Robert "Biggum" Henderson, a convicted drug dealer and admitted junkie, says he has lived most of his life by the law of the streets.
"I don't talk about people," he said one day last week. "I basically try to mind my own business, because it's a better way to go."
And, while that policy has helped him survive on South Camden's streets, it also, he alleges, brought him into conflict with a group of Camden police officers now suspected of bringing a law of their own to those same streets.
Last month, without notice or explanation, two of Henderson's drug-possession convictions were dismissed.
He is one of at least seven defendants whose cases the Camden County Prosecutor's Office has moved to vacate because of an investigation into four suspected rogue police officers who are now the target of an FBI corruption probe.
The officers, who have been suspended without pay, are suspected of beating defendants, planting drugs, and bringing phony charges to enhance their arrest records and force reluctant players in the drug underworld to cooperate.
Henderson told his story last week from an interview room at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, where he is serving time on a third drug charge that he says also may be tainted.
The 55-year-old was convicted of drug possession in 2006 and 2007. Both cases were brought, he said, after Camden Police Officer Jason Stetser - a seven-year department veteran known as "Fat Face" - demanded information about drug dealers.
Since Henderson didn't talk, he said, Stetser planted drugs on him and sent him to jail.
Stetser is among four officers suspended without pay as the county Prosecutor's Office reviews arrests dating back to at least 2006. The other officers are Antonio Figueroa, Kevin Parry, and Robert Bayard.
All four have been described as part of a special operations team that tackled gun and drug crime. They have been advised by the police union's attorney not to speak about the allegations.
Richard Madden, a lawyer hired by Stetser, said the highly decorated officer had among the most arrests and drug busts in the department. That, he said, might have made him a target of drug dealers' complaints.
Stetser has not spoken to federal investigators and does not know what the allegations are, his lawyer said.
Investigators "go on fishing expeditions," Madden said. "So we're just sitting back and seeing what happens. They keep us in the dark."
The orders to vacate the sentences have been filed by judges on the basis of motions from the Prosecutor's Office that cite only "the interests of justice and . . . good cause shown" as reasons for dismissing the charges.
Defense attorneys say they expected dozens, if not hundreds, of cases to be vacated.
Neither the Camden Police Department nor the Prosecutor's Office would comment on the investigation. The FBI has not publicly acknowledged the investigation, but sources familiar with the probe said it was the basis for the police suspensions.
Henderson's description of Stetser's alleged harassment mirrors stories told by others arrested by the suspended officers over the last few years.
In each case, suspects said the officers stole money and drugs during searches or planted drugs on suspects who refused to cough up information on dealers and their stashes.
"If you don't have something to give them, then you're going to jail," Henderson said.
Some also allege physical abuse and property destruction. Henderson said that in 2006, he and his fiancée were living in an abandoned house rigged for electricity when Stetser burst in. While another officer waited outside, he said, Stetser destroyed his TV and microwave oven with a sledgehammer and dumped kerosene on their cot and clothes.
"About a week later, he returned and informed me that I was now working for him," Henderson said.
Henderson said he repeatedly wrote to judges and filed police internal affairs complaints to bring attention to Stetser.
Henderson wore a tan jumpsuit over a white T-shirt and used red reading glasses missing a stem, his voice cracking as he read notes on a yellow piece of paper describing his unusual legal odyssey.
"The last four years of my life have been really, really crazy," Henderson said.
The first time Stetser arrested him in 2006, he said, he had a personal stash of drugs - two bags of heroin - but he said he was charged with carrying 36 bags of crack with the intent to distribute.
"You are going to work for me whether you like it or not," Henderson said Stetser told him as he was arrested. "I said, I'm not doing no telling, I don't know nothing about nothing. He said, 'You've been around too long not to know something about something.' "
After nearly a year in the Camden County Jail, Henderson was released on probation.
Three months later, Henderson ran afoul of Stetser again, he said. He claims he was arrested while he was scratching lottery tickets on a porch. Henderson said he was not carrying drugs, but Stetser pulled out a Mike & Ike candy box with red baggies of drugs.
Edward J. Crisonino, a veteran South Jersey defense lawyer, said the allegations of corruption in the narcotics unit of the Camden Police Department came "as no surprise."
"This kind of stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum," he said. "That's been the culture in the narcotics unit for years."
One of Crisonino's clients, Michael A. Culbreath, was released in January from Southern State, where he was serving a two- to four-year sentence for cocaine possession.
Culbreath claims Stetser and Parry beat him and planted the cocaine on him, Crisonino said. Culbreath admitted he was holding two bags of marijuana when he was arrested.
He said the public defender who handled the case urged him to take a plea deal - a four-year sentence with a stipulation to do two years before being eligible for release. Culbreath had two previous convictions, so he took the plea even though he said the charge was false, according to Crisonino.
While in prison he wrote to the Attorney General's and Public Defender's offices claiming he had been beaten.
This month, while in prison, he was called to the office and was told his sentence had been vacated.
"They told him to go home," Crisonino said. "They didn't tell him why. After he got home and read in the papers about the investigation into the corrupt cops, he knew that was the reason."
Crisonino said two of his clients were serving state prison time in cases developed by Stetser. He said he was looking into the status of those cases and thought they should be vacated as well.
"These guys were like cowboys riding the range. . . . They were over the edge," he said. "But they were the stars of the unit. They made the most arrests."
And when criminals complained, Crisonino said, no one paid any attention.
"If the complaint comes from criminals who have been arrested, it doesn't go anywhere," he said.
Those who defend the suspended officers say the claims are without merit.
"How can you let people out of prison when you don't even have enough information to press charges" against the officers, asked Jason Stetser's father, Jim.
Sitting in the living room of his home in rural Camden County, Jim Stetser, who walked the same South Camden streets as a Camden police officer in the 1970s and 1980s, called his son and the other suspended officers "pro-active policemen."
"They went out to look for these drug dealers, instead of hanging around at the coffee shop," he said.
Jim Stetser said his son won departmental awards for his bravery and ability to pull guns and drugs off criminals. He said older residents slipped his son thank-you notes and tips on dealers.
Jason Stetser lives near his parents, who are supporting him financially during his unpaid suspension.
The police union lawyer, Timothy Quinlan, said that if federal investigators had evidence to make a case, they would have arrested the officers by now.
"You can only conclude by a process of elimination that they don't have that kind of evidence," Quinlan said. "What they do have undoubtedly is statements by people who are arrested, and as far as I know that's what they're going with."
By Matt Katz and George Anastasia
February 3, 2010
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