In trial, ex-Phila. officer admits staging robbery of drug dealer

Testifying in a monotone and answering most questions with little more than "Yes" or "That's correct," former Philadelphia Police Officer James Venziale acknowledged Wednesday that he and ex-officer Mark Williams netted $6,000 after they staged the arrest of a heroin dealer last year.

Williams, 27, is on trial in U.S. District Court, accused of cooperating with drug dealers in a scheme to steal 300 grams of heroin during a bogus traffic stop using their marked police cruiser.

Supposedly, the heroin was then resold in Camden and the money split among the conspirators, but in reality, a federal undercover agent turned it over to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Testimony ended without the defense's offering a case. Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday morning.

Williams was one of three officers arrested last year in connection with the scheme, and is the only one to go to trial.

This week, he watched a surveillance video taken by federal agents. Jurors saw Williams and Venziale pull up behind an SUV carrying 100 grams of heroin and take drug dealer Angel Ortiz away in handcuffs. Also inside was the undercover DEA agent, Randy Sampson, who was posing as money launderer Matt McCue.

The arrest was fake, Venziale said Wednesday.

Venziale testified that he and Williams only pretended to take Ortiz, 25, into custody moments after Ortiz received a shipment of heroin from a courier near Broad and Somerset Streets in North Philadelphia on May 14.

The staged stop took place in view of the drug courier, so the dealer would believe the heroin was seized by police.

"We took Mr. Ortiz around the corner . . . and released him," Venziale said under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek.

Williams and Venziale met Ortiz and the federal undercover agent again that evening in a parking lot at Hunting Park Avenue and Broad.

The two uniformed officers pulled up in a marked cruiser, and Williams got out. "He spoke to Matt briefly and got back in the patrol car with a bag of money," Venziale said.

They left to continue their scheduled patrol route, and only then opened the bag.

What was in that bag, Wzorek asked.

"Money," said Venziale.

How much?

"$6,000."

What did you do with it?

"We split the money up."

That was $3,000 each?

"That's correct,"

Venziale, 32, explained that he got involved at the invitation of a third police officer, Robert Snyder, 30, a childhood friend.

"He was just saying Angel had spoken to his wife about coming up with a plan to pull Angel over so he can rip somebody off for some drugs and make some money," Venziale said.

Snyder has pleaded guilty, as has his wife, Christol. Her sister was involved with Ortiz. Ortiz has also pleaded guilty.

Venziale later connected Ortiz with Williams. Why did he do it, the prosecutor asked.

"I just took part in it," was Venziale's answer.

Venziale said that he and Williams cooperated with Ortiz and "McCue" even though they suspected the money launderer was an undercover agent. While checking McCue's background, the officers were unable to locate the home he claimed was his residence.

Venziale pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and drug possession this year. He is out on bail, pending sentencing. He faces at least 70 months in prison.

Williams' attorney, Joseph Valvo, tried to discredit Venziale by emphasizing he hoped for a more lenient sentence by pleading guilty and testifying against his former partner. Venziale said he hoped for a break.

Williams watched the testimony from a chair at the side of the courtroom. Family members have attended each day.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.