A little more than a month after the release of “Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love” and five years after the incidents described by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, a stunning update was released about four of the book’s key players.
But first, “Busted:” a taut, fast-paced journalistic detective story in the tradition of “All the President’s Men.” Written in the no-nonsense style of Dashiell Hammett or Mickey Spillane, Ruderman and Laker steer the reader through a dangerous world of dishonest criminals and even more deceitful cops who rob, bribe, harass and sexually assault the public with impunity.
In December 2008, Ruderman and Laker met a drug dealer named Benny Martinez who had a story to tell that seemed ripped from a Hollywood screenplay. For the previous seven years he had secretly operated as one of Philadelphia’s most prolific police informants, working hand in glove with respected narcotics officer Jeffrey Cujdik. But now Cujdik was out to kill him, Martinez claimed, because the two of them had conspired to fabricate evidence in dozens of cases. In the process, their lives had become dangerously intertwined.
“[Jeff Cujdik] allowed Benny into his life and routinely helped him out. When Benny told Jeff that he needed money for child support, Jeff gave him the cash,” Ruderman recalls. “When Benny needed a job, Jeff got him a gig working for a cop friend who owned an air-duct cleaning business. And when Benny needed a place to live, Jeff told him that he could help him out.”
It was this final act of misplaced generosity that ruptured the lucrative and unethical partnership between Cujdik and Martinez.
“Some of the cash that Benny earned as a police informant flowed back to Jeff in the form of rent money. This was against police department rules, and Jeff knew he’d get in big trouble if internal affairs found out.”
When a defense attorney made the link between Cujdik’s property and Martinez’s place of residence during a trial, Cujdik moved swiftly to distance himself from his confidential informant. In doing so, he inadvertently set Ruderman and Laker on a trail that not only led to the falsified drug arrests he had made with Martinez’s help, but an increasingly complex web of police corruption that extended throughout Cujdik’s narcotics team. Each step in their investigation led to another shocking exposure of corruption, and their initial article on Benny Martinez and Jeffrey Cujdik gradually expanded to a 10-month series, “Tainted Justice,” which ran in the Philadelphia Daily News in 2009.
Throughout their investigation, Ruderman and Laker faced opposition from authorities, including Philadelphia law enforcement, the FBI and the legal system. Cujdik’s attorney, George Bochetto, spoke for many when he confronted the pair during an interview: “He couldn’t understand why we would even consider writing a story based on the word of a convicted drug dealer turned informant. ‘What do you guys think you are going to do? Win a Pulitzer Prize?’ he sneered.”
Though there are plenty of heart-pounding moments in “Busted,” the most fascinating aspect of the book is the internal struggle that Ruderman and Laker engage in as they antagonize police officers, befriend drug dealers and skate along the edge of journalistic ethics. In the end, just like Cujdik, Ruderman found herself becoming ensnared by Benny Martinez’s needy allure.
“Benny did a number on my head, and for the longest time, I couldn’t disentangle myself from him,” Ruderman writes, confessing that she bought groceries for him and holiday gifts for his children. Only Laker’s intervention prevented her from giving him money. “She reminded me that it would be unethical and would cross the line as a journalist; she saved me from myself. Jeff didn’t have the same oversight.”
In the end, Ruderman and Laker won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Their work resulted in the removal of four police officers from active duty and an FBI investigation of the entire narcotics unit.
And that’s where “Busted” leaves the reader. Corruption has been exposed, justice is imminent and the crusading reporters get Cujdik’s sneering lawyer to eat his words.
“About a month after winning the Pulitzer, Barbara and I bumped into him at a state awards banquet. He sheepishly congratulated us,” Ruderman recalls, her satisfaction bordering on glee.
But Cujdik and his lawyer may have the last laugh.
In April 2014, right after Ruderman and Laker’s book was released, both the U.S. attorney and the Philadelphia district attorney decided not to prosecute Cujdik and the other three accused officers. They’d been busted, it would appear, but not beaten.
Book Review - Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker