Q & A with Laker & Ruderman

Philadelphia Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker won a Pulitzer Prize for their series of articles, “Tainted Justice,” investigating police corruption.  The book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, is based on these articles. It reads like something out of a Michael Connelly crime novel where they behaved more like a pair of detectives than journalists.  For those who remember the TV series, Cold Case, these Philadelphia detectives are nothing like Lily Rush and her counterparts. The reporters uncovered three intertwined scandals: the raids of people’s homes with fabricated search warrants, the unjust raids on legal immigrants’ stores, and the sexual assault of women by one officer during these raids.


Elise Cooper:  Why did you decide to write a book?


Barbara Laker:  We were told this story would make a great book so we decided to write about it.  Hollywood producers also contacted us after we won the Pulitzer Prize.  We want to make sure we maintain control over what was written. As of yet we have not sold the rights.


Wendy Ruderman:  We contacted other authors we knew, like Mark Bowden who wrote Black Hawk Down.  We consulted with him on how we could maintain ownership of the story.


EC:  The book points out that your children sarcastically reminded you that you worked a lot and were never around.


BL:  One of the drug king pins investigated was nicknamed “Pooh Bear” and lived across from an elementary school.  Since Wendy and I both have children we recognized that street-corner drug dealing destroyed neighborhoods and put children in grave danger.


WR:  I know I was working a lot, considering this business is not family friendly, but my husband, now my ex, was around.  I am the person responsible for my family’s finances, which rests on my shoulders.  Yet, I found out there is a difference between “a mom and a dad” and how we view things.  It seems dads can never fully be the moms and the mom has trouble being the dad.  I agonized over this quite a bit, especially after I accepted a job at the New York Times.  Because I did not want to have regrets with my children I left that job and returned to my old job at the Philadelphia Daily News.  I feel I have done the right thing, to professionally take a step back and find more balance in my life.


EC:  How did you come about finding the sexual abuse by that one detective, Tolstoy?


BL and WR: He chose women who were large breasted, demure, poor, and would not fight back. Nothing pisses us more than men in power who preyed on vulnerable women.  Officer Thomas Tolstoy, nicknamed the ‘Boob Man’ by his colleagues would fondle them, and in one instance shoved his hand up a woman’s vagina. There is no doubt in our mind that these women are telling the truth.  We had them come in individually and watch a video of a raid.  They all picked out Tolstoy as the abuser.


EC:  How did you make sure the women were not lying?


BL:  We found out that a cop in the squad we were investigating had sexually assaulted women from several people. Benny told us that Tolstoy had assaulted women during raids. He told us that Tolstoy “fisted” a woman. Cops both in the department and even in suburban departments knew Tolstoy as the “Boob Man.” We also knew from police sources that Tolstoy had been pulled off the street before. But no one could give us names of the victims or addresses. A lot of reporting went into tracking them down. Once we eventually found the women, they agreed to tell their stories for the Daily News on videos. They were very courageous to do so. I went to one of the women’s homes.  When she finally arrived and was told why I was there she cried and said she waited for this day to come.  Remember no one in the police followed up on these women’s accusations.  She reacted by hugging me and tearfully telling me her story.  No one would react to me like that if she made up the story.  There is no bone in my body that felt she was lying.


EC:  It was interesting how the threats on you were based on the fact you were women?


BL:  The Philadelphia police held a news conference, in the beginning, asking us how we could take the word of a drug dealer over the police.  Initially they had a website, which is no longer up, called “dome lights.”  They posted Wendy’s home address and made comments that they hoped she and I would get raped and beaten. If we were to call 911 they hoped no one would come to our aid.  Besides this they tried to intimidate us through threatening messages and hang up calls.  However, after we ran a story with video showing the cops raiding immigrant’s stores the criticism went away.  (http://www.philly.com/philly/video/Police_Raid_Video_View_1)


EC:  Can you talk a little about the drug addict, Benny Martinez who seemed to be a manipulative liar?


WR:  I hope people, after reading this book, will not think of him as a misguided good person.  We hope that readers will feel as you did.  I ended up really disliking him. He was an informant sent to me by a good friend of mine and told us how he worked with the cop Jeff to obtain search warrants through illegal means. It became a big money operation for both of them.


EC:  People might ask is Jeff’s fabrication of search warrants really wrong considering they were drug addicts?


BL:  The problem is if you lie with these rules what is to stop someone from lying on search warrants to get into your home, my home, or any law-abiding citizen’s house.  This is not how the police should work in a Democratic society.


EC:  How did you view Jeff?


WR:  Jeff is a complicated character, someone not all bad or all good.  I had this bizarre sympathy for him because Benny was good at spinning this web of lies with no moral compass.  I started to see things from Jeff’s perspective instead of Benny’s.


BL:  Jeff was different than the other corrupt cops.  Did he lie on search warrants and cut corners, yes? Did he participate in the raids on immigrant stores, yes?  Was that right, no?  Yet, when we saw the video Jeff was with this twelve-year-old boy.  He put his hand on his back and told him to go home. According to the women abused, they described a cop that interrupted Tolstoy.  From that description we are pretty sure it was Jeff. He is soft spoken, polite, and kind.  I think he has two sides to him that is complicated and grey.


EC:  Were you scared to go into such seedy neighborhoods?


BL:  The only time I was scared is when I got hit and threatened by a drug informant, Tiffany.  Overall the people in the neighborhood never intimidated us.  Actually, the drug dealers looked after us.  As we told in the book, the one drug dealer told me, ‘you know I own this block.’ I responded, ‘well that means you have my back.’  He chuckled but he kept his word.  For us it was just part of the job.  Word spread fast as to who we were and why we were there.  It seemed they never felt threatened by us.


EC:  What is your overall impression of the police?


WR:  A lot of the department is made up of good, decent, and honest cops.  I don’t think we could have done this story or the one we are currently working on without a lot of their help.  Some sources in Internal Affairs started helping us.  I think they realized as women without a badge we would be less intimidating.  We had a quiet understanding that we would help them.


BL:  The honest and good narcotic cops worked with us over a period of years.  They talked to us because they saw what was happening was wrong. They did not go public because that was a part of their code and were afraid to be seen as a snitch.  They were afraid if they ever needed help no one would have their back.


EC:  What do you want the readers to get out of the book?


BL:  Busted is a book about trust, betrayal, and revenge.  Benny wanted revenge on Jeff.  Some of the immigrants who came to the US to achieve the American dream felt betrayed.  Finally, who would not want to trust the police, especially after 9/11, when we all thought of them as heroes? Hopefully, we wrote a book that brings the characters to life and is informative, gripping, and human.