Five rogue cops preyed upon Paterson for three years - beating people, stealing their money, telling lies, planting evidence and conspiring to cover up their crimes with false police reports.
That much both sides agreed upon during Wednesday's opening statements in the federal trial against Paterson police Sgt. Michael Cheff, who supervised the lawbreaking law enforcement officers.
But what was Cheff's role?
Assistant United States Attorney Jihee Suh said Cheff allowed the crooked cops to commit their crimes. She told the jury the sergeant collected something called a "Cheff tax" from their ill-gotten gains, coached them on how best to hide their wrongdoing, helped them get internal affairs complaints dismissed, and in one instance participated in stealing $2,000 from a suspected drug dealer's bedroom safe.
"Cheff will look us out no matter what b," one rogue officer texted to another, Suh told the jury.
But Cheff's lawyer, John Lynch, argued that there was no direct evidence of Cheff's wrongdoing other than the claims of criminals.
Lynch told the jury that federal authorities had more than 9,000 text messages sent among the five convicted cops. But he said there was just one instance in which the rogue officers mentioned Cheff, a message about the safe incident from Jonathan Bustios to Frank Toledo, who was off duty that day.
"He's the worst one out of them all," Lynch said of Bustios.
The credibility of the five convicted officers as witnesses loomed as a key issue in both sides' opening statements. Bustios, Toledo, Daniel Pent, Eudy Ramos, and Matthew Torres all pleaded guilty to their crimes in 2018 and 2019, and their prison sentences have been on hold until the case against Cheff is resolved.
Suh told the jury that none of the government's witnesses would be "angels." One would be a suspected drug dealer, along with the five former cops, who agreed to testify against Cheff in exchange for unspecified reduced prison sentences, she said.
Lynch said the five cops called themselves "the robbery squad."
"You're going to hear witnesses who can't tell the truth," Lynch told the jury at the federal court in Newark. "They disgraced their jobs every day. They violated their oaths every day."
Federal authorities focused on one specific incident in the case against Cheff - one that allegedly happened on Nov. 14, 2017, at the Riverside housing projects, which have since been demolished.
Suh said Bustios, Ramos and Torres took money from a drug suspect, and when Cheff arrived on the scene, he went into the man's apartment with two of the officers. Suh said that's when Cheff allegedly took the $2,000 from the safe.
Suh said Cheff entered as evidence $300 of the money, a ploy she said he used to hide the fact that he was stealing. Later, in a bathroom at police headquarters, Cheff shared a portion of the money with others at the scene, the U.S. attorney said.
But Bustios was upset that Cheff allegedly kept far more than his share and sent Toledo a text complaining, Suh said.
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"Cheff took us over for a stack today," Suh told the jury the text read, explaining that a "stack" meant $1,000.
Cheff was the last of eight Paterson cops arrested in an FBI probe that started at the end of 2016 and continued into 2020.
Besides the five involved in the case against Cheff, Ruben McAusland admitted selling drugs while on duty and beating a suicide patient at a hospital emergency room. He is in federal prison. The eighth convicted officer, Roger Then, admitted participating in the hospital assault with McAusland and already has completed his six-month sentence.
Cheff, who joined the Paterson police force in 1996, has been on paid suspension for more than two years, while the federal case against him was delayed by COVID-19 and other factors.
In a separate case, two other Paterson cops - Kevin Patino and Kendry Tineo - are suspended with pay pending the outcome of a pending federal civil rights case accusing them of beating a man in South Paterson in December 2020 and covering up the incident with a false police report.
Another Paterson officer, Spencer Finch, was fired last year after he was arrested for allegedly beating a man involved in a domestic dispute in an attack captured on video by another cop's body camera.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ police sergeant trial starts in corruption case