In six years on the Savannah, Ga., police force, Officer Ralph Riley made 600 drug-related arrests. A tough, aggressive cop who boot-strapped his way out of public housing to earn a degree in criminal justice from Savannah State College, Riley built a reputation for skillfully handling dangerous undercover assignments. He dreamed of joining the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and maybe becoming a lawyer.
Today, Riley is serving nine years in the federal penitentiary here--one of 11 Savannah-area officers arrested in an FBI sting in September 1997 on charges of protecting illegal drug shipments.
The story of how one Georgia policeman went from role model to convicted felon casts a revealing light on an alarming national problem: the rapidly rising number of police officers convicted of serious crimes--most of them involving drugs and directly related to their law enforcement duties.
The number of federal, state and local officials serving time in federal prisons, mostly for drug-related offenses, has multiplied five times in four years to nearly 550 this year, according to government data.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, 44 police and other law enforcement officers in the Cleveland area pleaded guilty to drug charges growing out of an FBI sting.
“It’s particularly worrisome to see an increase in cases where you have criminals masquerading as police officers,” said Mark Codd, chief of the FBI’s public corruption unit. “The ultimate corruption of the system is to have police become active participants in the trafficking of drugs.”
While police corruption has long plagued the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, it is now spreading to the suburbs and medium-sized cities. For example:
* In Mount Vernon, N.Y., the chief of detectives and a second highly celebrated detective were arrested and accused of seizing illegal gambling proceeds for their own use and taking payoffs for allowing gambling and drug operations to function.
* Three former police officers in Palisades Park, N.J., will be sentenced this month on convictions stemming from entering and burglarizing homes whose security alarms had gone off.
* The sheriff, five deputies and the justice of the peace in Starr County, Texas, pleaded guilty in March to taking bribes in return for setting low bonds for people who had been arrested.
But Riley’s case is particularly revealing because he is one of the star performers in a program developed by the FBI to combat police-related crime. He sat for a two-hour videotaped interview for use in instructing other police officers, particularly those with little experience, to avoid the temptations and corrupting influence of illegal drugs.
“Respect your oath,” Riley said during the interview, choking with tears. “If you break it, you will suffer severe consequences. I know from real-life experience.”
One Officer’s Path to Destruction
The road to ruin for Riley was mapped out not by criminals but by fellow police officers. He began violating his oath by entering into a police culture in which bending the rules to get arrests and convictions was widely considered to be part of the game.
On one of his first days as a rookie, Riley said, a veteran officer told him: “All that stuff you learned in training school you can forget. This is the real school now. Do what you have to do to do your duty and survive.”
Riley soon concluded that officers who were considered the best “didn’t always follow the rules,” and that was the top of “the slippery slope,” according to Codd.
“Once you start out violating seemingly inconsequential regulations,” Codd said, “it’s a short trip to the point where you begin accepting money for doing heinous illegal acts.”
Riley, now 33, is married and the father of a 10-year-old daughter. He recalls how he used to take her to cheerleader classes and help her with homework. He regularly gets letters in prison from her and his wife, a hospital secretary.
Riley grew up in a drug-infested public housing project. His mother was a hospital orderly who divorced from his father when he was 6. Riley helped care for his younger brother and two younger sisters, cooking for them and dressing them for school, Laura Riley recalled in an interview.
“He never gave me a minute of trouble and never messed with any drugs,” she said. “He used to tell the young drug dealers they better cut that out or they would wind up dead or in jail.”
Throughout high school and his first year at Savannah State, Riley worked as chief custodian at the Savannah Science Museum. Across the street from his home lived two of his high school classmates, Purvis Ellison, now a Boston Celtic, and a youth known as Johnny Smooth.
When he enrolled at Savannah State, Riley recalled, “Johnny Smooth wanted to know why I went to school and worked. He said he was going to be a dope dealer and pimp and make some money.” True to his word, Johnny Smooth became one of Savannah’s biggest dealers--until he was caught and landed in Butner penitentiary.
Riley, a Marine Corps Reserve sergeant who scored a perfect 300 on the Marines’ physical fitness test, joined the Savannah police force in 1988 and was soon assigned to a drug-busting unit headed by Sgt. Billy Medlock, a tough veteran who became his close friend.
On the streets, Riley was feared by drug dealers who could not understand why someone who had grown up in their kind of poor neighborhood could go after them so aggressively.
Even as an ordinary patrolman, Riley had embraced the widespread practice of accepting discounted meals and ignoring other relatively minor department rules. Now he moved into major infractions: roughing up suspects and shading his testimony to get convictions.
“Drugs were a dirty business, but we had to present it clean in court,” Riley said in a Times interview at the prison. “That’s one thing which I considered to be small, but of course it’s quite serious.”
Community leaders praised Riley not only for making his many drug busts but also for teaching criminal justice at a local college and tutoring elementary school students. He also lectured at boys’ and girls’ clubs on the dangers of becoming involved with gangs and illegal drugs.
Beneath the surface, however, Riley was sliding ever faster down the slippery slope.
Working undercover, he said in the FBI interview, he witnessed many “horrible and dangerous scenes” and became less sensitive to taking risks and breaking rules. Using his fists and sometimes a baton to rough up pushers, he compiled a thick file of complaints about excessive force.
Riley said he felt protected by the police force’s unwritten code of silence. He told of introducing a rookie policeman to the code by committing him to silence after seizing the gun of a suspect and firing shots over the suspect’s head.
Seeing all the drug money on Savannah’s streets, Riley soon felt entitled to some. He saw dealers in their teens and early 20s making up to $1 million a year. His annual salary: $32,000.
So after a crack house bust, he turned in only $16,000 of the $20,000 in cash he seized and split the $4,000 with Medlock.
The result? Police Chief David M. Gellatly, who knew nothing of the skim, praised Riley for producing $16,000 for the city treasury.
Riley was lured into the FBI sting by Medlock. As Riley told it, Medlock knew of his “insatiable appetite” for the hot nightclubs four hours away in Atlanta. He introduced him to a man he called Antonio Lopez, who got them into a club where Prince, Riley’s favorite singer, was appearing.
Unsuspecting Pair Lured Into Trap
What neither Riley nor Medlock knew was that Lopez was an undercover FBI agent from Miami whose real name was Anthony Velazquez. And Velazquez had already snared Medlock by paying him to provide protection for what he told Medlock up front were illegal drug shipments.
Medlock brought Riley and Michael Holmes, a state juvenile justice officer, in on the scheme but told them it was to protect shipments of diamonds, not drugs.
Velazquez appeared to be a smooth, sophisticated operator. He paid Medlock $8,000 for escorting the first shipment through Savannah and gave him $6,000 more to split between Riley and Holmes.
Because neither Riley nor Holmes was aware of the financial arrangements or knew that drugs were supposed to be involved, Medlock gave them only $200 each. Riley thought that was not bad pay for 30 minutes of escorting a shipment of diamonds.
One day, as the sting unfolded, Riley learned about Velazquez’s financial arrangements with Medlock and the supposed involvement of drugs. He was furious--not about the drugs but about the money.
That night, according to Riley’s wife, Michelle, he stormed into the house, grabbed a shotgun and vowed: “I’m gonna kill Billy Medlock. He took my money. I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch.”
Riley left home with the shotgun and lured Medlock to a parking lot before Velazquez, guaranteeing that he would get his fair share of any future payments, persuaded him not to carry out the threat.
One evening, Riley was sitting in a patrol car in downtown Savannah when suddenly his car door was flung open by a police lieutenant and a man wearing a dark blue FBI vest. They were pointing pistols at his head. Like the hundreds of drug pushers he had arrested, he was quickly handcuffed.
His arrest shocked most of his fellow officers. Det. Devonn Adams, who worked with him on drug busts, said: “We would see a teenager driving a $40,000 Lexus, and we knew he was a drug dealer. It was frustrating, but I thought [Riley] was fighting his frustration by putting those kind of folks in jail. We both used to go to the boys’ club and warn the kids about the dangers of drugs and gangs.”
No one was more shocked than John C. Watts Jr., a lawyer who had been Riley’s friend and commanding officer in his Marine Corps Reserve unit. “He always showed good judgment, and I could trust him with anything,” Watts said.
Riley, represented by Watts in the FBI sting case, agreed to plead guilty rather than risk a trial and possible life sentence. And he agreed to testify against Medlock.
Medlock was convicted and sentenced to 22 1/2 years. One officer was acquitted, but the other eight, all relatively inexperienced, either pleaded guilty or were convicted and received long sentences. Two got life.
Riley’s mother, a devoted Baptist who had brought him up in the church, has not lost her faith. “It could have been really ugly and nastier. The Lord was wonderful the way he looked out after Ralph.”
Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.