It was the summer of 2015, and Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas Vitanovitz was ashamed – and addicted.

Two shoulder surgeries from on-the-job injuries had led to a prescription for pain pills, and when it was time to stop taking them, he couldn't.

"By the time I needed help, I was scared, extremely scared," he said. "I was embarrassed and ashamed to be a cop that has a pill problem."

In a telephone interview Monday, just hours after the U.S. Attorney's Office charged him with attempted extortion - and a police spokesman confirmed he had been suspended for 30 days with the intent to dismiss - Vitanovitz, 31, shared his story of addiction, recovery, and gratitude.

"If this whole thing didn't happen, who knows where I'd be," he said of his arrest. "Even though I lost my job and I have a tough time ahead of me, they pretty much saved my life."

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, on July 21, Vitanovitz, a 10-year veteran assigned to the 24th District in North Philadelphia, took 50 pills that he believed to be a controlled substance from an unidentified drug dealer.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said she could not specify the type of pills that Vitanovitz is accused of taking, or the manner in which he allegedly obtained them.

Police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said the arrest resulted from an ongoing probe by a task force of investigators from the FBI and the Police Department's Internal Affairs Unit that investigates police corruption.

Nicholas V. Pinto, Vitanovitz's attorney, said his client's arrest was "a sting" by the task force. "Thomas did not take any of the money the suspect had on him. Thomas did not sell the drugs he took," Pinto said. "Thomas took the drugs to feed his addiction."

Vitanovitz declined to speak in detail about his arrest, except to say that the drugs were prescription pain pills, and that he "wasn't robbing people" and "didn't take money or anything like that."

"The night of [the arrest], I admitted to everything, I cooperated with everyone," he said.

The next morning, he made some calls and checked himself into rehab for first responders, he said.

"I owned up to it. I had a problem and I asked for help," he said.

Pinto said Vitanovitz will own up to the charges in federal court, too.

"He has taken full responsibility and will plead guilty," Pinto said.

Vitanovitz said he has been clean for almost a year, but cannot forget the fear and shame he felt in the depths of his addiction.

"It all comes down to me not asking for help, because I was scared of losing my job and I was ashamed," he said. "In all honesty, I thought I was the only cop in the world that had an addiction problem."

Though the deepest fear he had during his addiction – losing his "dream job" of being a policeman – occurred on Monday, Vitanovitz said, he was thankful for the arrest that led to his recovery. "I didn't know how bad addiction can be," he said. "They saved my life that night everything happened. . . . I'm nothing but grateful."

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