Tainted evidence gets 185 drug cases tossed

The math, authorities in Camden said yesterday, is "unprecedented."

At least five police officers, in a special patrol platoon that worked some of Camden's busiest drug areas, made hundreds of arrests over the last five years, confiscating handguns, thousands of dollars in cash, and bundles of drugs.

Yesterday, 185 of those drug cases officially went up in smoke as an ongoing investigation into alleged thefts, illegal seizures and setups by those five officers - one of whom pleaded guilty hours earlier - forced the Camden County Prosecutor's Office to dismiss the charges and vacate the sentences.

"The simple fact is that the questions raised about these officers' conduct left us with no confidence in the evidence supporting the charges," Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said during an afternoon news conference yesterday. "We couldn't say with certainty which cases were grounded in proper, legal police work and which were not.

"As a result, we had no choice but to dismiss all cases closely associated with these police officers."

The officers, Patrolmen Kevin Parry, Jason Stetser, Antonio Figueroa and Robert Bayard, were suspended without pay in November as a result of the multi-jurisdictional investigation. Faulk refused to comment on details of the investigation but said the case was before a federal grand jury.

Sources told the Daily News that the fifth officer was Sgt. Dan Morris, who has been out on injury leave since an accident.

Authorities had not announced charges against any of the officers.

But yesterday morning, Parry, 29, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in U.S. District Court in Camden, claiming he and four other officers conducted illegal searches, stole money and drugs from dealers and falsified police reports.

Parry, who will be sentenced in June, shed more light yesterday on how his platoon, once lauded for its effectiveness, had gone about breaking the law. Parry, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, admitted that on at least 30 to 50 occasions he or the other officers added drugs to smaller arrests to beef them up. Parry said he and the officers paid informants - often prostitutes - with drugs at least 20 times. He also lied under oath to conceal the conspiracy.

In Oct, 2008, Parry and Stetser were called out to investigate a suspicious car at Broadway and Viola in Camden, and found a Mazda, registered to the Gloucester Township Police Department, filled with cash and fake drugs. The officers also heard camera clicks and told a superior officer that they felt they were getting "set up."

Regardless, the officers continued to commit illegal searches and falsify records, Parry admitted yesterday.

Faulk said his office looked at more than 400 cases - all involving drugs - that the officers were involved in. Faulk stressed that evidence was not fabricated in all the cases and acknowledged that suspects who may have been guilty of some type of crime had been set free.

"We realized that and it was something we had to take into consideration," Faulk said.

Faulk said all of the defendants would have sought new trials, however, and he would have no credible evidence to prosecute them.

Parry's attorney declined to comment yesterday, and the attorney for Stetser did not return a phone call for comment.

The biggest math problem in Camden as a result of the investigation could soon be the growing number of civil-rights complaints filed against the city.

Alanda Forrest, a Sicklerville resident who claimed Parry and Stetser had beaten him and planted drugs on him, was one of the first defendants to file a lawsuit. Haddon Heights attorney Linda Campbell filed a lawsuit against Parry, Stetser and other officers on Tuesday, claiming her client Frank Shaw had spent a year in prison because one of the officers planted drugs on him during a "pat-down" in March of 2008.

"I don't know how the city is going to deal with it," she said of the impending lawsuits. "This investigation totally shakes the value of our constitution."

When asked to comment on the civil lawsuits, Camden city spokesman Robert Corrales said "we will make those decisions at the appropriate time."

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said the officers involved in the investigation were not the "majority."

"The police department will continue to be ever-vigilant to find those who don't uphold the oath of office," he said. "We identified this and we aggressively rooted out that cancer as quickly as possible."