The Justice System Is Screwing Meek Mill. Is It Also Screwing the Cop Who Arrested Him?
In the past year, Philly rapper Meek Mill has become a symbol for America’s urgent need for criminal justice reform. And Reggie Graham, the cop who collared him in 2007, has emerged as a stand-in for bad police everywhere. But that’s not the whole story.
In the official version, this is how it went down: Robert Williams, a big teen in black Dickies jeans, operated out of a house in the 2200 block of South Hemberger, a one-way street of working-class rowhomes in West Passyunk. Every so often, he got on a bike and pedaled up the block. He made brief exchanges with people there, product for money. Then he pedaled back to his stoop, braids bobbing. Sometimes he’d reenter the house, unaware that he was being watched.
On January 24, 2007, a plainclothes Philly cop named Reginald Graham, who’d surveilled Williams, returned with a warrant. He was on the sidewalk when Williams confronted him.
“Who are you?” Williams asked, reaching one hand down to his waistband.
At that moment, a second cop, James Johnson, emerged from behind a van to see a gun, nine-millimeter, that Williams was pointing at him. Instinctively, Johnson fell backward, throwing all 270 pounds of himself behind the vehicle while Graham scrambled beside him.
“Police! Police!” they hollered.
Williams tried to run, but Graham and Johnson got him. Williams caught a beating; the cops said he struggled. Ultimately, he was brought to trial and convicted, and he spent almost a year in prison.
In a big, violent city like Philadelphia, this was a minor case. But as the years passed, that changed. Robert Williams went on to become a world-renowned rapper, Meek Mill, and last November, his case became a cultural touchstone — a vivid critique of the country’s justice system.
The shift from minor to major occurred when Philadelphia judge Genece Brinkley sent Meek Mill back to jail for technical violations of his decade-long probation. At first, Mill’s fight for freedom focused on Brinkley; the rapper’s attorneys claimed the judge had a “vendetta” against Mill. In a November New York Times op-ed, rapper and music executive Jay-Z wrote powerfully about how Mill’s jailing symbolized the plight of entire generations of young black males, tethered to the courts for decades after their sentences were served. The cause went viral, and “Free Meek Mill!” became a rallying cry around the world. But Brinkley wouldn’t budge, and Mill appeared stuck, doomed to serve whatever sentence the judge saw fit. Then, suddenly, the facts of his original arrest were thrown into doubt.
Early this year, Reggie Graham, the lead cop in Mill’s arrest — and author of the “official” version of what happened that day — turned up on a list of police officers whose credibility had been called into question by the Philadelphia DA’s office. Among the allegations against him: theft, conduct unbecoming an officer, lying to investigators, and lying on the witness stand. Graham was even said to have flunked a lie-detector test and admitted his dishonesty. Though he was never charged with a crime, a board of fellow cops had heard his case and ruled he should be fired. Graham — the bad guy — filed his retirement paperwork before that could happen and moved to Florida with his pension intact.
In the broader context of the Mill case, Graham functioned beautifully as a villain, a stand-in for police scandals and corruption everywhere. It’s a narrative that’s been echoed in local and national media, including Rolling Stone and Dateline NBC, and it’s only been bolstered by the fact that Graham never issued a denial to the press.
The revelations about Graham did what Jay-Z and the “Free Meek Mill” protests couldn’t: They sprang the jailhouse lock. In April, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court freed Mill on bail, pending a hearing before Brinkley of his petition for a new trial. Meanwhile, hundreds of Graham’s cases, including Mill’s, appeared likely to be overturned. The book on Graham seemed shut — closed by his own supposed confession and his silence in the face of these accusations.
But now, Reggie Graham is speaking out.
“I never lied, I never stole, and I never said I did,” he says in his first interview since the controversy began.
There’s evidence to back him up. An investigative look at this whole case suggests the dramatic, troubling story is perhaps even worse than supposed. Multiple uncovered law enforcement documents, public court records, and an interview with a retired federal prosecutor reveal layers of complications — the allegations against Graham thin, out of step with concerns he’d raised about members of his old squad and refuted by another cop’s recollection.
Through this lens, Meek Mill has been abused by the justice system, but so has Reggie Graham — a cop paying a severe price for the corruption around him. In this version, the two men, though posed in the media as enemies, might also be brothers, born to the same cruel parent: Philadelphia, where even people with the right stuff to survive face grueling consequences for living and working in a city where so much goes horribly wrong.
A few minutes after Reggie Graham gives me a seat in his home office, his wife, LaTonya, enters the room, wearing a black shirt that reads “I Love My Hubby.”
A moment later, she’s crying. “I want people to see my husband as the man he is,” she says, “because he’s not the man they’re saying — and never has been.”
Behind his desk, Reggie Graham begins crying, too. “You can say what you want about me, because I know who I am,” he says, using two fingers to wipe his tears away. “But when it started affecting my wife, now you’re affecting me.”
I started calling Graham early this year when his name surfaced in connection with the DA’s list of “tainted” cops. He declined an interview request, just as he did requests from the Inquirer, Rolling Stone and NBC News. “I am not interested in any fight with the police department,” he told me then. “I met a lot of good people there, and I just want to go on with my life.”
I’d interviewed Graham in the past, however, so I kept calling. Over time, I uncovered documents that cast doubt on the allegations against him, and finally, he agreed to let me come to Florida for an interview. He’d resisted talking to the media, he said, because “everyone was just like, ‘Do you have any statement?’ But what would a statement from me mean? This needed to be an investigation.”
That investigation begins with a look at Graham’s time in the police department’s Narcotics Field Unit-South, where he worked cases between 2002 and 2005 with some of the most scandal-plagued cops in Philadelphia’s recent memory: Jeffrey Walker, Tommy Liciardello and Brian Reynolds.
Walker, the key cop in the list, was arrested in 2013 for theft and planting evidence, then confessed to a 10-year crime spree. Seeking a lighter sentence, he flipped into a government witness, his words providing the foundation for a wild 26-count federal indictment against Liciardello, Reynolds and four more police. Stealing, falsifying reports, hanging people over balconies, beating victims bloody — these cops allegedly operated as a street gang with police powers. But at trial, Walker failed spectacularly as a star witness, forced during his testimony to reveal himself as a man who’d lied to the court in the past. Liciardello, Reynolds and the rest were acquitted of every count, winning their jobs back.
Graham wasn’t charged by the feds in that case, but when that list of tainted cops surfaced this past February, the public learned the rest: Behind the scenes, Walker had also leveled allegations against Graham, pointing to him as a fellow thief.
The most detailed account Walker provided of any Graham misdeed, captured in an attention-grabbing March Inquirer story, describes the pair coming upon a car confiscated from the scene of a 2005 narcotics raid on Brockton Road in Overbrook. The trunk, they discovered, held a black satchel stuffed with money. “Grab some,” Graham allegedly said, prompting each man to take a “chunk” of cash before ferrying the rest upstairs to their sergeant’s office.
A newly uncovered document, however, provides a separate and conflicting view of that night, undermining Walker’s allegations and drawing a completely different picture of Graham’s relationship to the NFU-South squad.
In an interview with federal agents conducted several months after Jeff Walker’s 2013 arrest, police officer Alphonso Jett describes transferring into the NFU-South two weeks before the 2005 Brockton Road raid to find a dysfunctional and divided squad.
Graham clearly did not “trust” Jeff Walker and told Jett, his partner, “We don’t do jobs” with him. Graham also declared the same fiat against working cases with Liciardello and Reynolds, casting the three cops, all of whom were later indicted, as pariahs.
Avoiding fellow squad members might seem impossible, but narcotics cops work in two-person teams, developing their own cases. Other members step in as support, performing fairly narrowly defined functions during raids — tagging or recovering evidence, delivering it back to the station. The division of responsibilities makes the work go smoothly, but it also silos squad members off from each other. The separation could theoretically enable any pair of cops to do dirt while out of sight — a recipe for corruption that has fueled numerous Philadelphia police narcotics scandals.
In his account of the Brockton Road incident, Jett never places Graham at the confiscated car. Instead, he recalls that two other officers conducted the search. The sergeant then suggested that Walker and Jett go downstairs and search the car again.
The pair walked out to the squad’s parking lot on Essington Avenue, where Walker, a big cop with long braids, popped the trunk of the silver Mercury and offered Jett a big stack of cash, already wrapped. “This is yours,” he said.
“That isn’t me,” Jett replied, declining the cash.
Later, Jett told Graham what happened at the car. Graham, “pissed,” confronted Walker and spoke to his sergeant but appeared caught in a situation that Jett considered “abnormal.”
A spokesman for the Police Department Office of Public Affairs declined a request to let Jett be interviewed for this piece. But the notes from Jett’s 302 interview offer a rare insight into the workings of the NFU-South and suggest Graham, far from running wild with a crew of corrupt cops, sought to steer clear of them.
In Florida, Graham spends much of the day of my visit prepping video for a Bible-study lesson his wife is giving that night. He edits the video — mostly consisting of a pair of hands fashioning a clay vase on a potter’s wheel — for a couple of hours, taking frequent breaks to talk.
His recent life, he says, has included great joys. He and LaTonya, also a retired cop, married 14 years ago, conjoining their families — five kids in all. Both in their late 40s, they look many years younger and spend their time exercising, going for walks, and ministering in the Miracle Temple of Christ, a church they moved to Florida to help start.
“It’s hard right now,” he says, “because I did apply for a couple of jobs I’m way qualified for, working security. I don’t hear back. Not even a call. And I know it’s gotta be because of this bad publicity.”
In his office, he turns to me while a lump of clay spins on the potter’s wheel on his computer screen. “If it wasn’t for my faith,” he says, “I’d be hurting even more right now. But I know God has me.”
Graham’s faith is a powerful force in his life. The first time I interviewed him, in 2003, with squad members of the NFU-South, I remember him stopping to say grace over a pizza while his fellow cops stared. But when I start interviewing him now, I wonder if his faith has perhaps hurt him, too, fostering a kind of naïveté. God may have him, in other words, but Jesus placed no call to Rolling Stone, so Graham’s decision not to at least issue denials of the accusations against him helped solidify the perception that he’s in hiding.
“I really just thought, anyone who looks at this and looks at my history is gonna know this stuff can’t be true,” Graham says. “But then I realized: No one was looking.”
Much like Mill, Reggie Graham grew up poor, a resident of the Passyunk Homes project, raised by a single mom and out of contact with his father. He always understood he might have turned out like the people he placed in cuffs, but he was lucky. “The streets were never in me,” he says, crediting his mom for being the kind of parent who’d “put her foot up my behind if she’d ever so much as seen me on a corner.”
He became a cop, he says, to work with the same people he’d grown up with, the cliché about “making a difference” powerful enough in him that not even the NFU-South could knock it out.
He was suspicious about the unit, he says today, for much of his time there. He describes one incident in which he “ran up in a house after Jeff had been in there” and found “blood on the walls.” He figured someone had been beaten, but he knew what Walker would say — “Resisting arrest … I had to” — and understood he couldn’t prove otherwise, so he carried out his assigned duty and returned to his own investigations.
By 2005, Graham thought he was free of the squad. Various lawsuits and complaints to Internal Affairs about the other cops in his unit had forced the NFU-South, as constituted, to be disbanded. The crimes for which his old squad mates would ultimately be indicted occurred in 2006 and later. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
In 2012, Walker again turned up in the squad where Graham then worked; a year later, the FBI investigated charges of corruption in the narcotics department, and Graham began a series of interviews with federal and local authorities.
Federal interview summaries, referred to in law enforcement circles as “302s” because that’s the number on the form, are meant to convey the essence of an interview. They’re not verbatim recordings or even complete, and defense attorneys have long advocated for interviews with FBI agents to be audio-recorded, says Sara Kropf, a D.C.-based lawyer. But that request has been resisted. “From a strategic perspective,” she adds, “that makes sense. The creation of the 302 gives the FBI total control of the record.”
Graham’s 302s are striking in that they appear consistent enough with what he says today to keep his defense intact. What’s also striking is that one of his interviews was conducted under a proffer, or “queen for a day” letter — meaning anything he said that day couldn’t be used to prosecute him — and he still didn’t confess any crimes.
In April 2013, Graham provided an agent with leads to investigate old squad members, including Walker. He supplied the names of two drug dealers he suspected his old squad mates had robbed. He also offered the names of two high-ranking police officials he believed helped protect corrupt squad members. These were big steps for any cop to take — a surge across the thin blue line. In subsequent interviews, Graham advised federal agents that he’d spoken out in the past, conveying his suspicions to Internal Affairs, a city solicitor, and even an aide in then-police commissioner Sylvester Johnson’s office. Each time, he said, he was confronted afterward by fellow squad members, including Liciardello and his sergeant. The blowback convinced him the squad had some kind of pipeline to Internal Affairs.
In addition to speaking with Graham, federal agents were making more dramatic moves. In May 2013, just weeks after Graham’s initial interview, they arrested Walker in a sting operation. The story Walker told investigators, of corruption in the narcotics department, would lead to a half dozen indictments. But it also included that smaller handful of tales about Graham.
Graham, in a later FBI interview, adamantly denied Walker’s claims and agreed to take a polygraph exam about them.
Polygraphs purport to test truthfulness, but in scientific and legal terms, they’re junk — wrong 30 percent of the time or more and rarely admissible in court. Cops, however, believe polygraphs hold real power as an investigative tool, and Graham thought the test offered a chance to clear his name. In May 2014, he took the test — and failed. At that point, he divulged another incident as a possible explanation.
He was at a Sunoco gas station, he explained, around January 2005, when Jeff Walker approached and handed him an envelope. Graham felt an immediate tremor of fear — “He pressed it into my hand,” he says today — and suspected a setup precisely because “Jeff Walker knew I didn’t steal.”
Walker strode away, and Graham stood there, panicked: If the envelope did contain money, as he suspected, every moment he held it, he risked his own arrest. Yet reporting the incident would launch him into open warfare with his squad and perhaps the police department. One of his squad mates, he told federal agents, was regularly on the phone with a high-ranking supervisor — odd for a street-level cop. The unopened envelope began to feel dangerous in his hand, like a rod of plutonium. Still panicked, he shoved the envelope into a garbage can right there at the station, fearing that any other path held terrible consequences.
Is this believable? Or did Graham — despite the attempts he made to stay clear of Walker — accept stolen money?
Retired police officer Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, a union representing minority police officers, finds Graham’s story eminently believable. “I’ve seen this time and again,” she says. “The narcotics department has so much corruption, and people depend on their jobs to feed their families. So they go into survival mode to try and protect themselves, because they don’t feel like they will have any support if they report wrongdoing.”
Bilal, through the GCL, is involved in a lawsuit claiming that city narcotics supervisors regularly order underlings to commit illegal acts and that police who refuse are discriminated against by race.
Ironically, Jeff Walker’s testimony supports the claim that supervisors accept corruption in the narcotics department as part of doing business — validating Bilal’s allegation and the fears Graham said he had at the gas station. Corrupt members of the narcotics unit, Walker claimed in trial testimony and a later deposition, were protected within the Internal Affairs department. Supervisors called in “favors,” receiving tips about specific allegations made against the squad that they relayed to the dirty narcotics cops, allowing them to prepare and get their stories straight. As an African-American, however, Walker always felt his race was a drawback among the white cops with whom he was stealing.
The predicament of Graham, who’s also African-American, reinforces the GCL’s claims. He volunteered information to investigators about his own squad, specifically a cadre of predominantly white officers and supervisors. On the 302 from that first interview, a member of Philadelphia Police Internal Affairs is listed as present. Graham then received particularly harsh treatment when he faced discipline himself.
The story Graham shared about the envelope appears to be the best evidence investigators had against him. But was it evidence of corruption? As one current high-ranking police official told me, “He should have investigated the envelope and, if there was any money inside, put it on a property receipt and reported the incident. [Not doing] that is worth a short suspension, most likely, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a thief.”
Bilal agrees. “This was no crime,” she says. “This would normally be handled with a suspension.”
There’s something else that’s even more curious about the gas station anecdote: Jeff Walker, in a February 2018 affidavit filed by Meek Mill’s attorneys, also describes an incident at a gas station. He offered Graham money, he says, which the cop refused.
The accounts differ — Walker, for instance, doesn’t mention an envelope. But those familiar with the case — like public defender Bradley Bridge — believe the two stories almost certainly describe the same event. If so, this creates a wild twist in Graham’s story: The supposed “lie” he confessed to described the incident at the gas station, an episode in which he and his accuser agree that he didn’t take the money offered.
By April 2016, the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Philadelphia district attorney both declined to press charges against Graham, a message that they didn’t see a winnable case. Yet he was hammered by Internal Affairs, and the most meaningful cases of his career are now set to be erased. Bridge, the public defender, has filed petitions to overturn convictions in which Graham played an important role. Three have been granted already, and at press time, more than 100, along with Mill’s, awaited summer hearings.
Soon, the record will suggest Reggie Graham exemplified police abuse. But is that picture true?
Retired federal and city prosecutor Curtis Douglas says Graham told him back in 2004 of his concerns about particular members of the NFU-South. “Reggie told me, ‘Stay away from those guys,’” he says, “and he told me he stayed away from those guys. I don’t think he knew what they were doing, precisely, but he believed they could compromise a case, and he tried to keep them out of his cases.”
Graham had to know, says Douglas, that telling a federal prosecutor of his suspicions might draw law enforcement attention not only to his squad, but to him. Yet Graham spoke out anyway. And so his current persona, villain, begins to look more a product of art than science — the nuances, complications and truths of the past refashioned, like clay on a potter’s wheel, to create a singular new image.
Growing up in the area of 23rd and Berks, Robert Rahmeek Williams, like Reggie Graham, witnessed crime on an ordinary basis. Children played key roles in open-air drug markets as lookouts, as holders of narcotics, and ultimately as salesmen. Williams regarded the spectacle with a poet’s eye for tragedy, noting how kids played just steps from bullet holes that marred the walls and windows of nearby rowhouses.
In a documentary called Mr. Philadelphia, Williams is portrayed as a product of competing influences — poverty and violence impossible for a child to escape, and music. The violence touched him personally at age five, when his dad was murdered; in his teens, Williams gravitated toward an uncle known as Grandmaster Nell, an iconic figure in local rap. Nell, his dad’s brother, built a basement studio that may be responsible for saving his nephew’s life — the walls decorated in vivid, roiling colors fit for a stage, the turntable and recording equipment providing the kid with a tangible dream. His mother, in his own words, cut hair for money and boosted groceries when dollars were tight. Meek Mill came into view.
This early version of the rapper can still be seen in old YouTube videos, his hair braided, voice hyper-masculine and desperate — both threat and cry for help. Mill has since admitted, in interviews and in Brinkley’s courtroom, that he dealt drugs back then. Graham testified Mill sold crack, and sales-level quantities of that drug and weed were recovered from the house on South Hemberger Street. Mill has insisted he only sold pot, and of course, the revelations about Graham have cast everything into doubt.
In February, the rapper’s attorneys filed an affidavit by a cop named Jerold Gibson who also worked Mill’s arrest. Contrary to the official report, Gibson claims Mill didn’t point his gun at police, instead only lifting it out of his waistband “in a motion that suggested he was trying to discard” it. But Gibson, like Walker, suffers credibility issues. The former son-in-law of ex-governor Tom Corbett, he’s a convicted criminal, booted from the police force and sent to prison for theft on the job. More importantly, his story contradicts Mill’s account, which has also evolved over time.
After his arrest, for example, Mill alleged that the handgun recovered from the scene was never in his possession. By the time of his trial, however, he admitted the gun was his but said he never pointed it. He set it down, he said, then stretched facedown on the back of a car.
Gibson’s version, which holds that Graham and James Johnson walked the then-unknown rapper up the steps to the suspected stash house, also contradicts the allegation, leveled recently by Mill in Rolling Stone, that he was carried — his head used as a battering ram against the door. But then, Mill’s argument has always been a kind of weave. He admitted he dealt drugs, for instance, but denied having done so the day before his arrest, when Graham tailed him.
His alibi? On January 23, 2007, he said, he attended a cousin’s jury trial, where up to 20 potential witnesses saw him. This evidence might have been presented at his own hearing, but his attorney was ineffective. This part of Mill’s story, sure to generate sympathy, appears in a recent Rolling Stone article. Mill’s lawyer, though never named, is described as unprepared, the kind of substandard mouthpiece his impoverished family could afford.
Mill’s attorney, however, was Joe Santaguida — a legend within the city’s defense bar, and a go-to guy for Philly mobsters, including alleged crime boss Joey Merlino. At trial, Santaguida put Mill on the stand to explain his whereabouts on January 23rd, the date before he was arrested. But the young rapper, under cross-examination, compromised his own alibi.
“Have you entered 2204 Hemberger Street before the cops arrested you?” the prosecutor asked.
“In my life, yes,” replied Mill.
“Were you there on 1/23?”
“One/23 — ” replied Mill.
“The day before you were arrested?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s like a year ago. I don’t know which day I was in there.”
It’s hard to imagine an attorney like Santaguida not calling one of those potential witnesses to back up his client’s alibi, says his former colleague Robert Gamburg, another respected criminal defense attorney: “He pounced on opportunities like that.”
The point of all this, though, isn’t so much whether Mill should be free — he should be. But why? Because it’s simply time for the probation he incurred at age 21 to end, or because his original arrest was unfounded?
Was Graham a bad cop?
“I don’t ever remember hearing anything bad or having a bad experience with Graham,” says longtime city criminal defense attorney Guy Sciolla.
Sciolla testified for the prosecution against Graham’s old squad members in court, rendering his recollection particularly salient. “You’d think,” he says, “because I had a lot of cases involving that squad, that if he was a bad guy, he wouldn’t have escaped my notice like that.”
He adds that he has been “familiar” with James Johnson — the other cop who claimed Mill pointed his gun — for many years: “He has a lot of credibility with me, and if he says Meek pointed the gun, that credibility redounds to Graham there, too.”
Defense attorney Chuck Peruto Jr., retained by Judge Brinkley when Mill’s attorneys first launched personal attacks, echoes Sciolla’s sentiment. “When I did hear, close to two years ago, that Graham was under some kind of investigation, I talked about it with a number of people,” he says, “and everyone had the same reaction: ‘Graham? Stealing?’ No one believed it, and I remember one guy saying, ‘Nah, he’s Serpico.’”
The reference to New York cop Frank Serpico is freighted. An NYPD officer in the 1970s later immortalized in an Al Pacino film, Serpico refused to steal alongside a cadre of corrupt cops. The situation radicalized him, driving him to expose the deep corruption around him and ultimately ostracizing him from his fellow cops.
“Graham had a good reputation,” says Peruto. “The allegations against him have never really made any sense to me.”
In April, when Reggie Graham sat back to watch the 76ers in the playoffs against the Miami Heat, he expected to take his mind off his troubles. Then Meek Mill showed up on his television screen.
The rapper had been released on bail that day, precisely because the allegations against Graham had opened the possibility of a new trial. Team co-owner Michael Rubin, a longtime friend of the rapper, had flown him to the game by helicopter, and now Mill arrived on Graham’s flat-screen, his prison garb traded for a flashy team shirt, smiling and waving to the crowd.
Y’all are really gonna do this? thought Graham. Then Mill, wielding a mallet, struck the team’s ceremonial bell. And Graham, a lifelong fan of the 76ers, felt his tension dissipate. He even laughed.
“I stand by all my testimony, every word,” he says, recalling that night. But seeing Mill free, 11 years after the crime he committed when he was 19, didn’t bother him. “I have always believed in second chances,” he says, “and in redemption.”
From many people, these might seem like idle words. But Graham staked his career and reputation at least once on such sentiments, testifying in federal court as a character witness on behalf of a man he’d arrested.
I wrote about this episode back in 2007. “I always wanted to use this job to try and turn even one person’s life around,” he told me then.
He got his best chance to help someone’s turnaround happen after he arrested Cory Long, a DJ from Chester. Long, then 31, had introduced the major players in a drug deal. He got arrested with them when Graham and a team of cops burst through the door.
Months later, Graham sought a DJ willing to spin profanity-free hip-hop at a youth event for his church. A friend told him about a possible candidate: Cory Long.
Graham was skeptical but called. And Long, who’d been scared straight by his arrest, wound up DJ’ing the event. The pair talked frequently on the phone after that. Long left his own church for Graham’s, and when his sentencing date neared, the cop sought permission to take an incredible step: “Can I testify as a character witness,” he asked, “on behalf of Cory Long?”
A backlash might have been expected among his fellow cops. But the prosecutor and Graham’s colleagues all told me essentially the same thing: They believed in the work, ethics and judgment of Reggie Graham. In court, the judge was so moved by Graham’s testimony that he released Long on a probationary sentence.
The story, all these years later, remains compelling, and there are others. Northeast Philadelphia resident John Dobey tells one about wandering, perhaps six years ago, into the Miracle Temple of Christ at 26th and Tasker. Addled, high on PCP, worn, Dobey knew he had to change or die. He walked up front, asking to be saved, and Graham ushered him outside.
“Are you holding any drugs?” he asked.
Dobey confessed: crack. And he intended to sell it.
“You need to throw all that in the sewer right now,” Graham told him.
Dobey did. “I’d call him whenever I felt like using again,” he says, “at 3 a.m., if need be, and he’d talk me out of it, tell me to keep going. I really owe him my life.”
There are others I interviewed, people Graham drove to department stores and helped pick out suits appropriate for church, counseled through various troubles, or picked up from the jailhouse gate — with no judgment, just to serve as a resource. One man Graham helped with anger issues, who asked not to be identified because of his criminal record, told me he attended several Sixers games with Graham, and the experience was like traveling with the Pope: “We kept getting interrupted by people he’d arrested in the past who’d shake his hand to say, ‘No hard feelings.’”
In this context, the most telling moment of Graham’s interaction with Mill occurred in January 2009, during the rapper’s sentencing. Graham, under oath, explained that if Mill or anyone else sincerely asked for his help, he’d be there.
Could this story have ended differently?
If Mill had asked, more than 10 years ago, after Graham arrested him, would the cop have driven him home from jail?
Intriguingly, Graham says he was recently offered a chance to help Mill. Luke Brindle-Khym, a private investigator hired by Mill’s record label, arrived in Florida earlier this year and knocked, unannounced, on Graham’s front door. There, at Graham’s house, Brindle-Khym pressed him to admit wrongdoing.
Graham denied every allegation, and the PI asked one last question: “Is there anything you can do that might help?”
Almost surely, the PI hoped that Graham would confess to something. But Graham saw the request in different terms. Perhaps, if the chance had arisen, he might have spoken up for Mill, to reflect his belief in second chances. But instead, he shut the PI down. “I was like, ‘You come at me like this,’” says Graham, “‘saying all this stuff that isn’t true. It’s too late for that.’”
On a mid-May evening, with a Florida thunderstorm shedding torrents of rain, LaTonya Graham stands at a lectern, still wearing her “I Love My Hubby” shirt, to deliver her Bible lesson. Graham, functioning as tech support, sits off to the side, operating the video and sound from a computer.
Her subject is “The Potter’s Hand,” which describes how a clay pot must be subjected to a “refining fire” in order to create a perfect vessel. The metaphor is a familiar one for Christians, often invoked in hard times to explain how trials and tribulations can render people — as LaTonya Graham puts it — “perfect vessels for God.”
From the beginning, her talk’s possible application to her married life appears obvious. Her husband, Reggie Graham, has been subjected to fire, off and on, for 13 years, often coinciding with the times that he was around Jeffrey Walker. Graham enjoyed a long run free of him, between 2005 and 2012, before Walker turned up again in his squad.
Walker actually leaned on Graham then for support, telling him he’d been threatened by a fellow cop. Graham suggested he talk to Curtis Douglas, a fact the ex-prosecutor confirms. But Graham moved in another direction, too, encouraging Walker when he said he might seek a transfer. “I told him I’d transfer out with him,” says Graham. “I even filled out the paperwork, and we submitted our paperwork to transfer together.”
There was, however, something Walker didn’t know: Graham had told his lieutenant that when the paperwork arrived on his desk, he should process Walker’s — and throw Graham’s out. Lieutenant Thomas Wixted, now retired, declined to be interviewed for this article. But Graham says the plan went perfectly. He stayed put, and Walker was gone — arrested in that sting not long after.
As far as potential explanations for Walker’s accusations against Graham, there’s no shortage of candidates. I did, after several attempts, manage to interview Walker. I knocked on his door, and he admitted he’d been ducking me. He stuck to his story about Graham stealing but also confirmed that the squad knew Graham had been talking to officials about the theft he suspected. Graham’s fear that speaking out could threaten his career, his life, Walker said, was not unfounded.
And there are other possibilities that might explain why Walker included Graham in his allegations. Perhaps Walker, who has admitted to hard drinking and a difficult divorce, always resented Graham, who was married and comparatively happy and did everything he could to avoid him. Perhaps the episode with the transfer was particularly personal. Walker told me that Graham “manipulated” him. “I was hurt,” he said. And though he didn’t back down from his allegations, we are left now to wonder.
“That boy lied like it was second nature,” Walker said of Graham to Rolling Stone.
To which Graham replies, to me: Yes. I did. To Jeffrey Walker.
“Sometimes, when you’re undercover,” he says, “you have to lie to a suspect. And that’s always what Jeff was to me.”
Graham has been rendered suspect to virtually everyone — by Jeffrey Walker. And the question is: Can his reputation be rehabilitated at all?
Graham has been portrayed in the media as fleeing into retirement, even failing to turn up, per an Inquirer report, at a hearing before the Police Board of Inquiry to defend himself against departmental charges. But according to two sources, Graham did appear and fought, only to find the entire proceeding stacked against him.
John Dobey, the civilian Graham assisted through his addiction, attended to speak as a character witness but was told he wouldn’t be heard. “But Reggie was there,” Dobey says. “I know because I saw him.”
Attorney Qawi Abdul-Rahman, who represented Graham before the PBI, calls the idea that his client failed to attend “totally false. Reggie was there and provided testimony, and the hearing lasted for around two hours.”
According to Abdul-Rahman, the three-officer board presiding over Graham’s case did not hear directly from character witnesses and — more importantly — barred him from calling material witnesses. “When we arrived, we were told that the police he wanted as witnesses had been told by the department not to appear,” says Abdul-Rahman. “So we just didn’t have them. There was no regard for any rules of evidence. The entire hearing was completely unfair.”
The police department, in Abdul-Rahman’s experience, sometimes strikes a deal with defendant officers, negotiating suspensions. “But nothing like that was on the table,” he says. “I think they wanted him. Somehow, it was personal.”
And so, upon closer inspection, the story of Meek Mill and Reggie Graham looks more problematic than anyone imagined. In this version, Mill, ensnared in a failed justice system that throws men back in prison at 30 for things they did when they were 19, seized on some other aspect of that corruption — the departmental downfall of Reggie Graham, suspicious as it is — to leverage his freedom. The Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the media rides a publicly popular narrative, meets Serpico, a story of police corruption.
Graham emerges as a real person rather than the cartoon cutout of police abuse into which he’s been transformed. Yet he’s no hero. If his own story is to be believed, he sought a path of least resistance through police corruption — to survive and get his 20, like many a cop before him. This isn’t the stuff of villainy or celebration, just normal middle-class concerns.
In Florida, Graham says several times that his goal is to “get back to the life” he planned for himself and his wife. But there are signs that the public part of his story might not end here.
While I’m in Florida, a new civil suit is filed against Graham, related to his past work as a Philadelphia narcotics cop. The suit, filed by Michael Pileggi, a civil rights attorney, cites Graham among a group of police defendants but is incredibly vague as to what role he played.
“I don’t know what Graham’s exact involvement was,” Pileggi tells me when I call. “I just know he was there.”
Such is Reggie Graham’s new life.
Just days after that suit lands, Graham tells me he’s hired an attorney. His new mouthpiece, Brian Mildenberg, has repped the minority police union and sued the city in the past. He is the lawyer currently alleging that bucking corruption in the department is harder for black officers.
Is there some hint of the future here?
Meek Mill, free, a figurehead for justice reform; and Graham, the cop who arrested him, sitting in front of Pileggi or some group of attorneys, being deposed, telling all to people with subpoena power. Will this story ultimately reveal why Philly narcotics cops cause scandals, regular as rain?
“I’d have no problem with telling my story in the right setting,” says Graham. “I want the truth to come out.”
Certainly, he and his wife both appear ready for whatever comes.
At church, LaTonya Graham winds up her Bible-study talk with a personal revelation, connecting the notion of the refiner’s fire to her own life. “My husband and I have been going through so much for so long,” she says, “at first I prayed, ‘Lord, please take this away from me.’”
Then, she says, she realized that perhaps she and her husband were being tasked — refined by fire for some higher purpose. When she saw their plight in these terms, she recounts, her prayer changed to one of acceptance, and a hope they might be put to good use.
Her husband, the man at the fire’s center, has largely been silent. But hearing this, he speaks aloud — his voice a surprise, solemn and resolute as the occasion requires, suddenly filling the church: “Amen,” he says, a single word advertising his willingness to endure the heat.
Published as “Heroes and Villains” in the July 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.