything about Hollywood, but it seemed like all these people came out of the woodwork. No, this is our story to tell.
DAVIS: I’ve interviewed Joseph Wambaugh a couple of times. He’s a great writer who served as an LAPD detective sergeant before he became a best-selling novelist. I recall he said something like he spent 14 years dealing with crooks, criminals and lowlifes, but they were nothing compared to the Hollywood people he later met.

I should go on record as being pro-cop, although I certainly don’t support crooked cops. I grew up in South Philly, the hub of organized crime and gambling in the Philadelphia area, and I’ve covered the police for a good number of years. I’ve also interviewed Robert Leuci, of Prince of the City fame, and Frank Serpico. It seems to me that crooked cops are in the minority - a few rotten apples. So why did you believe Benny Martinez’s story?
LAKER: One reason was Jeff Cujdik was renting a home to Benny and we had documentation on that and that was against police protocol. I was able to go to Landlord Tenant Court and see Benny and Jeff interact. Benny was almost comically saying, “Look, I’ve been your informant for years and we took down all these drug dealers. Why are you doing this to me, man?” Jeff told me he was there as a landlord and not as Jeff the cop. So that was one reason.       

RUDERMAN: I don’t think we could have or would have written the first story had we not had Landlord Tenant Court paperwork and had we not been at the proceeding.   
LAKER: One other reason was Benny gave us examples of homes that Jeff said he bought drugs from when he said he hadn’t. That it was a lie, a fabricated search warrant. So he could pinpoint certain houses or certain jobs that were based on lies. So what Wendy and I went to those homes and talked to the drug dealers or the drug dealers’ relatives and we believe they were honest with us. They admitted they were heroin or cocaine dealers, but they didn’t sell that particular brand of heroin. They sold the heroin with the skull face, not the smiley face, or as it was called, “Homicide,” not whatever the other name was. So we did try to check out everything that Benny said in addition to the whole documentation from Landlord Tenant Court. Jeff was indeed renting a home to Benny. Benny worked for Jeff for seven years. That’s almost unheard of, because informants get found out pretty quick and they run out of people to set up. There wasn’t really a way for Benny to continue doing what he was doing unless they were sort of fudging it, because seven years was a record and just not very believable that you could work as an informant for seven years and have no one in the neighborhood figure it out.           

RUDERMAN: But honestly, I consider myself to be pro-cop. My neighborhood is all police officers. I love living next to police officers, and I don’t think myself or Barbara are anti-cop at all.
DAVIS: Renting the house to an informant is not a crime.

RUDERMAN: It is certainly against police department protocol.
DAVIS: I know of cops who have close relationships with their informants, sometimes too close, and there are a lot of infractions. Robert Leuci admitted that he gave his informants drugs.      

LAKER: We believe that Jeff was renting the house to Benny to help him.     
DAVIS: How would you describe Benny Martinez? He seems to me to be a weasely Henry Hill type. 

RUDERMAN: I’d describe him the same way. I think he is an opportunist, kind of a parasite, a drug addict. I don’t think he is portrayed in the book as anything but a shyster.   
LAKER: I think that he has the personality of an addict. He is an addict. One of the reasons he worked for Jeff for so long and was so very upset when Jeff wanted to boot him out of the house was because he knew that working with Jeff was his ticket to getting more drugs. People are complicated. They are gray. They are not all good, they are not all bad. It took us a while to see all the different layers to Benny. He is a manipulator, like a lot of addicts are. He could manipulate his family, he could manipulate Jeff and some would say he could manipulate us. But I think that in the book we describe part of his motivation as he was a drug addict who didn’t that supply cut off.      

RUDERMAN: And he was perhaps angry at Jeff for that reason and not about getting kicked out of the house and having nowhere to go, but mostly about his drug supply being cut off. That was coming to an end.    

DAVIS: How were you both assigned to investigate the allegations of police abuse by the Philadelphia Daily News? And in this age of shrinking resources, how much freedom and support did your receive from your editors and publisher? 
LAKER: We were given a lot of freedom at the newspaper, partly because there are so few people here. There are some people who do two or three daily stories and there are other people like Wendy and myself who are given more freedom to do the kind of stories we want to do. The investigative stories we do are not assigned. They are things we decide to chase or a tip one of us gets, or from doing another story we think well maybe this is something we should look into. They are not assigned; they are something that we decide are worth looking into. We have a lot of support from our editor, Gar Joseph, and the top editor, Michael Days, to do that. We’re lucky.     
RUDERMAN: If we didn’t get a call from this attorney making the allegations about the mom and pop stores, the bodegas, it would have not gone any further because there would have been nothing to further look into.       

DAVIS: It would have been only a single story rather than a series, right?
RUDERMAN: Yes. We had no agenda. It unfolded in to what we call in the business a “rolling investigation,” where you think you’re done and something else comes up, and then you think you’re done and something else comes up. 

DAVIS: I interviewed crime novelist Michael Connelly, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, and he wrote a novel that noted that with the Internet often breaking the news overnight, a daily newspaper simply becomes The Daily Afterthought. I thought that was kind of clever. But the one thing newspapers can do, and do very well, is investigating reporting. The newspapers have the talent, reporters like yourselves, and the resources to do long, important, investigative series.      
RUDERMAN: Definitely, you’re correct. It is so hard to write breaking news and then you realize the next day that by the time the newspaper gets delivered everybody has already heard about it. The trick for us to do is to try to find something fresh and new that nobody else has. That’s what readers should come to expect from papers, I think.

DAVIS: You sought out these bodega owners, rather than the owners coming forward to you, am I right?
LAKER: Yes, they didn’t complain to anyone after it happened, because they come from countries where the police sometimes do this. They thought that this was the price of doing business in the City of Philadelphia. When we first got word from one attorney who represented one merchant who said this had happened, we thought from going through all the other search warrants for prior stories that we remembered that this particular squad had raided an inordinate number of stores and bodegas across the city. Where other narcotics squads had only done one a year or maybe zero a year, this squad had done 30 or 40 in a six month period.

DAVIS: Raiding stores for drug paraphernalia seems like a waste of manpower.
RUDERMAN: These are elite squads, they are higher than strike force squads, and they are supposed to go after the big-time dealers on the street. They don’t do the street-level sales like the strike force, so it was kind of puzzling. Why were they zeroing on these misdemeanors cases? And Internal Affairs knew that Tolstoy was a problem. They investigated him themselves previously for the very same thing. I think that investigative reporters, obviously, have a lower bar when it comes to evidence than law enforcement. But certainly there was enough evidence to write the story and in fact Internal Affairs became re-interested in the cases after we started writing about it. They wanted to take a second look. But they knew they had a problem with him, because if you get three similar complaints a red flag goes up.              

DAVIS: How do you respond to the FBI and the Philadelphia Police Department’s complaint that your newspaper series hurt rather than aided the investigation of these police officers?
LAKER: The FBI task force was set up right after our initial stories, so Wendy and I uncovered the bodegas and the women. They didn’t know about it. I don’t know if our work hampered their investigations, and when it got to the women, we had a source in Internal Affairs who helped us because they couldn’t find one of the women and they wanted our help because they thought we would have a better chance of finding her and convincing her to talk to Internal Affairs.

DAVIS: But in your book you write that an FBI agent told you their investigation was down the toilet because of you guys.
LAKER: Yes, an FBI agent did say that because they were hoping to “wire-up” a police officer to get the evidence they needed. But frankly, we broke the story; it wasn’t the other way around. It was not the Five Squad case, where they were already investigating and then reporters came along and reported on their investigation. We wrote the initial story and they announced the task force. After you announce a task force and have a press conference, how the hell do you think you’re going to wire someone up? They said we ruined your opportunity to wire someone up by doing what we do. We’re newspaper reporters; we don’t have the same goal. I respect Commissioner Ramsey and what he told us was, “Look, I may want you to hold off on a story, but basically you’ve got have your job to do and I’ve got my job to do.” He respects that and I respect him for saying it that way.               

DAVIS: What would you say were the positive and the negative outcomes from your newspaper series?
LAKER: I’d say that one of the positives was it exposed something that was going on in the city that should be stopped, like that narcotics squad shouldn’t be raiding the bodegas and a police officer shouldn’t be able to sexually assault women during raids and get away with it.

DAVIS: And be better supervised, I would think.
LAKER: We had a story about the supervisors and their role in it. If there is a negative, I would say that there is a huge divide in this city between some people in bad neighborhoods and the police and there is a distrust there, and so maybe because we did expose some wrongdoing and corruption within the police department, in some case it may have given fodder for people in the community to say, “See, all cops are bad.” That’s not what we’re saying at all, but I think there could be a danger in people jumping to that conclusion.

DAVIS: It has been nearly five years since your series. Why do you think the FBI has not charged or cleared the officers?
RUDERMAN: We heard through the grapevine and from people who are on the inside that with the bodega owners the problem was they didn’t keep very good financial records. There was this old Korean woman who didn’t go to a bank and stuffed her money under the bed. 

They didn’t have great receipts or record-keeping, so that was problematic. Also, none of the cops were rolling on one another and saying who took what.

DAVIS: And I don’t think Benny Martinez would make a good witness at a trial.
RUDERMAN: Benny would make a terrible witness, we knew that. Benny was a problem when it came to the part about the search warrant. But with the shop owners the FBI thought they needed something higher to bring the case. They needed more than just 22 people saying the exact same thing. And the fact of the matter was these shop owners were selling these baggies and it is illegal if you know or should have known they were being used for drugs. As for Tolstoy, Seth Williams, the Philadelphia District Attorney, is responsible for bringing charges against Tolstoy, because it is not a federal crime. But he is not doing anything for whatever are his reasons.
DAVIS: I’m kind of surprised that the politicians who represent the alleged victims have not stepped in and placed pressure on the prosecutors and the FBI. Have you talked to any of them?
RUDERMAN: I think the problem is that these victims are very much not within the power structure. They are off the grid and they don’t have clout and they don’t really have somebody who would make a big uproar over it. The people we reported on are much disenfranchised to begin with.
DAVIS: Are they illegal aliens?
LAKER: No, they are all legal in the United States, every single store owner we talked to. They also had no criminal records. The three women and every single store owner we used in the series had no criminal record, whatsoever.
DAVIS: The narcotics officer you call “Ray” in the book is sort of your “Deep Throat.” Can you tell us about him without exposing his identity?
RUDERMAN: I can tell you that I met Ray years earlier covering a court case and I gave him my card. We kind of kept in touch, mostly about positive stories about big drug busts that narcotics officers were doing across the city. That was how our relationship began. He felt that public affairs could do a better job at promoting the good work the narcotics officers were doing. So if a huge drug bust was going down he would let me know after it went down and see if we wanted to write about. Simply because he felt that officers doing this kind of dangerous work didn’t get the kind of attention they deserved. He was a source of mine for years before the series. Ray thought these guys were cutting corners and doing things that weren’t right and he could see it from his squad. He had no ax to grind. He was one of the nicest people I’ve met and he was just a good cop. But he wasn’t going to blow the whistle because he didn’t want to be seen as a rat. He didn’t want to turn on his brother and sister in blue, but one way you can get rid of corruption is to slip things to a newspaper and that’s exactly what he did.                   
DAVIS: Were you worried about your personal safety when you visited some of Philadelphia’s meanest neighborhoods, especially after Barbara was assaulted.   
LAKER: We really weren’t up until Tiffany hit me. We’ve been out on the street a lot covering different stories. For the most part if you talk to people and tell them who you are and show them respect and just want to hear what they have to say, they are not going to do anything to you. There were a couple of times where we were worried that we’d get caught in the crossfire, but not as a target.      
DAVIS: I have to give you two credit for being brave and determined to get the story. Why did you include so much information about your personal lives in the book? 
LAKER: We thought that we wanted to write the book in the first person to make it more intimate and personal. And we thought it was only fair that since we were going to develop characters like lawyers, drug dealers, cops, the bodega owners, the women victims and editors here at the paper, that we include our lives and our own baggage too.           
DAVIS: For those who have not read the book yet, can you give us a brief overview of your lives and careers?
LAKER: I graduated from the University of Missouri in 1979 and I worked at the Clearwater Sun then the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Dallas Times Herald, the Seattle Post Intelligencer and I’ve been at the Philadelphia Daily News since 1993. I love being a reporter. I think there is no better job in the world. I’m divorced and I have two great adult children who are awesome.
RUDERMAN: I’ve been a newspaper reporter since 1991 and I came up the traditional way where you go from little papers to little bit bigger papers and I worked my way up in newspapers at a time when newspapers were thriving. I love my job a lot. Being a journalist takes a toll on your family, as you never know when you are going to be called to work or you have to work late.
DAVIS: It is a consuming job.
RUDERMAN: I could never compare myself to a police officer and the work they do, but there are things that you think about that keep you up at night. Or to follow the story where it takes you is not a nine to five kind of thing. Long and short, I’m also divorced recently
DAVIS: Wendy, you left Philadelphia for the New York Times. For a journalist, that might be considered the top of the line, but then you returned to the Philadelphia Daily News. Can you tell us why?
RUDERMAN: Quite simply, I was at the New York Times and I really enjoyed it and it was a lot of work. It was high profile, high pressure job, and I planned on staying but things fell apart in my marriage and I kind of realized that I had to take a step back in my career and reevaluate what was important to me. My family and friends are from the Philadelphia area. I felt like it was so hard to get to the New York Times and then my personal life was a mess, so I decided to do what was best for me and my kids. It was a hard decision, but I don’t regret it.
DAVIS: I’ve interviewed a lot of New York cops. From your experience, what’s the difference between Philly cops and New York cops?
RUDERMAN: I don’t think I was there long enough. I was there for a year and being bureau chief, I worked in police headquarters and I mostly dealt with Ray Kelly and the top people. But I went out on a couple of ride-alongs and I thought the New York cops were outstanding. I feel the same way about Philly cops.                           
DAVIS: Do you think that newspaper reporters have an adversarial relationship with the police and if so, is that a good thing?
LAKER: I don’t think we have an adversarial relationship with police.
RUDERMAN: We have an adversarial relationship with dirty cops.
DAVIS: Good answer.  
LAKER: Yes, with dirty cops, but with the rest of the police force I don’t think we do at all. I talk to Commissioner Ramsey a lot and we could not have done this book without people like Ray and lots of other cops like him. Good cops who wanted to help expose corruption. If there were a reporter here in the newsroom that was making up stories and people in every story he or she wrote, I would not want to be associated with that person and I would want that person fired because it taints the whole industry. Good cops out there want to expose corruption for the very same reason. It taints them and it taints the police department and then it erodes the trust that police officers need to do their job in the community. If people in the community don’t trust cops, they are less apt to help them.
RUDERMAN: But that said, I do think that there is tension between reporters and police officers and the hierarchy. But I think that is good, because a smart police force is one who knows how to bring the media into the tent. One of my favorite stories I ever done in my entire career was on a group of officers in New York City whose sole job it was to talk people out of committing suicide. We scaled the Brooklyn Bridge and I got to know these officers who literally saved people’s lives. It was great press for the New York police Department to have this story in the New York Times. It was a heart-rending, wonderful story and I think that police departments who don’t tout what they do best are doing a disservice to the community. I think there is an unnecessary wall between the police force and the press and I just think that wall sometimes needs to come down for the benefit of the community.
DAVIS: Have you received any movie offers?
RUDERMAN: No, not yet.
DAVIS: If you could cast yourself, who would you want to portray you in a film?
RUDERMAN: I’m very tiny, so people say Holly Hunter would be good for me, but I think she’s too old.
DAVIS: What are you guys working on now?
RUDERMAN: We are doing a series about social security fraud, people who game the system. In Philadelphia there are people who take advantage of the elderly and people with intellectual disabilities and take their SSI payments from them and mistreat them. In the worst cases, they hold them hostage. We’ve gotten some great help from the detectives in the units who deal with these special victims, so it is rewarding to kind of work together and not against one another.
LAKER: The series is called Perfect Prey and we have done two big take-outs on it.
DAVIS: I have to check that it out. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and good luck with the book.  
Note: Wendy Ruderman appears on the left in the above photo and Barbara Laker appears on the right. 

You can read my Washington Times review of Busted via the below link: 

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