When undercover detectives busted Jose and Maximo Colon last year for selling cocaine at a seedy club in Queens, there was a glaring problem: The brothers hadn’t done anything wrong.
But proclaiming innocence wasn’t going to be good enough. The Dominican immigrants needed proof.
“I sat in the jail and thought … how could I prove this? What could I do?” Jose, 24, recalled in Spanish during a recent interview.
As he glanced around a holding cell, the answer came to him: Security cameras. Since then, a vindicating video from the club’s cameras has spared the brothers a possible prison term, resulted in two officers’ arrest and become the basis for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
The officers, who are due back in court June 26, have pleaded not guilty, and New York Police Department officials have downplayed their case.
But the drug corruption case isn’t alone.
On May 13, another NYPD officer was arrested for plotting to invade a Manhattan apartment where he hoped to steal $900,000 in drug money. In another pending case, prosecutors in Brooklyn say officers were caught in a 2007 sting using seized drugs to reward a snitch for information. And in the Bronx, prosecutors have charged a detective with lying about a drug bust captured on a surveillance tape that contradicts her story.
Elsewhere, Philadelphia prosecutors dismissed more than a dozen drug and gun charges against a man last month when a narcotics officer was accused of making up information on search warrants.
The revelations in New York have triggered internal affairs inquiries, transfers of commanders and reviews of dozens of other arrests involving the accused officers. Many drug defendants’ cases have been tossed out. Others have won favorable plea deals.
The misconduct “strikes at the very heart of our system of justice and erodes public confidence in our courts,” said Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson.
Despite the fallout, authorities describe the corruption allegations as aberrations in a city where officers daily make hundreds of drugs arrests that routinely hold up in court. They also note none of the cases involved accusations of organized crews of officers using their badges to steal or extort drugs or money for personal gain — the story line of full-blown corruption scandals from bygone eras.
Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agrees the majority of narcotics officers probably are clean. But he also believes the city’s unending war on drugs will always invite corruption by some who don’t think twice about framing suspects they’re convinced are guilty anyway.
“Drugs are a dirty game,” Moskos said. “Once you realize it’s a game, then you start playing with the rules to win the game.”
Just ask the Colon brothers.
The brothers’ evening started much like any other.
Max’s friend worked at a bodega down the street from Delicias de Mi Tierra, where they’d sometimes drink and play pool in the evenings. This night, the pool table was closed. They instead sat at the bar. Security cameras ended up filming their every move.
The brothers barely moved from the same spot for about 90 minutes as the undercovers entered the bar and mixed with the crowd. Moments after the officers left, a backup team barged in and grabbed six men, including the brothers.
Paperwork signed by “UC 13200″ — Officer Henry Tavarez — claimed that he told a patron he wanted to buy cocaine. By his account, that man responded by approaching the 28-year-old Max, who then went over to the undercover and demanded to pat him down to make sure he wasn’t wearing a wire.
Max collected $100 from Tavarez, the report said. The officer claimed to see two bags of cocaine pass through the hands of three men, including Jose, before they were given to him.
Jose was released after a court appearance. His brother was shipped off to Riker’s Island until he could make bail.
“I was scared,” Max said of his time at Rikers. “I don’t get into trouble, and here I am with real criminals.”
The moment Jose walked out of the holding cell, he made a beeline for Delicias and asked for a copy of the security tapes from the night they were arrested, Jan. 4, 2008.
“I knew it would be the only way to defend myself, because I knew the police would not believe me,” he said.
The owner of Delicias queued up the tapes and the two waded through an entire day’s worth of surveillance — until they found the two hours the men spent in the club that night — supposedly selling drugs.
Jose quickly got the tape to defense attorney Rochelle Berliner, a former narcotics prosecutor. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“I almost threw up,” she said. “Because I must’ve prosecuted 1,500, 2,000 drug cases … and all felonies. And I think back, Oh my God, I believed everything everyone told me. Maybe a handful of times did something not sound right to me. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but I was like, sick.”
What the tape doesn’t show is striking: At no point did the officers interact with the undercovers, nor did the brothers appear to be involved in a drug deal with anyone else. Adding insult to injury, an outside camera taped the undercovers literally dancing down the street.
Berliner handed the tape over to the District Attorney’s integrity unit. It reviewed the images more than 100 times to make sure it wasn’t doctored by the defense before deciding to drop all charges against the brothers in June.
Six months later, Officer Tavarez and Detective Stephen Anderson pleaded not guilty to drug dealing and multiple other charges that their lawyers say were overblown.
Anderson’s attorney has described him as a seasoned investigator who had no reason to make a false arrest. Tavarez, his attorney said, was a novice undercover merely along for the ride.
Life quickly deteriorated for Max and Jose after their arrest.
They owned a successful convenience store in Jackson Heights, but lost their license to sell tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. The store closed a week before their case was dismissed.
“My life changed completely,” Jose said. “I had a life before, and I have a different existence now. … Now, I’m not able to afford to live in my own house or care for my children.”
Jose has found construction work, while Max commutes two hours to Philadelphia to work at a relative’s bodega. They stay away from the old neighborhood, where they say ugly rumors about them persist.
The brothers have filed a $10 million false arrest lawsuit against the police department, the officers involved and the city.
“I’m angry because, why’d it happen to me? I know a lot of people … they don’t go the right way and they can get away with it,” Max said. “I’m young and I try to go the right way and boom, this happened to me. So I’m angry with life, too.”