Meet Philadelphia’s Most Infamous Snitch
Benny Martinez is sitting in a dimly lit booth, giving me some serious side-eye. This is the first time we’ve met. He doesn’t trust me. Or at least, he wants me to think he doesn’t trust me. It’s hard to tell what he really thinks. With Benny, artifice and reality blur. Constantly.
We’re at a bar in Washington Square West that lists meatloaf under the house specials. Benny’s dressed in a candy red FUBU jersey and matching flat-brim cap. Fifteen minutes in, our quasi-clandestine rendezvous feels like a bad imitation of a secret meet at Bada Bing, save for the lack of strippers, Napoli roots and slightest respect for omertà.
See, Benny is a talker — or, in criminal parlance, a snitch. For seven years, he was one of the most prolific confidential informants in the city, a one-man CIA in Philadelphia’s never-ending war on drugs. His C.I. code, #103, appears on close to 200 arrest reports. He says his snitching helped put dozens of drug dealers in prison, that he made thousands of dollars along the way. Before he was done, he even snitched on the cops who recruited him. Depending on whom you ask, Benny is either the most famous or the most infamous snitch in the history of the Philadelphia police department.
Benny keeps glaring at me. His hamburger languishes in front of him, untouched. Our mutual acquaintance, a sleep-deprived lawyer sitting to my right (who is drinking for the three of us), gets a few hard looks from Benny, but mostly the snitch points his squinting, unblinking eyeballs at me. Maybe he really is pissed. Benny’s not the biggest fan of journalists. To hear him tell it, two of them ruined his life. Then again, journalists are nothing if not good listeners. And Benny likes nothing better than to talk. So eventually, inevitably, he opens up, his lumpy torso hunched over as if he’s whispering ghost stories by the campfire.
The yarns he weaves are both seductive and dubious, replete with guns, drugs and avarice, like the time he sold his van with custom rims on a Saturday, only to find out it’d been pockmarked with bullets on Sunday. Benny’s stories are fuzzy as to chronology, and his characters’ names sound like they were stolen from Season 3 of The Wire (Hippy, Pooh Bear, White Boy Jason). But when Benny talks, the streets of Kensington come alive.
That’s where Benny worked most as a C.I., and it’s where he has, inexplicably, chosen to relocate. It’s hard to play the sympathy card when you clearly also have a death wish. But Benny walks that tightrope. “I fear that today is the day I’m going to get killed,” he says. “Why hasn’t it happened? God must be watching over me.”
After the non-lunch, he disappears for a month, only to text me out of the blue one day. “I went through something real serious this wknd,” he begins. “I need to speak to u in person … be there @ 11am sharp.” When I arrive at Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park on a balmy day, there’s no sign of him. Half an hour later, he bumbles into the park on his bike, lights a Newport, and starts explaining his run-in with a local drug crew called the Drama Family. “One of the guys has a Crown Victoria with big rims, and he just kept on circling the block, parking down the block, walking down the block,” he says. “I told my wife, ‘Keep your composure. Don’t get nervous. Just watch me through the cameras. Record it, just in case anything happens to me.’”
Suddenly, Benny says, a half dozen people were on his front porch, some of them strapped and all of them wanting to know if he was the guy who’d snitched on a member of the Family. Benny danced, he evaded, he denied. Then, as he tells it, one of his unexpected visitors whips out a cell phone and starts playing a YouTube excerpt of an audio book about the adventures of a Philly confidential informant. The first three words the female narrator says are “Ventura ‘Benny’ Martinez.”
If Benny acts like a character in a true-crime drama, that’s because he was one. In 2009, the Daily News published a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series on corruption in the Philadelphia police department’s narcotics unit. It was a sprawling investigation, but it began with a tip from Benny. The reporters eventually chronicled the saga of their reporting in a 2014 book titled Busted. Though it’s hard to believe, Benny says he didn’t read the book until recently: “How they put me to be the king of C.I.’s, I laughed at it. It sounded so cool.” But throughout the book, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker depict him as a con man, an addict, a self-serving two-timer with a knack for embellishment. Benny feels burned. “My credibility is outstanding,” he assures me.
Which is why he’s reached out to me, in pursuit of the snitching Triple Crown. After ratting out the dealers to the cops and then the cops to the tabloid, he’s now squealing on the tabloid to the glossy magazine. “They’ve got to answer for what they did to me.”
This is not that story. Who screwed Benny over, whom Benny did wrong, who’s lying, who’s not — those questions miss the point. The real question is this: Just how fragile, how rotten, how altogether hopeless and futile must the city’s war on drugs be if it’s so dependent on men like Ventura “Benny” Martinez?
SINCE THE Daily News investigation, Benny has stayed on the move, living in no fewer than seven neighborhoods in Philly and the ’burbs. For a couple of weeks, his family — a wife and two kids — took shelter inside a 1998 four-door Camry. It only seemed prudent. In their book, Ruderman and Laker wrote, “[T]hose who knew the rules of the ’hood told Barbara and me that anyone who wanted to off Benny would wait. They would make him sweat, for seven, eight years maybe. … ”
Seven years have passed since the saga began, and now Benny is back in Kensington, looking to make amends — in his own convoluted way. “A lot of people became C.I.’s and then they ran, but I stood here because I want to clear my name first,” says Benny, who is a ragged-looking 50-year-old. “Look, there’s two sides of the story. Was I a C.I.? Yes. But I never gave up any of my buddies.” (Well, except perhaps for Hector, a father figure Benny called “Pop” who lent him money and hosted him year after year on Christmas Eve — a tradition that ended after Benny dimed him out to his handler. Benny was torn up about that one, he told Ruderman and Laker. He sings a different song about that now. “I never gave up Hector!” he says. “I didn’t know nothing about this until it came out in the papers.”)
Once word got out that Benny was a snitch (and a brilliant one, at that), he was blamed for just about every police raid in the vicinity, he says. That’s why a kid from around the block likes to come by Benny’s house, dump Chinese food containers in his flowerpots, and drop freestyle raps about what snitches deserve. It’s why he has a posse of well-read drug pushers after him. It’s why someone once rigged his electric box and timed it to explode — okay, that one seems like a stretch. But for Benny, the streets of Kensington — however perilous — are the one place he’s comfortable.
Benny has lived within a mile of the Badlands for most of his life. In 1975, when he was nine, his family moved to Kensington, where he says they were the only Puerto Ricans on his block. “It was all white folks. We went through hell,” Benny says. It was a time of high racial animus in Philly. Just five years earlier, within earshot of Benny’s future home, a Puerto Rican man was thrown out of a bar and beaten up by white patrons. Later, the bar was firebombed in apparent retaliation.
The first Latino officers had been on the police force for less than a decade. Benny’s father was one of those trailblazers. “You’ve got your dad in his uniform and his gun at his waist,” Benny says. “Who doesn’t want to have that power?” As his dad assimilated into the police force, though, Benny’s dewy-eyed reverence faded: “There were a lot of racists. Then you had the cops of your own race who are worse than them. That’s when I learned that this is a family — cops are a family.”
Thus began a complicated, unhealthy affair with law enforcement that’s continued for virtually Benny’s entire life. In high school, Benny was your run-of-the-mill screw-up until his girlfriend got pregnant, prompting him to drop out. “I had to go out and help her, get a job. That’s when I met the streets, ’85, ’86,” he says. Benny dabbled in selling weed and coke — crack had hardly penetrated the ’hood at the time — and eventually got caught; he pleaded guilty to two charges in ’94 and got a decade of parole. But Benny was caught in a cycle of addiction, with a part-time job as a car detailer, and he was back on the corner in no time.
When Benny first started dealing, in the ’80s, paid street-level informants were used sparingly for drug buys, if at all. Undercover cops made the drug buys, obtained the warrants and served the arrests — all by themselves. It was a laborious system, not to mention a dangerous one. A slew of undercover narcotics cops were shot on the job.
Over time, though, as federal law codified the use of snitches, it became easier for police to flip informants, and with hardly any pretense of jurisprudence. “They don’t need to get a warrant, they don’t need to check with a judge. They don’t even need any evidence to turn someone into an informant. They can merely make a threat,” says Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles law professor Alexandra Natapoff, who is perhaps the foremost scholar on informants and the author of the book Snitching. “And if the person succumbs to the threat, then [police] have a tool to go after others.”
For police, the appeal of informants proved irresistible. C.I.’s can get into the same places as undercover cops, and plenty of places even undercover cops can’t reach. Informants are cheaper, too. And if they get caught and killed, well, it’s just one more junkie dead, instead of a solemn procession on Broad Street and thousands of mourners.
Suddenly, cops weren’t just capturing criminals — they were cultivating them. Snitches became a valuable commodity. One small-time bust might produce one C.I., who in turn could produce several more arrests and more potential C.I.’s.
And the incentives — financial and otherwise — all led inexorably toward more. C.I.’s had to prove their value to their handlers, so they developed more tips and made more buys. Detectives had to cultivate more C.I.’s to rack up more arrests, both to please the brass and to earn more OT. Brass had to justify their requests for more money and more cops with more dope on the table and young men locked up, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam: the courts, the lawyers, the prisons, the politicians.
This cycle has mushroomed over decades to the point where criminal informants have become a fundamental building block of the criminal justice system. The massive, costly war on drugs rests atop the questionable credibility of individuals who are chewed up and spit out in the shadows.
Unless you’re Benny. Then you just bring your deception into the light.
BENNY FLICKS HIS cigarette in the parking lot of a discount mini mart, glances back over his shoulder, then opens the passenger-side door. Old habits. He’s dressed in a Batman t-shirt and Batman beanie, which I figure is a nod of affection to Bruce Wayne — one master of avoiding detection to another. Or not. “I just like Batman,” he says when I ask.
When Benny is disinterested, you know it. He won’t look you in the eye. He answers questions that you didn’t ask. He ignores your phone calls for weeks on end. But on this unseasonably warm night, I’m determined to break the malaise. I’ve orchestrated a Benny’s Greatest Hits Tour — essentially, the two of us bumping up and down the potholed streets of Kensington and Fairhill while he points out stash houses he helped bring down.
First impression: It’s not going well. The dashboard starts beeping. “I think that’s because you don’t have your seatbelt on,” I tell Benny. “Yeah,” he responds. It beeps for the next hour.
Benny used to get into a car similar to this one three times a week, meeting up with his handler, officer Jeff Cujdik. He made drug buys for Cujdik for the better part of seven years. The relationship began one day in 2001. Benny was selling dime bags on the corner of Westmoreland and A streets. Cujdik, dressed in plainclothes, handcuffed him. “Before he takes me out of the car, he stops me and says, ‘Is there anything that you can tell me? I could save you from being locked up,’” Benny recounts. “I felt like he was an angel sent from up above to get me out of the streets.”
Benny was a natural at the snitching game, and soon he and Cujdik developed a Stockton-Malone connection that helped make Cujdik into a narcotics-unit star. They became almost friends. Benny got Cujdik arrests, which in turn was reciprocated with personal favors. Benny says Cujdik would bring a case of beer to Benny’s place on Christmas. He’d take him out to dinner. Eventually, he moved Benny and his family into a home that he owned — becoming both his landlord and his boss. (Which was a clear no-no. That slip-up got Ruderman and Laker started on their Pulitzer-winning series.)
According to Benny, Cujdik got so comfortable with Benny that he started cutting corners, ignoring process. As Benny tells it, Cujdik would have Benny buy drugs from one crew, but use the transaction to justify a search warrant targeting different dealers. Eventually, even that pretense went away. On two dozen occasions, Benny says, he got paid for buys he never made in the way they were recorded. Cujdik was allegedly just writing his C.I. number down on search-warrant applications, then handing him a voucher to sign for his reward. Benny says they worked so well together that Cujdik even had him pose as a cop in order to root out other, less trustworthy snitches. “I knew about other C.I.’s that Jeff didn’t trust, and he would set me up with them and introduce me to them as Officer Perez, special task force from New York City,” Benny says. His life was like an inner-city version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Some of this came out in the Daily News series in 2009, which was called “Tainted Justice” and ultimately targeted not just Cujdik, but also the rest of the narcotics squad he led. More was detailed in Ruderman and Laker’s book. And they got a lot of it from Benny himself. Cujdik had iced him out shortly after a lawyer for a drug dealer started asking Cujdik, on the stand, about Benny and the house the cop was renting to him. Suddenly vulnerable, Cujdik took Benny off the police payroll and moved to evict him. All that, Benny says, is what led him to talk to the Daily News in the first place.
But here in the car, Benny glosses over those unpleasantries. He’s harking back to the good snitching times, like an old high-school quarterback at homecoming. “Believe it or not, I miss it,” he says. “I miss it because I felt like I was part of something. Coming from the ’hood, where no one cares when your neighborhood is actually going down and you get to clean up a corner and see those neighbors come back. Yeah, you feel good.”
He wonders out loud if he should get back in the fray, become a C.I. again. I suggest that this might be difficult, given that he sicced a pair of tenacious investigative reporters on his former handler. But Benny disagrees: He still has information. He’s still worth listening to: “A lot of the time, I’ll pop up in certain places because I want to know who is doing what. I know more information now than I did before. I’m telling you, if I wanted to be a C.I., all I’d have to do is talk to one of them cops.”
You want to tell Benny he’s nuts, that it would never happen. But in the war on drugs, normative notions of morality and justice are regularly turned on their head. “We have this self-righteous stance that justifies these draconian drug policies, and then we immediately waive them for utilitarian purposes when it suits us,” says Natapoff. “We say ‘Lock them up!’ unless you’re snitching, in which case we’re not going to lock you up because we’ve decided to cut a deal.”
Benny is walking proof. On the one hand, his word was good enough to arrest a couple hundred drug dealers. On the other hand, it wasn’t good enough to put away the cops who he said exploited him. Whenever Benny tries to make sense of this clusterfuck, he comes out sounding even more scrambled. “I gave these people seven years of my life. I took drugs off the street, guns, bad guys — I did it all. I helped them out, and then they turn their back on me. Like, this is crazy. Something’s got to give here. I did the worstest thing coming back here, but I wasn’t afraid. Like, I’m standing up to these people.”
He feels screwed over by every powerful institution in the city: The police department used, then abused him. The fourth estate scored a Pulitzer off his whistleblowing. (“We milked Benny dry,” Laker and Ruderman wrote.) The FBI investigated, as did the district attorney, but they never got enough on Cujdik or the rest of his squad to indict. (Cujdik’s lawyer called the allegations “fictionalizations by professional liars.”) And because Benny never got to testify, he was frozen out of the feds’witness-protection program, according to lawyers familiar with the case.
In Benny’s version of his story, he’s a martyr. “It burns me how the city asked for help — the mayor, the commissioner, people from the neighborhood, ‘Please help us,’” he says. “I locked up plenty of dangerous people, got so many drugs off the street, and for them to turn their back on me … ”
THE ACCUSATIONS AGAINST Cujdik and his crew read like a movie cliché of a narcotics squad run amok. Cujdik allegedly falsified search warrants, padding his record and bank account in the process, and crossed numerous professional boundaries with his C.I.’s. But that wasn’t all. The Daily News investigation led to other members of Cujdik’s unit, one of whom was accused of sexually assaulting three suspects and a number of whom were accused of robbing law-abiding bodega owners by cutting the wires on surveillance cameras, then charging them for selling small plastic baggies in the store.
Based on the outrage the reporting elicited, the officers were deemed guilty in the court of public opinion. Before trial, however, the case against Cujdik and company crumbled, reportedly in good part because prosecutors considered Benny and other witnesses too unreliable to call to the stand. Ruderman and Laker had bought groceries for Benny as well as presents for his kids, a tack they reportedly used with other sources, too, crossing ethical boundaries that muddied the legal case. “That line — the one between reporter and human being — got blurry,” Ruderman and Laker wrote in their book. Cujdik getting too friendly with Benny launched the investigation; the reporters doing the same undermined it.
In the end, only one of the cops — Cujdik — was fired, and six months later, he was reinstated to the force. Sure, all the coverage, and the grand jury investigation it prompted, shined a light on the dubious activities of Cujdik’s squad. But on another level, a lot of what they were up to was, well, standard operating procedure, and entirely legal.
Exhibit A is overtime. Even before Cujdik’s squad started coloring outside the lines, they were profiting off their work with C.I.’s. In 2007, for instance, Cujdik boosted his yearly base pay of $55,000 to more than $110,000 with overtime. Cujdik’s abundance of OT, like that of many narcotics detectives, was directly linked to his extensive use of criminal informants, who are generally exempted from appearing in court, to protect their identities. Instead, the handlers vouch for them on the stand, racking up big bucks in OT as they wait their turn to testify.
The incentives are a mess. The more arrests a cop makes, the more court appearances that cop gets, with the potential to double or even triple his salary. In 1995, police overtime totaled just under $27 million. It grew to almost $57 million in the year 2000 and now stands at $72 million. As one retired narcotics officer told me, “The war on drugs has been driven by overtime.”
Scandals stemming from informants didn’t begin or end with Benny. In the early ’90s, the 39th District scandal implicated six officers who, among other improprieties, paid an informant $500 to falsely testify as the sole prosecution witness to a murder. (One of the cops had sex with the informant when she was a minor.) In 2015, a narcotics officer was charged with perjury for lying about an informant who, it had emerged in a City Paper investigation, wasn’t even registered. (The officer later agreed to leave the force.) And the list goes on.
“We have a little bit of an image problem,” acknowledges Dan MacDonald, chief inspector of the department’s Narcotics Bureau. “[But] I have no worries about another scandal popping up with my guys.” Sitting in his office at the unit’s Germantown headquarters, MacDonald has the trademark cop look — close-cropped hair, pressed white shirt, 20-ounce Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand — but speaks in surprisingly progressive terms. Since he took over the narcotics unit last June, MacDonald has been hell-bent on anti-corruption efforts — so much so, he says with a smirk, that “I’ll probably go down as one of the least-liked chiefs of narcotics.”
I ask MacDonald about any movement on informant oversight. Since Benny’s plight came to light, the department has instituted many reforms. For one, no more flipping dealers the instant they’re picked up off the street, the way Cujdik did Benny. “Lawyers are now involved, the D.A.’s involved,” MacDonald says. “There is a proper system by which someone can agree to cooperate.” Lieutenant supervisors interview a handful of informants on a quarterly basis, probing for potential impropriety between them and their handlers. MacDonald says he’s still updating the informant policy directive, looking at regulations from other police departments. “I went through every publicly available C.I. policy that I could find,” he says, tapping a thick stack of papers that looks like a reject pile for movie manuscripts.
MacDonald says he’s getting a handle on corruption through strategic changes in policing as well. For years now, top brass has asked narcotics to focus more on uprooting organizations and less on short-term takedowns of corners, so I’m skeptical of what MacDonald is telling me. But the data suggests the message might finally be sinking in. As of May, year-over-year arrests of drug buyers were down 15 percent, and the value of drug seizures was up almost 250 percent within the narcotics division.
To be sure, informants haven’t been sidelined. In a department operating with 400 fewer officers than it’s budgeted for (and 900 fewer than in 2002), the police are arguably more reliant on C.I.’s than ever. Only now, they’re being deployed strategically, MacDonald says, with more layers of oversight.
Defense attorneys won’t drink the Kool-Aid. Though some say MacDonald’s reforms sound encouraging, none that I spoke with have noticed any dropoff in police use of informants. And a few say the department is evading the single most critical reform: reducing temptation among narcotics cops. “If the police department really wanted to be serious about preventing, or at least taking measures that may hamper, these kinds of events from transpiring in a cyclical way, as they have over the last few years in Philly, then you just keep moving people through the ranks,” says longtime defense attorney Guy Sciolla. “You rotate [cops]. You don’t give a guy an assignment that he has for 15, 20 years.” Remember, Cujdik and Benny worked by the book — for a while.
Many police officers argue that it takes years to cultivate quality informants, and that rotating cops in and out of units would weaken enforcement. Former police commissioner Charles Ramsey had a different view. He waged a public fight with the police union for the authority to regularly rotate narcotics officers in and out of the unit. And he won — well, sort of. The current FOP contract includes a provision allowing up to 20 percent of the division to be rotated, with the commissioner’s consent. But the exact details of the new powers were never solidified, and Ramsey’s successor doesn’t seem to consider it a priority.
“It’s not even something that I’m looking at in the immediate future, to be candid with you. Just because it’s in language doesn’t mean that it’s that easy to get it done,” Commissioner Richard Ross says, before adding, “I’m not that optimistic that it can be done.”
Even though he’s been retired — or, rather, deactivated — for close to a decade, Benny’s not sure what to do with himself. He chain-smokes. He collects Social Security checks. He freelances as a Latin-music promoter. And he aspires to write his own book, tentatively titled The Moving Target of the Badlands, which he nervously asks me to ghostwrite. “The same thing I did for Wendy, I can do for you,” Benny offers. (The long con continues.) If I’d said yes, chances were it would end poorly, as most of his business dealings do. Benny claims the Busted authors “verbally” promised him money on the book deal, only to recant. (They deny this.)
Money was at the heart of one of Benny’s two main quibbles with Ruderman and Laker. The second seems more valid. In Busted, Ruderman and Laker write of going to the relatives of dealers Benny was responsible for locking up, including “Ricky,” the son of a woman he put away as a result of his first case: “ … Barbara and I realized that if Benny ended up dead, we’d be to blame. By talking to the dealers whom Benny had set up, we were salting the wounds.” In Benny’s mind, this was tantamount to betrayal, resulting in situations like the Drama Family showdown. “They figured they’d win these people over by telling them this was the guy who gave them up,” he says. “They had no business going out there after I helped them out … to tell the defendants I was the C.I. in their case.”
But according to Ruderman and Laker, not only did Benny fully understand they were going to do this; he himself went out of his way to talk to his old targets. “Before moving back to Kensington, Benny frequently went back there and told drug dealers he was the snitch and apologized to them,” they write me in an email. “Some of them had no idea until he told them.”
Remorse is probably endemic for snitches, though giving voice to that sentiment feels distinctly Benny. Asking forgiveness from those he dimed out is a bizarre act that’s both endearing and stupid. No wonder he finds himself in such precarious situations. But just when I think the moral compass of Benny Martinez, criminal informant, might point truer than I’d thought, he tells me Ruderman and Laker are all wrong, that he never went on an apology tour. “Wow,” he says, “you’d have to be a big dummy to believe that.”
Published as “The Rat King” in the July issue of Philadelphia magazine.