More questions about a sketchy heroin bust
Is it just shoddy police work, or is someone trying to shield the narcotics unit from embarrassment?
Near the end of July, Philadelphia Police took Angel Ortiz, a cop in North Philadelphia's 22nd District, off the street. The move came after City Paper published an investigation of a large heroin arrest marred by inconsistencies — Ortiz's ex-partner, a former officer named Andre Boyer, had accused Ortiz and narcotics officer Diertra Cuffie of fabricating portions of the arrest report, and had accused Cuffie of executing a search warrant that contained false statements. The article by Daniel Denvir reported that in sworn court testimonies, Ortiz and Cuffie had told conflicting stories about what hap-pened in that September 2011 arrest.
About a month after City Paper published its investigation, Ortiz was assigned to a desk job. A police spokesperson declined to say whether the Internal Affairs Department was investigating Ortiz. But the paper has confirmed that he has been assigned to the Differential Police Response Unit, which is where cops under investigation are frequently placed.
City Paper now has obtained a police department property receipt that raises even more questions about the drug arrest — and, specifically, the conduct of Narcotics Officer Cuffie, who has been with the department since 1989, and was responsible for much of the paperwork that is now in question. Several inconsistencies on the paperwork — the arrest report, court testimony, the search warrant and the property receipt — raise further questions about the drug bust.
Among the inconsistencies are:
- The arrest report says 704 packets of heroin were recovered from James Singleton's Cadillac DeVille when it was stopped for an alleged broken taillight on Sept. 1, 2011. The property receipt, however, says 736 packets of heroin were recovered.
- Ortiz testified that he recovered the drugs at around 12:30 p.m. in North Philadelphia. Cuffie testified the drugs were inside the vehicle when she confiscated the car.
- Boyer provided photographic evidence that, if true, appears to show that Singleton's car was taken at some point to the 22nd District Headquarters. Boyer claims the car was taken there after the traffic stop and before it was driven to the Narcotics Field Unit. None of the police documents mention that the car spent any time at district HQ.
After being sent a copy of the property receipt, Philadelphia Police's Commanding Officer of Public Affairs, Lt. John Stanford, declined to comment on the specifics of the case. He said that if Internal Affairs were examining any of the officers involved in the story, it would be foolish for the department to reveal the status of an investigation.
Boyer, the embattled ex-cop who initially raised the allegations of false statements in the case, claims that Ortiz, a low-level officer involved in the arrest, was being used as a scapegoat.
"They're trying to protect Cuffie," Boyer told City Paper. "And they're trying to protect the Narcotics Field squad from another police scandal, and numerous lawsuits."
Attempts to contact Ortiz were unsuccessful. When City Paper called a residence listed as belonging to Cuffie on Sunday, a woman answered. When this reporter asked if the person speaking was Cuffie, the woman hung up.
What is clear is that at about 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2011, Officers Ortiz and Boyer stopped Singleton, who was driving a silver Cadillac, near the intersection of North Broad and Diamond streets in North Philadelphia, according to the arrest report.
The report says Singleton's hands were shaking as he spoke to the two officers. Singleton, the report said, kept glancing at the "right side" of the car, and allegedly told the officers, without being asked, that he was on probation. The cops asked him why. "For selling heroin," Singleton allegedly replied. Singleton, through his lawyer, declined an interview with City Paper.
The report says that Ortiz walked over to check out what Singleton was look-ing at on the "right side" of the car. After Singleton mentioned that a bag contained his daughter's school clothes, Ortiz spotted a "small black plastic bag in the shape of a square" protruding from the top of the bag. He recognized the bag to be a "method of transporting marijuana & heroin and other types of narcotics," using his "training and experience," the arrest report says.
Police said Singleton gave the cops "verbal consent." The arrest report, however, does not say Ortiz actually searched the inside of the car. Instead, police said the car was taken to the Narcotics Field Unit, where the cops allegedly called for a pol-ice dog. Police said the dog ident-if-ied drugs at around 3:15 p.m., and Ortiz then retrieved the bag, almost three hours after he'd allegedly spotted the drugs during the initial arrest.
Cuffie, who was at the Narcotics Field Unit, then applied for a search warrant for the vehicle, which was executed at 7 p.m. The warrant says police were looking for violations of the Controlled Substances Act. According to the arrest report, however, that search turned up only the vehicle's registration.
The police narrative raises these questions: How could Ortiz know that a black bag was full of heroin without searching the car? If an officer had already identified the drugs during a car stop, why did the arrest report not say the drugs were recovered during the arrest? And why execute a search warrant hours after the drugs allegedly had been recovered?
Cuffie is the only officer named on the arrest report, and she is listed as a witness. The only complainant on the report is simply named "Officer Police."
Both the arrest report and Cuffie's sworn search-warrant affidavit claim the car was brought from North Philly to the Narcotics Field Unit. Boyer alleges this was untrue, and in June, Boyer provided City Paper with photos, that if true, appear to show Singleton's vehicle parked at district headquarters. Boyer alleges Ortiz searched the car himself about 12:30 p.m. and found drugs hid-den under some clothing. Then, at district headquarters, Boyer alleges another officer, Michael Vargas, searched the vehicle for more drugs, and found none. Vargas declined to speak to City Paper.
The Cadillac, Boyer says, was then taken to the Narcotics Field Unit, where the drugs were placed back inside the car. Boyer says he never saw a police dog search the car.
But Boyer, who was fired in 2013 after being accused of stealing money during a separate, 2011 car stop, remains something of a black sheep among Philly cops. Although an arbitrator in 2014 found that he did not steal money, his firing was upheld. Boyer claims that Ortiz, who testified against him, lied to retaliate for the allegations Boyer has made about the Singleton arrest. Boyer says losing his job has made it difficult to care for his children.
"I sold my car," he said. "I sold jewelry. My kids had to move back in with my ex."
Boyer claims Cuffie and Ortiz were trying to make the arrest appear to be a home-run, as he says the cops were unsure whether the initial search and seiz-ure would have held up in court.
Ortiz's own court testimony backs up portions of Boyer's account: In a preliminary hearing on Sept. 20, 2011, Ortiz deviated from what was written in the arrest report, and testified that he "recovered approximately 704 packets of al-leged heroin from the defendant's vehicle" at 12:30 p.m. that day. He later said that he searched the vehicle himself during the arrest.
However, Cuffie, who testified immediately after Ortiz, claimed she confiscated the vehicle herself, with the drugs still inside.
"Were you at all involved in the investigation other than being asked to field test the narcotics?" Singleton's lawyer, Max Kramer, asked Cuffie during the cross-examination.
"Yes, I confiscated the vehicle," she said.
"Was the heroin, the packets of heroin, still inside the vehicle when you confiscated the heroin?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
"Did you have a warrant?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
In December of that year, 2011, Kramer filed a motion to suppress physical evidence, which claimed that Singleton's arrest was illegal, as it was allegedly made without probable cause. "Specifically, Officer Ortiz conducted a full-blown search of a bag located in the rear of the defendant's vehicle" without verbal or written consent from Singleton, and in the absence of "exigent circumstances."
It alleged that Cuffie had "secured and executed Search and Seizure Warrant #159881 after Officer [Ortiz] had already unlawfully searched defendant's vehicle without a warrant, probable cause and exigent circumstances or defendant's verbal or written consent." Additionally, it said Cuffie, in the warrant, "made deliberate falsehoods and/or made statements in the affidavit of probable cause demonstrating a reckless disregard for the truth."
If true, such falsehoods could amount to perjury.
Perhaps realizing the case's weakness, the District Attorney's office dropped all charges against Singleton on June 5, 2012. Cameron Kline, that office's spokesperson, could not provide information as to why the case was dropped, and Assistant District Attorney Allison Ruth did not respond to requests for comment. Singleton's bail money was returned.
The police property receipt that City Paper obtained says that the drugs were recovered "during" the arrest "on the above date and time," which was listed as at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 1.
Police Directive 91, which City Paper obtained, lists the rules and procedures for filling out police property receipts. Cops are supposed to list the "exact date and time when property is taken" on the receipt's date line, as well as the "exact charges, location, and property taken" during an incident. Sources with knowledge of police department practices said, however, that officers sometimes list the date and time of the initial arrest, rather than the time an item was recovered, on their receipts.
It appears that Ortiz signed the receipt, and that Boyer signed as a witness. Boyer, though, claims his signature was forged.
But, more important, why does the receipt list 32 more packets of heroin than does the arrest report?
Unlike the arrest report, the receipt does not list the weight of the drugs recovered.
The arrest report says that Cuffie conducted a test on the drugs and "then placed those items on" the receipt in question.
Then-Sgt. Derrick Wood, who is now the captain of the 35th District, had originally been listed as the witnessing officer on the property receipt, but his typed name was crossed out, and Boyer's was instead signed above it.
An investigation report for the same arrest, filed in Oct. 2011, shows that Wood was a sergeant with the Narcotics Bureau at that time, though City Paper was unable to confirm whether Wood was present at the Narcotics Field Unit on the day of the arrest. A police spokesperson said Wood became captain of the 35th District in February.
After a City Paper reporter reached out to Wood via a Facebook message, seeking comment on the property receipt, Wood blocked the reporter from viewing his page.
The newly obtained property receipt once again calls into question the contradictions about where, how and when the drugs were recovered. It's clear both Ortiz and Cuffie need to be asked why the reports don't mesh with one another. A letter provided to City Paper in June suggests that some sort of Internal Af-fairs probe took place in 2014. The Police Department and District Attorney's Office need to explain why it has taken four years to tell the public the truth.