Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker, center, and Wendy Ruderman, right, rejoice after winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker, center, and Wendy Ruderman, right, rejoice after winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Imagine, if you will, an investigative series in a metropolitan tabloid daily newspaper about renegade narcotics cops and a lying informant, a series that opens with a headline like this:

Celebrating 100 Years of Excellence in Journalism and the Arts

Join us at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Sept. 10-11 as we celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize and explore the theme “Power: Accountability and Abuse” with two-dozen Pulitzer winners. Visit the Nieman Foundation’s Pulitzer Centennial event page to learn more.

In the weeks before the event, Storyboard is showcasing great storytelling from some of the winners, like this one.

“The informer, the cop and the conspiracy: snitch says narc lied to jail alleged drug dealers. Did he?”

Imagine the opening paragraph reading like this:

“Ventura Martinez feels like he has a target on his back. On the city’s toughest streets, where vengeance rules, drug dealers warn him that he’s a dead man. At home, Martinez peeks out windows and listens for sounds of a hit man, lurking in darkness, ready to pull the trigger. When outside, he darts his head from shoulder to shoulder, wondering if this is the day he’ll get whacked.”

Imagine also, in that opening story, learning that the snitch is so close to Jeffrey Cujdik, his handler in the Philadelphia Police Department, that his kids call him “Uncle Jeff.”

Vivid, right? It’s the work of Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, who would go on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative News for their Philadelphia Daily News series on rogue narcotics cops and the snitch who snitched on them.

Investigative projects such as this one, rolled out as occasional stories throughout the calendar year, are typically difficult to write in a compelling way, and difficult for readers to track because the information dribbles out slowly, at unpredictable intervals.

But Laker and Ruderman managed to build their case over the year, layering detail upon detail, allegation upon allegation, to create a damning case against the unit at the Philly PD. (And later went on to write a book about it: “Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love.” )

The pair relied on Martinez heavily, at first, to tell a saga filled with blatant thievery, sham drug raids, sexual offenses and a very particular MO: cutting the wires to surveillance cameras so their misdeeds wouldn’t be recorded.

At home, Martinez peeks out windows and listens for sounds of a hit man, lurking in darkness, ready to pull the trigger. When outside, he darts his head from shoulder to shoulder, wondering if this is the day he’ll get whacked.

Relying on Martinez involved a credibility risk. But Laker and Ruderman made it clear to readers that paper trails and people trails other than Martinez had been consulted: search warrant applications, judges’ orders granting those applications, municipal payroll records, criminal court filings, a Police Department Internal Affairs source, defendants in drug cases plus some of their lawyers, Martinez’s common-law wife, residents of homes raided by Cujdik’s unit, proprietors of mom-and-pop retail stores trashed by Cujdik’s unit, current and former uniformed and plainclothes Philadelphia police who knew Cujdik well, and law professors.

Biographical details enhanced the coverage. Cujdik’s brother also served as a Philadelphia narcotics officer, and was being accused of dirty tactics. Cujdik’s father had served on the police force, and Cujdik’s sister-in-law was a prosecutor. Martinez’s father was a police officer, and Martinez’s brother was a crack addict.

Two weeks after the initial piece, the Daily News published an account with this headline:

“Cop added insult to injury, she says.”

busted coverA source named Lady Gonzalez had agreed to talk about a drug raid at her home, probably based on false information from Cujdik via Martinez. Nine narcotics cops tore apart room after room, while one of those nine sexually molested Gonzalez. Eventually, numerous other women would come forward and tell the reporters that same police officer molested them during staged drug raids.

The second major narrative line—the mom-and-pop raids—emerged when the Daily News published a piece on March 20.

The headline said: “Drug raids gone bad: Shopkeepers say plainclothes cops barged in, looted stores and stole cash.”

Laker and Ruderman wrote the pieces less and less tentatively, moving along the narratives with shocking, unforgettable details.

One common denominator: As Cujdik and his partners stormed stores run by meek, bewildered immigrant families, the cops cut the wires to surveillance cameras so illegal behavior couldn’t be pinned on them. The misbehavior included stealing cash and merchandise. Rarely did the raids involve successful drug busts.

Take a look at this scene, headlined, “Video sharpens focus on raid: Store owner’s hidden back-up shows cops snipping security camera wires.”

After Cujdik and his squad members burst into the store, they cut the wires to the surveillance camera with wire cutters, an owner said, then looted the store. That owner came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1996, and had been operating the store just five days. One cop took a Black & Mild, a slender cigar, from the shelf and started to smoke, said the owner, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. The officers took three brown boxes from his kitchen and loaded them with food, he said.

“It was like they was shopping,” said Maria Espinal, who was working in the kitchen and saw the cops take boxes stuffed with packaged goods. The cops put a gun to Espinal’s head, she said, before identifying themselves as police. “I thought I was going to die,” she said.

The cop coolly smoking a Black & Mild. The immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who had owned the shop for just five days. The worker with a gun held to her head, sure she was going to die. Those are the kind of details that make the series memorable. That build their case, story after story.

 

 

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