Jury convicts NJ cop who led rogue group of officers who robbed residents

A jury in Newark federal court has found a Paterson police sergeant, charged with leading a group of cops who robbed residents, guilty of participating in the conspiracy to unlawfully arrest and rob people across the town.

Michael Cheff was found guilty of conspiracy to deprive an individual of his civil rights under cover of the law and of falsifying a police report. He was arrested in 2020.

The charge of conspiracy to violate civil rights carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The charge of false records carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.

Prosecutors accused Cheff of leading a group of five rogue officers – Matthew Torres, Jonathan Bustios, Daniel Pent, Frank Toledo and Eudy Ramos – who routinely stopped, searched and stole money from Paterson residents. These five cops had previously pleaded guilty and testified in the trial against Cheff, their former boss.

Officers accused Cheff of taking part in the robbery, but said he also approved of their false reports, helped them record evidence to make it look like they were doing legitimate police work and assured that the complaints against the officers were going nowhere as they were stealing thousands of dollars from the residents. from 2016 to 2018.

“(Cheff) was their supervisor. He was their commanding officer,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Kearney said in his closing statement earlier this week. “…He was the common denominator.”

Prosecutors looked to a November 2017 incident to highlight Cheff’s involvement in the conspiracy. Several officers testified that Cheff participated in coercing a man into allowing him to search his apartment with the intent to steal money. Once inside, officers said they saw Cheff put money in his pocket from a safe in the unit.

The victim, Jose Sanchez-Acevedo, testified during the trial that there was approximately $2,700 in the safe. When the officers left, there were none, he said.

“Cheff took us more than one stack today,” Bustios wrote on the day of the incident. A stack refers to $1,000.

The sergeant then shared money with two other officers, authorities said, and approved an incident report that incorrectly stated that only $319 had been recovered. The report did not mention a safe.

“He joined this conspiracy,” Kearney said. “He was apart.”

Cheff is the latest person to be convicted in the sweeping corruption case which details how the five officers – under Cheff’s direction – routinely illegally stopped and searched black and brown people throughout Paterson and robbed them of money and other objects before submitting false reports.

Torres testified during the trial that they stopped drivers in nice cars or searched those hanging around near bodegas or city apartment complexes.

“What (all of you) were hoping to win?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Kearney.

“Cash,” Torres replied.

“We attacked any civilian resident of the town of Paterson,” he testified. “We abused our power to try to get money.”

Torres said Cheff made it possible.

Cheff was a direct supervisor of their patrol shift, but he was the one the group went to sign for their false reports, Torres said.

Two days after authorities said Cheff stole the money, Toledo texted Bustios about the group.

“Everything we do is illegal,” he wrote.

During his closing argument, Kearney asked the jury, “Who was at the center of (the conspiracy)?”

“I guess it was Michael Cheff,” he said.

The jury accepted.

They delivered the verdict after more than 10 hours of deliberation.

“The jury worked very hard to reach its verdict and it should be respected,” said John Lynch, Cheff’s attorney. “But I sincerely believe it was the wrong decision. I feel for Mike and his family.

Cheff’s defense consisted of challenging the credibility of the officers who testified against him. Lynch told the jury that they were not to be believed because of their “despicable” prior criminal actions and the cooperation agreement.

“You can put a suit on a thug and he’s still a thug,” Lynch said in his closing arguments. “You can put a suit on a liar, he’s still a liar. Their testimony cannot be believed.

Cheff chose not to testify during the trial. He has served since 1996. He had been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the criminal case. His status with the ministry is unclear at this time.

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Joe Atmonavage can be reached at jatmonavage@njadvancemedia.com

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