Philly cops in sketchy heroin bust still on the job
When Philadelphia Police Officers Angel Ortiz and Andre Boyer stopped James Singleton's Cadillac Deville at half past noon on Sept. 1, 2011, Singleton's hands were nervously shaking. There was, it turned out, something a lot more unusual about his car than a busted brake light.
While Boyer ran a background check from inside the cruiser, Ortiz chatted with Singleton on the North Philly street. The driver oddly volunteered that he was on probation — for selling heroin, he explained when asked — and repeatedly looked toward the vehicle's passenger side, the arrest report states. Ortiz followed those glances. After Singleton mentioned that a bag contained his daughter's school clothes, Ortiz spotted a black plastic package in the bag that looked like it might contain drugs. Singleton gave verbal consent for police to search the car and, upon "further investigation ... Ortiz recognized the black bag was full of what he believed to be heroin."
Strangely, however, the report does not state that Ortiz actually searched the inside of the car. Instead, the vehicle was transported to the Narcotics Field Unit, the suspected heroin still inside. A police dog was brought in to sniff the car about 3:15 p.m. Ortiz then recovered a "black plastic bag from the rear passenger seat protruding from the top of a lager [sic] bag with clothes inside" containing 704 packets of heroin. It was a huge bust for a North Philly car stop: 254 grams with an estimated street value of $7,440.
Narcotics Officer Diertra Cuffie then applied for a search warrant, which was executed at 7 p.m.
The police report, on the face of it, is full of inconsistencies. If Officer Ortiz did indeed receive consent to search the vehicle around 12:30 p.m., and spotted what appeared to be heroin, why did he not recover it until about 3:15 p.m. — after a police dog pointed it out?
What sort of drug dealer drives around with such an enormous amount of heroin sitting in such plain sight that a cop could spot it from outside the car? And why would an officer need a warrant to once again search a vehicle when $7,440 worth of heroin had already been discovered? In short, she would not.
So, when it came to Singleton's preliminary hearing on Sept. 20, 2011, Officer Ortiz changed his story. He testified that he recovered the heroin at 12:30 p.m. during the stop on the 1400 block of Diamond Street.
"At that date, time, and location, I recovered approximately 704 packets of alleged heroin from the defendant's vehicle," Ortiz told then-Assistant District Attorney Katherine Armstrong.
There's a reason the police report doesn't add up, according to Boyer, a fired ex-cop who was Ortiz's partner that day: Boyer alleges Ortiz worked with narcotics Officer Cuffie to fabricate it.
Boyer says Ortiz searched Singleton's car on Diamond Street, and found the heroin inside a bag, under some clothing. The car was then searched at the 22nd District Police headquarters for more drugs before being taken to the Narcotics Field Unit, Boyer alleges, where the heroin was placed back in the vehicle.
Boyer's story fills in the paperwork's gaps and makes sense of its strange inconsistencies. But Boyer, a controversial officer who arrested an enormous number of people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, has likewise faced accusations of misconduct, including a very high-profile case involving rapper Meek Mill, and a separate case for which he was fired.
Boyer denies allegations of wrongdoing, and says his firing was the result of retaliation for blowing the whistle on Ortiz and Cuffie — who, nearly four years later, remain on the job.
According to Boyer, Ortiz said that Singleton had given verbal consent to search the car, but instructed Boyer not to ask Singleton for written consent.
"He opens up the bag and lo and behold, there's two bundles of heroin in it," says Boyer.
Boyer didn't understand how Ortiz knew that drugs were hidden inside an opaque bag, he tells City Paper.
"I said, 'Well, how did you know it was narcotics?' He said, 'Oh, I can tell by the way it is boxed.'"
The pair went to the 22nd District headquarters with Singleton, the Cadillac and the heroin, says Boyer. A third officer, Michael Vargas, then searched the vehicle and determined that no more drugs were inside.
Boyer says he and Ortiz then headed to the Narcotics Field Unit. Ortiz, who had the heroin in his possession, drove Singleton's vehicle. Boyer drove the squad car. When they arrived, Ortiz met Officer Cuffie inside the building. The two walked away, and did not return for about an hour. Boyer did paperwork.
"I didn't think anything of it," Boyer says, until "approximately three weeks later, I'm in the hallway at CJC [Criminal Justice Center]. And the ADA [Assistant District Attorney Allison Worysz] walks up to me and she says, 'Can I talk to you for a minute?'"
She had questions about the case.
"I said, 'Ma'am, are you sure you got the right case? This is not what happened.' She says, 'Y'all called for a dog.' I said, 'No.' She says, 'Y'all got a search warrant.' I said, 'No, there was no need to get a search warrant. And there was no need to call for a dog.'" The heroin, according to Boyer, had already been recovered, and Singleton's car thoroughly searched.
Boyer said that Worysz was troubled. "'Oh my God,'" she allegedly said. "'That's what the motion was for,'" likely referring to a motion to suppress evidence filed by Singleton's lawyer, Max Kramer.
That motion accused Ortiz of having "conducted a full-blown search of a bag located in the rear of [Singleton's] vehicle without a lawfully issued warrant, probable cause ... exigent circumstances or verbal or written consent."
Worysz, whose name is now Allison Ruth, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The DA's Office says the matter is under review and that it hopes to provide more information in the near future.
Boyer says both he and Vargas told Internal Affairs similar stories in 2014 about Vargas searching the car at the 22nd District headquarters. (Meek Mill, whose legal name is Robert Williams, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2013 alleging that officers, including Boyer and Vargas, detained him illegally.)
Vargas declined an interview, saying that he was told that it was against department policy to discuss internal investigations. But Boyer provided City Paper with multiple photographs that he says were taken by Vargas: shots of the inside and outside of Singleton's Cadillac Deville, of Singleton's license and registration, and of a large package containing smaller packets of apparent drugs stamped with a blue devil insignia.
If they are authentic, the photos contradict Ortiz and Cuffie's account: While the arrest report suggests that Singleton's car was transported directly to the Narcotics Field Unit, the photographs purportedly taken by Vargas appear to be from the 22nd District parking lot.
Such possible lies could amount to perjury, a felony offense, because they were stated in a search-warrant affidavit made under oath by Cuffie, and which appears to be based on information provided by Ortiz. Kramer's motion to suppress alleged that the affidavit contained falsehoods.
Cuffie could not be reached for comment. City Paper reached a man by phone at a number listed as belonging to Ortiz. But the conversation was brief:
"Let me tell you something about Andre Boyer. Andre Boyer is a piece of shit and I hope he dies. Bye."
At Singleton's preliminary hearing, Ortiz testified that the heroin was recovered on Diamond Street while Cuffie testified that the heroin was still in the vehicle when it was recovered, which would have been hours later.
The DA, apparently troubled by their stories, ultimately dropped felony possession with intent to deliver and misdemeanor possession charges against Singleton on June 5, 2012.
Kramer did not respond to requests for comment, and a woman who answered the door at an address linked to Singleton said that he did not want to speak to City Paper.
Three years after the charges against Singleton were dropped, District Attorney Seth Williams' office has not prosecuted Ortiz or Cuffie. The Police Department will not comment on the Singleton case, or whether it is investigating Ortiz and Cuffie, because they say that doing so would compromise such an investigation, were it to exist.
Meanwhile, Boyer says that he first pseudonymously reported the misconduct to Internal Affairs in late 2014, and then complained under his own name in May. Boyer says that Internal Affairs interviewed him in 2014, but he believes that the office closed the inquiry without taking action.
Singleton was contacted for an Internal Affairs interview in October 2014, according to a letter Boyer provided to City Paper. Boyer says that he was interviewed again by investigators this past Monday.
There appears to be a police investigation underway, but it is unclear why it has taken so long, and whether the police or DA dropped the ball after Worysz first discovered that the case was likely bogus in 2011.
The Police Department did, however, investigate Boyer. A person accused him of stealing money during a Sept. 6, 2011, drug-related car stop. He was fired in September 2013. According to an August 2014 arbitration decision, Boyer was not found to have stolen money. But the arbitrator did uphold Boyer's firing, affirming findings including that he had seized money without cause and lied to investigators.
Notably, it was Ortiz who provided critical testimony against Boyer, including by corroborating the complainant's story. Boyer contends that Ortiz lied to retaliate.
"I blew the whistle and I told what happened," says Boyer, and "after that, things started going crazy for me."
Prior to the disciplinary hearing that led to his firing, Boyer says he told Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 Vice President John McGrody and lawyer Marc Gelman, who was arguing Boyer's case, of Ortiz's misconduct and motive to retaliate. But Boyer, who has filed a federal lawsuit, says that McGrody instructed Gelman that he could not use that information to attack Ortiz's credibility.
McGrody and Gelman did not respond to requests for comment.
In reality, Boyer's career began to publicly implode in April 2013, following an Inquirer report that Boyer had been the subject of a 2008 police investigation that determined he had "falsified dozens of arrest reports," including by falsely entering into a police database that he had performed field tests on suspected drugs, and for mishandling seized drugs. Boyer maintains that he only did so because detectives who actually performed the tests, which were for marijuana, directed him to do the paperwork.
Boyer was suspended for six days, but Commissioner Charles Ramsey raised it to 20. Boyer appealed to an arbitrator, who reduced the suspension back to six.
In 2012, Boyer filed a federal lawsuit accusing Lt. Karyn Baldini, who handled the 2008 Internal Affairs probe, of engaging in a racially discriminatory investigation. Boyer says that in January 2013, Baldini retaliated against him by searching his records anew. In a September 2013 deposition, Baldini said she had reopened portions of the closed 2008 investigation but did so only to check her work before providing the file to the City Solicitor. City Paper was unable to reach Baldini, but the city settled the case for $4,000.
It was also sometime in early 2013, it appears, that the 2008 police investigation of Boyer got the attention of a reporter at the Inquirer. Boyer contends that it was leaked. But Boyer's name had also been in the news, because he was being sued by Meek Mill, and his lawsuit against Baldini was public record. Reporter Mark Fazlollah declined to say what or who initially piqued his interest in the case.
Through it all, the city's drug war has for years operated with little oversight and widespread accusations of police corruption, abuse and perjury. Whatever the truth of the accusations against Boyer, he is one of the few to be punished. Ortiz and Cuffie have both testified in court within the last year. If either lied, every defendant they have testified against since September 2011 should be eager to know.
Daniel Denvir is a contributing writer at CityLab. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.