CAMDEN -- Drug charges have been dropped in 185 cases tainted by five Camden police officers who are suspected of planting drugs on suspects and making illegal arrests, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office said Friday.
The announcement came hours after one of the officers pleaded guilty in federal court to depriving people of their rights.
Former Patrolman Kevin Parry, 29, acknowledged under a plea agreement that he and other officers planted drugs and threatened suspects with arrest with planted drugs if they didn't cooperate, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.
Parry said he and the other officers also conducted illegal searches, stole drugs and money during searches and arrests, paid informants with drugs, prepared false police reports and lied in court to hide their crimes over a two-year period, according to the statement.
The other officers were not named in the statement, but Parry said all were members of the same platoon.
In all, the prosecutor's office dismissed indictments or vacated convictions against 171 defendants, including 81 suspects who had served jail time. Charges in 14 additional cases were administratively dismissed before an indictment was handed down.
"The simple fact is that the questions raised about these officers' conduct left us with no confidence in the evidence supporting the charges," said Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "We couldn't say with certainty which cases were grounded in proper, legal police work, and which were not."
Parry and three other patrolmen -- Jason Stetser, Antonio Figueroa and Robert Bayard -- were suspended in November without explanation from the Camden Police Department. In the following months, an attorney for the officers' police union confirmed they were the focus of an FBI investigation and suspects arrested by the men began coming forward saying they had been framed and their indictments recently vacated.
Authorities have not named the fifth officer mentioned in Parry's plea.
The other officers currently face no charges. However, Brian Herrick, supervisory special agent with the FBI, said the other four officers "are under investigation for the same type of activities" as Parry.
Parry, who entered the plea Friday before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler, faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
Parry acknowledged that on 30 to 50 occasions between May 2007 and October 2009, he and the four other officers added drugs to the amount seized during an arrest to make the bust appear more significant, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. On 20 occasions the officers paid informants, usually prostitutes, with drugs for information.
Friday was the first time authorities publicly acknowledged the investigation and provided information on the dismissed charges.
Yvonne Smith Segars, the state's head public defender, said the extent of the cases affected by the investigation will likely cast doubt over other cases by Camden police.
"It's shocking. It's shocking," she said. "It certainly is a betrayal of sacred trust that the community has for law enforcement."
Thomson defended the police department, noting the suspected officers are not active. Parry resigned in November after three years of service.
"What has transpired here is an anomaly," he said. "No other Camden cop should have to suffer being painted with the same broad brush as them.
"When we identify issues or problems such as this, we deal with it head on," he said. "We did not look the other way. We do not attempt to sweep anything under the carpet."
At a press conference Friday afternoon, Faulk said his office became aware of doubts raised over certain drug cases in November.
Following an investigation by federal, state, county and local law enforcement officers, Faulk's office reviewed drug cases from the past five years involving one or more of the suspected officers as a primary investigators or arresting officer.
Faulk said the dismissals do not indicate that all the evidence was fabricated or that suspects were not guilty of any crimes. The prosecutor's office began vacating sentences and releasing prisoners in December.
One city man, Ron Mills, was falsely charged with fleeing from police even though he weighed more than 300 pounds at the time, said attorney Ken Aita, who is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Mills.
"I know that this stuff goes on, but it's so difficult to prove. Now there is finally validation," said Aita.
Aita said Mills was in a Camden home on Jan. 27, 2009, when Parry, Stetser, Bayard and Figueroa barged in without a warrant and demanded to know where the drugs were.
Mills, 46, was arrested in March after the officers filed charges that he had fled, that he possessed a sawed-off shotgun and that he'd been distributing drugs, Aita said.
In his plea, Parry said he and three other officers illegally searched a house in January 2009 and filed false charges against a man inside with the initials R.M., according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The charges falsely alleged R.M. had fled the scene and discarded drugs, when in fact neither happened, the release said.
One man listed as having charges dropped was Brian Holmes, who told the Courier-Post in January that he spent nearly five years in prison after Stetser arrested him for drug possession in November 2005.
"I couldn't believe it," said Holmes, who could not be reached Friday. "I missed my daughter growing up."
Stetser's father, James Stetser, said his son is maintaining his innocence.
James Stetser, a former Camden officer himself, said the prosecutor's office is sending a dangerous message to other Camden police by dropping charges before all of the officers are charged.
"I think what they are doing is crazy," he said. "You have sent the Camden City police officers a message loud and clear -- leave the drug dealers alone."
Reach George Mast at (856) 486-2465 at firstname.lastname@example.org
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