Prison doors are opening throughout New Jersey, freeing convicts arrested by four Camden police officers under federal investigation for allegedly stealing drugs, pocketing money, and framing suspects.
But the release of these inmates may be just the beginning, with new developments indicating the corruption case is reaching into every element of the criminal justice system.
It affects those awaiting sentencing at the Camden County jail: Bail for a man sitting in his cell months after the suspended officers arrested him dropped from $75,000 to $0 without explanation, allowing him to walk free.
And it affects those on probation: One man who went to prison for violating his terms was released last month because his probation had stemmed from charges by one of these officers.
From probation to parole, from the city's Police Department to the county's public defenders, the probe will force a review and cleanup of cases, experts said.
On top of all that, the government agencies involved are being targeted by civil lawsuits.
"It's going to be a headache for a lot of people for a long time," said Jon M. Shane, a former police captain in Newark, N.J., and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
FBI investigators, state prosecutors, city police, and the officers have not spoken publicly, so the extent of the alleged corruption is unclear.
But at least 30 convictions based on charges by the officers have been vacated, according to the New Jersey Public Defender's Office. An untold number of inmates at the jail awaiting trial or sentencing also have been released.
The officers - Jason Stetser, Robert Bayard, Antonio Figueroa, and Kevin Parry - are alleged to have stolen drugs and money from suspects in Camden and to have framed suspects by planting drugs, sources say. Many of the suspects identified by The Inquirer had criminal histories and at the suggestion of their lawyers pleaded guilty.
Now an already dangerous city is left to wonder whether these former inmates are really innocent, and cash-strapped Camden is left to deal with what lawyers say will be a litany of civil lawsuits.
This month, an attorney for Ron Mills, 45, who was accused of fleeing the officers in January 2009, filed a notice of intent to sue Camden and the Police Department.
"I know Camden is bad, but I never thought the police would be resorting to the same thing that the guys they lock up are doing," said Mills, a city resident who was charged with drug possession and carrying a sawed-off shotgun. "That's the bad part. That's what makes you scared."
The names of all four officers suspended without pay in the corruption case are on Mills' police report. The report says officers saw Mills accept money from a man who emerged from a blue Mustang outside an abandoned house. Mills gave the man a "small unknown object" in return, the report says.
When officers pursued Mills inside the house, the report says, he escaped and left behind 60 small, red, heat-sealed bags of cocaine, and a sawed-off shotgun with a defaced serial number.
Disabled from falling while working for the Camden Parking Authority, Mills walks with a cane and weighed about 325 pounds at the time, he said.
"I'm so quick, I ran away," Mills said sarcastically. "I can't even run from my 9-year-old son without getting caught right now. I haven't run since 2004."
Mills said he had been sitting alone in his friend's house, waiting for his friend to buy materials to fix a window broken in a burglary. Mills opened the door when the police showed up because he thought they were there to investigate the burglary, he said.
"All they did is push me out the way and say, 'Where are the drugs?' " Mills said.
He said he had argued with them for about 20 minutes, trying to convince them that he did not live there and did not know about the drugs. They told him to leave, he said, so he went outside to wait for a taxi, and went home.
Six weeks later, Mills said, he was taking a bath at his mother's house in Camden when marshals came in with an arrest warrant that he said he hadn't known existed.
Mills spent the next five months in the county jail, held on $75,000 bail. He was released in November on his own recognizance - $0 bail - days after the Police Department suspended three of the officers without pay.
"This is a horrendous violation of his civil rights," said Mills' attorney, Kenneth D. Aita.
While Mills was in jail, his girlfriend took her children and left because she thought he was facing years in prison. When he got out, Mills could not afford to live on his own, because Social Security disability payments are not paid to inmates, Aita said.
"I've lost a place to live. I've lost my family. I've lost some respect people have for me," Mills said.
Camden resident Antwyn Rolax, now 25, answered the door when police came knocking in December 2007. They held up a bag of marijuana, he said, which they told him they had found in his fenced-in backyard.
He was held in the county jail on $75,000 bail for 10 months, he said, before he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation.
Rolax failed to enroll in a GED class or a drug-treatment program - terms of his probation - because he was raising two children, he said.
In April, he was charged with violating his probation, sent to prison, and later sentenced to four years, prison records show. In December, officers identifying themselves as part of an internal affairs unit visited him in prison in Hunterdon County, he said, and a month later he was given a train ticket home.
"They just let me go," Rolax said. "They came and said, 'Pack your stuff. You're no longer state property.' I asked them why. They said something happened in Camden."
Rolax's attorney, Leonard Baker, said he planned to sue.
"He had prior contact with the criminal justice system, which I assume would be consistent with the motives of the officers," Baker said. "It's certainly easier to plant drugs on someone with a prior than someone who is clean."
To review all of these cases and ensure justice is done, one expert said, a commission should be established to investigate corruption in the Police Department. Throwing out these cases is not enough, said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and assistant district attorney who teaches at John Jay College.
Prosecutors "often do overkill," he said. "They just get rid of cases left, right, and center, partially to ameliorate what happened but also partially to cover their own [tracks], because they wrote up their own cases."
Shane, the former Newark captain, said criminal records would have to be expunged. And that means "destroying the records that exist in all these agencies" - probation, parole, the courts.
"Administratively, it's a ton of work," he said.
The hardest part, though, may be renewing confidence in the criminal justice system.
"If the police are no different from the thugs, who are we supposed to depend on when we need help?" Mills said.
Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or email@example.com.