A Conversation with Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
When Benny, a perpetual con man, walked into your office, what made you think the story he told was true?
During the first interview with Benny, he called Jeff Cujdik, while we were sitting there and we could hear Jeff on the other end. We pulled all search warrants that Jeff Cujdik obtained, using Benny as a confidential informant. On those search warrants were names and addresses of drug dealers who had been arrested. We then tracked down either the drug dealers themselves or their relatives, who told us they knew they’d been set up — that they, for example, sold heroin in bags with smiley faces on the front, not skulls, as described on the search warrant applications. We also had written proof that Jeff had indeed rented a house to Benny and moved to evict him when Jeff realized that he could get in hot water with Police Internal Affairs. We also attended Landlord/Tenant court when Jeff and Benny faced off. At the court hearing, Benny told the judge he was Jeff’s informant and he feared for his life.
Can you explain how you two worked together on the “Tainted Justice” series?
We talked about all the steps we would take to investigate each story. We sifted through thousands of search warrants together. We divvied up the homes we needed to check out and each of us knocked on hundreds of doors. We had different sources, both inside and outside the Police Department, who helped us. We decided which authorities, attorneys or experts we needed and split up the work load. We wrote the stories together, side by side.
You both came under a lot of heat when the first piece was published and as a result, a drug kingpin was released from prison. Did you feel guilty about the role your work played in this?
Yes, we did. This drug kingpin named “Pooh Bear” lived across the street from a school and we both have children. We recognized that street corner drug dealing destroyed neighborhoods and put children in grave danger. There was no question that Pooh Bear was a drug dealer. He faced life in prison because this was a “three strikes you’re out” kind of case. Yet we knew that the way the cops got into this drug dealer’s home was not legal or right. They used lies to get a search warrant approved. If law enforcement can use falsehoods to get into someone’s home, it means this could happen to any law-abiding citizen, including both of us. It is not the way police and courts should work in a Democratic society.
At what point did you realize that you uncovered something much larger than one narcotics officer’s falsified search warrants?
We knew we uncovered something much larger when we found that this same narcotics squad had looted bodegas during raids. We found almost 20 merchants who told us that after these cops burst into their stores with guns drawn, they smashed their video surveillance cameras and cut wires. Once the cameras were disabled, they took money and other items like batteries and cigarettes, then helped themselves to deli sandwiches and guzzled drinks. We subsequently found one bodega owner who had a video (with audio) of the cops cutting wires to his video surveillance cameras. We obtained that video and posted it on philly.com.
Were you surprised when nearly all the bodega owners come forward to tell about the looting done by the narcotics squad?
They actually didn’t come forward. We found them and asked them what happened during the raids. They all told very similar stories. At first, the bodega owners didn’t want their names used because they feared the cops would retaliate. But as we found more and more merchants who had been victimized, we both circled back to them and told them they weren’t alone — that we had found many more. They then all agreed to go on the record, and some agreed to have their photos taken to accompany the story. The merchants felt empowered to speak up. They felt safe in numbers and they wanted to be heard.
At one point, you had nearly all of the police officers involved in the story off the street, but the one who allegedly had sexually assaulted several women during the raids. Why was it so important for you to tell that story?
Sexual assault is a crime and this cop had literally terrorized the three women we found. We felt that if this was any other man, not in law enforcement, he would have been charged with a crime and gone before a jury. These women did complain to authorities about the assaults and nothing was done. This was outrageous to us. Video of one victim telling her story.
The work you did to uncover the police wrongdoing was nothing short of exhausting. At one point, you literally marked a radius on the map and canvassed a neighborhood, returning to one empty apartment over and over again. What drove you both in your work?
We believed in this series and saw it as important work. The people who had been victimized had been dismissed by authorities even after they filed complaints. The bodega owners and women had no criminal records, yet they felt as if their complaints didn’t matter and the police would be protected. We felt it was our duty, as journalists and women, to make sure their voices were heard. We became obsessed in our mission to find them and tell their stories.
As you worked together, the two of you seem to have bonded both as colleagues and as friends. Now that you are back together at the Daily News, have you had opportunities to work together again?
Yes, we have resumed working on investigative pieces together.
In many ways, your work on the series represents solid, old-fashioned journalism, in which you had months to tirelessly chase down leads and work sources until they would open up. How is the journalism world changing and will the changes be conducive to this kind of reportage in the future?
It’s harder and harder to do investigative stories because the number of reporters continues to dwindle. But the Daily News has always been a place where reporters are allowed to chase to great stories.
At this point, the federal case and the internal affairs cases are still open, but moving at a glacial pace. With all the officers on desk duty and still being paid by the taxpayers’ money, how frustrating is it that the city of Philadelphia hasn’t been able to get these officers off the payroll?
It’s extremely frustrating and mind boggling actually. When we did a follow-up that spelled out that the cops are still getting paid with taxpayer money, readers were outraged. They were also very upset that Jose Duran, the bodega owner with the video, had lost his store and house.
What do you hope readers will take away from BUSTED?
We hope readers will be outraged that no charges have been filed against these officers, in particular, Tom Tolstoy. We would like to think that we gave insight into a drug underworld in urban America. We hope that readers will see the importance of investigative reporting at a time when newspapers are fighting for survival. Hopefully, we wrote the book in a way that brought the characters to life – and that along the way, we made them laugh.