PHILADELPHIA — Michael Casciolo had left his penthouse apartment with a black laundry bag stuffed with high-grade marijuana when he saw a half-dozen men in dark clothes and ski hats pick up the pace down the hallway.
"My first immediate thought was, it was the Mafia and I was getting robbed," said Casciolo, a thin man with sunken eyes who was dressed in a gray suit and tie. "I was thinking: Everything is catching up to me."
Casciolo was instead tackled by six members of an undercover Philadelphia drug squad. They ransacked his apartment without a warrant and ignored his plea for a lawyer, he testified Wednesday in a federal police corruption trial, speaking nervously about the November 2007 takedown.
Casciolo, then 31 and making as much as $50,000 a month selling marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms to a few select middlemen, initially refused to give up his supplier or the password to his Palm Pilot. The device held the locations of his $424,000 in drug proceeds. Squad supervisor Thomas Liciardello ordered two colleagues to throw him over the balcony, he said.
"They actually started to lift me a little," Casciolo testified. "I was afraid. It was the middle of the night. No neighbors came out. ... (So) I gave them the password."
Liciardello, 38, is the lead defendant in a racketeering indictment that accuses rogue narcotics officers of stealing millions in cash, drugs and valuables from suspects from 2006 to 2012.
Defense attorneys insist the government case is based on tainted testimony from 19 drug dealers and a rogue former colleague caught red-handed in an FBI sting.
In opening statements Monday, they questioned why Casciolo, for instance, would not have screamed on the balcony and awakened neighbors. Scores of drug suspects stand to cash in from related civil-rights lawsuits — and get revenge against police — if the officers are convicted, the lawyers argued. And more than 100 convictions have been overturned.
The drug squad landed at Casciolo's door 10 days after they stopped 18th-floor neighbor Robert Kushner. Kushner, who grew up on Philadelphia's wealthy Main Line and graduated from George Washington University, was the government's leadoff witness Tuesday in the projected 10-week trial.
The narcotics officers had stopped his car on Nov. 16, 2007, and found $30,000 inside. He spent a night in custody while police tore through his apartment, stealing a safe with $80,000 in it, he said.
Neither the safe nor its contents were ever listed on the police property report. And the traffic stop paperwork listed just $13,000 in seized cash, the indictment said.
Kushner named Casciolo as his drug supplier, leading the squad to storm the 19th floor hallway on Nov. 26. Casciolo, fearing for his life, agreed to lure his New York-based supplier, Jeremy Sarkissina, into the police dragnet.
Police brass soon held a splashy news conference to announce the arrests and the seizure of what they called 16 pounds of potent "AK47" marijuana they valued at $812,000, 12 pounds of mushrooms worth $614,000 and nearly $440,000 in cash.
Former squad member Jeffrey Walker is expected to be pivotal to the trial's outcome. He has admitted planting evidence in a suspect's car and skimming $15,000 in seized cash. Like Kushner and Casciolo, he agreed to set up his squad mates, who were suspended when the Justice Department named them in a 26-count racketeering indictment last summer.
Liciardello, accused of 15 armed shakedowns, is in custody, while defendants Brian Reynolds, Linwood Norman, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts and John Speiser are on house arrest.
On cross-examination Wednesday, Casciolo acknowledged that he initially lied to FBI agents and never filed a police complaint over the alleged civil-rights violations.