Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jan 2000
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Contact:  400 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19101
Author: Barbara Boyer and Angela Couloumbis


One testified yesterday that law-enforcement officials had been paid off.
Another said the mayor had been a buyer.

Two confessed drug dealers testified yesterday in U.S. District Court in
Camden that a lucrative drug ring used bribes and contacts with high-ranking
law-enforcement officials to thrive on the streets of Camden for more than a

During the federal drug-conspiracy trial of Jose Luis "J.R." Rivera and Luis
"Tun Tun" Figueroa, one dealer, Angel Torres, mentioned Camden Mayor Milton
Milan as a bulk buyer of cocaine in 1993. Torres, under questioning by
prosecutor Sally Smith, said he delivered cocaine to "Davie, Milton, Tony."

Milan's attorney, Carlos A. Martir Jr., who also represents Figueroa,
confirmed that Torres was referring to Milan.

Another witness, Lucas Torres, testified that he had bribed a county
narcotics investigator to ease up on drug dealers, and that a federal Drug
Enforcement Administration officer knew of the bribes.

Lucas Torres also said yesterday that he smoked marijuana while in jail on
drug charges and secretly held "smokes" for reputed mob boss Joey "Skinny
Joey" Merlino while the two were at Salem County Jail last year.

Prosecutors allege that Rivera, 40, and Figueroa, 34, operated a
multimillion-dollar cocaine ring that flourished for more than a decade in
East Camden before it was toppled in 1998. Both men are in jail and face
life sentences if convicted. Twelve others were charged and pleaded guilty
to drug-conspiracy charges.

The trial comes while federal authorities are investigating corruption in
Camden and the Milan administration. In August, federal and county officials
raided Milan's home and City Hall office. He has not been charged with any

Milan, who was elected mayor in 1997, has denied any wrongdoing, including
buying drugs.

Martir said it was clear that the government was using the drug trial to
build a case against Milan even though he had not been charged with any
crime. Martir accused federal prosecutors of deliberately bringing Milan's
name into the drug trial.

"Unfortunately, the government has made it appear that it's the government
versus Milan," Martir said. "Clearly everyone who has testified has been
urged to reveal or make up any contact they had with him. They want
information about Milan more than they do about the drug sets."

Angel Torres testified yesterday that he had been arrested in 1994 for
selling drugs for the "33d Street Set," a drug ring that operated at 33d
Street and Westfield Avenue. He is serving time in a halfway house as part
of a 12-year sentence.

In the early 1990s, he said, he was dealing drugs with Camildo Cruz, Lucas
Torres and Luis Soto, all of whom have pleaded guilty to drug charges. In
addition to Lucas Torres, Cruz testified last week and named Milan as
someone who bought large quantities of cocaine through Soto on two occasions
in 1993.

Yesterday, prosecutor Smith questioned Angel Torres about his role in the
drug ring. Torres said he delivered several ounces or kilos of cocaine on
orders he received from Cruz and Soto.

"Do you remember who some of their customers were?" Smith asked.

"I don't remember their last names," Torres responded. "Davie, Milton,

During past interviews with The Inquirer, Torres has said Milan was dealing
drugs around 1989 and, "I was there when Luis Soto was giving the drugs to
Milton on Westfield Avenue."

Soto, in a 1997 interview with The Inquirer, denied having sold drugs to

During yesterday's court hearing, Lucas Torres completed two days of
testimony in which he detailed a 24-hour open-air drug market on 33d Street
that had police protection.

Torres testified that police officers in Camden went almost daily to
Rivera's businesses - JR's Custom Auto Parts and Jay's Gym - to "hang out."

Torres also said that Tom McDonnell, a Camden County Prosecutor's Office
investigator who headed the county's narcotics task force and who died in
1997, received $5,000 weekly payoffs in return for his protection. One time
Torres said he paid $11,000.

He said he met with McDonnell twice in 1992 when the county task force was
investigating the 33d Street drug set and put word out that McDonnell wanted
to meet with Torres.

McDonnell "kept raiding the set, saying that he wants to talk to me," Torres

"If you don't want to talk to me, he said, he's going to keep doing it
[raids]," Torres said. "So I call him and . . . he stopped."

During that first meeting, Torres testified yesterday, another
law-enforcement officer was present - a federal agent with the Drug
Enforcement Administration whom Torres identified as "Jim." It was unclear
from Torres' testimony whether the DEA officer tried to solicit money from

The second time he saw McDonnell, Torres testified, was when McDonnell
showed up at the 33d Street Set.

"He used to come . . . and be all drunk in front of 33d Street, talking
about how he won't leave unless he talks to me, stuff like that," Torres

Camden County Freeholder Edward McDonnell, Tom McDonnell's brother,
characterized Torres as a "degenerate" and said that both federal and county
authorities had investigated the allegations and "found not a shred of

On the stand yesterday, Torres insisted that he was telling the truth. But
when cross-examined by Rivera's attorney, Marc Neff, Torres admitted that he
did not always do the right thing.

Several months ago, Torres said, he smoked marijuana while in jail, drugs he
got from another drug dealer serving time.

And, he said, he held "smokes" for Joey Merlino. He did not specify whether
they were marijuana or tobacco, but both are considered contraband in jail.
So when he got caught, officials put him in the "hole," he said.

That is when he turned to the FBI for assistance and penned a letter to
agent Robert Sweeney, addressed to "Mr. Bob."

"Joey Merlino told me to hold his pack of smoke," Torres wrote in a 1999
letter to the FBI, in which he spoke about the stress of being imprisoned.
"Please come and see me and tell [my lawyer] to come and see me."

Neff questioned Torres about his request for help to the FBI.

"You were stressing there. . . . And you needed help, isn't that right?"
Neff asked, pointing out that Torres often turned to law enforcement when he
was in a tight spot - including the time he agreed to cooperate with federal

Torres, who could have been indicted for his part in the drug organization
and faced a life sentence, was not among the 14 people indicted in 1998.

Instead, Torres made a deal with the government to testify against Rivera in
exchange for a lighter sentence for charges stemming from a 1994 drug

"Isn't it right that you would do anything to please them [prosecutors] . .
. for a lighter sentence recommendation?" Neff asked.

"I say the truth," Torres said.

Inquirer staff writers Dwight Ott and Nancy Phillips contributed to this
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