By Dustin Slaughter, Kenneth Lipp, and Joshua Albert
Five of six Philadelphia narcotics officers indicted last week faced two federal magistrate judges this afternoon for arraignment and pre-trial detention hearings. The proceedings were marked by an at times visibly frustrated prosecutor, outbursts of joy and sorrow from family members who packed the courtroom, and a judge who recused himself shortly after the hearing was underway.
Two officers, Michael Spicer and Thomas Liciardello, the latter described by prosecutors as “the ringleader” for the accused rogue narcotics squad, were remanded into custody until trial. The three remaining men received bail after family members bonded the deeds to their own houses as collateral. Perry Betts received a $250,000 bail ruling, the highest of the four; Linwood Norman received the lowest – $100,000. Norman was described by his defense team as “the gentle giant”, while prosecutors characterized him as “the enforcer”, in part because he allegedly dangled suspects from balconies during interrogations to obtain information for Liciardello.
The three officers who will soon be out on house arrest are allowed to travel only to religious services, meetings with attorneys, and for medical reasons. The court also ordered the officers’ families to relinquish any and all passports and firearms.
The officers who were granted house arrest may present significant problems for prosecutors, since the men will not be entirely isolated from each other, increasing the possibility that they will be able to communicate surreptitiously in order to ensure and corroborate false testimony, known by some in the legal community as “testilying”, to thwart the government’s case at trial.
As mentioned before, the five accused men faced two judges: first, U.S. Magistrate Richard Lloret and later, after Lloret recused himself because he once worked as a U.S. district attorney, U.S. Magistrate Timothy Rice. Today was Lloret’s first day on the job. Legal experts tell The Declaration that Lloret was under no obligation to offer the defendants an opportunity to seek a new judge, because he had no prior dealings with the case involved while serving as a district attorney.
Officer Norman was first on the docket, and once Lloret offered to recuse, Norman accepted. He was later allowed bail by magistrate Rice, resulting in Norman’s family, who took up nearly an entire row of benches, erupting in raucous, joyful cheers before they were ordered out of the courtroom.
Michael Spicer chose to proceed with Lloret, and was not so fortunate. Spicer’s attorney, Jimmy Binns, described the government’s case as “all sizzle but no steak,” and even accused the news media as putting out reports about his client “and polluting the jury pool”. The defense described Spicer as “a good man, a good husband, and a good father. He’s a provider.” He concluded his argument for bail by stating that Spicer has secured a job at the police union’s lodge, and needed to continue working to sustain his family.
Assistant US Attorney Anthony Wzorek urged the judge not to “let them hide behind their badges”, noting that the pre-trial detention was appropriate because of the “extremely troubling and multiple acts of violence,” and cited allegations that Spicer had used a sledgehammer to “knock out [witness] J.K.’s teeth.”
Lloret disagreed with the defense, and said that although Spicer was not an apparent flight risk, he still perceived the officer as a “significant risk” and “a danger to the community” in part because of government allegations that some of the narcotics officers engaged in witness intimidation.
After the magistrate ordered Spicer’s continued incarceration, perhaps sensing a potential trend, the defense decided to seek a new magistrate, and Lloret stepped down to be replaced by Rice after a 45-minute recess.
Brian Reynolds appeared next. His attorney, Jack McMahon, cited commendations awarded to his client by Commissioner Charles Ramsey, including one for “exemplary service” received over a year ago – when Ramsey was aware of the FBI’s investigation. Reynolds’ mother-in-law, Christina McNulty, offered her home as bond. Reynolds was then granted $175,000 bail by judge Rice. The officer flashed a large grin at his attorney as he was led away in cuffs.
Perry Betts was next. Attorney Greg Pagano, also submitted as character reference a commendation awarded by Commissioner Ramsey on June 23rd, 2011 – the very same day prosecutors allege the narcotics squad engaged in multiple acts of violent extortion and strong-arm robbery, after which Liciardello falsified police reports casting the squad in a positive light to their superiors.
Eight members of Betts’ family brought deeds to their homes as collateral. Judge Rice shortly thereafter granted bail for $250,000.
Throughout the afternoon, defendant Thomas Liciardello could be seen shaking his head, scowling, and rolling his eyes during portions of the hearing. He was the last defendant processed. Attorney Brian McMonagle presented photos of him involved in little league baseball games, and what was now a running theme, service commendations. They also called into question the credibility and character of former squad member turned federal informant, Jeffrey Walker, who, according to the defense, sought mental health treatment at an institution.
Liciardello’s wife, also a Philadelphia police officer, sat rigid with a furrowed brow throughout much of her husband’s portion of the hearing. As the prosecution listed accusations against him, including eight counts of records falsification, conspiracy, kidnapping, and Hobbs Act violations, she quietly began sobbing.
The officer’s defense attorney, who described himself as a long time friend of Liciardello and his family, could not muster victory for his client, however. Judge Rice cited witness intimidation, as recently reported by the Daily News’ Julie Shaw, as an appropriate reason to deny bail. As the ruling was handed down, Liciardello’s wife sobbed even louder, uttering a muffled “Oh my god.”
Officer Speiser, who was not present for today’s arraignment and pre-trial hearing because of his attorney’s scheduling conflict, will have his on Tuesday.