NEW YORK -- Late last year, Julio Vasquez and Thomas Rachko donned NYPD raid jackets and set the stage for the city's worst police-corruption scandal in a decade.
The veteran detectives stopped a drug courier and allegedly stole nearly $170,000 in cash he was carrying. They did not know other narcotics officers were watching.
Facing a federal indictment, Vasquez and Rachko began cooperating with investigators. Law enforcement officials now say up to 10 other current and former officers, all onetime members of the same narcotics task force, are suspects in the theft of drugs and drug money.
The widening investigation has embarrassed the nation's largest police department and threatened to tarnish its war on drugs. It also has drawn comparisons to the notorious "Dirty 30" corruption scandal in the early 1990s.
In that case, more than 30 police officers from Harlem's 30th Precinct were accused of stealing cash from drug dealers, taking bribes, beating suspects, and lying under oath to cover their tracks.
Police officials insist the current case appears unlikely to reach the same proportions. They also believe that -- unlike previous corruption cases involving organized crews of thieving officers -- the suspects acted individually and, at varying times, dated back as far as 15 years.
Vasquez, Rachko, and Christian Joel Hernandez -- a reputed drug courier who allegedly helped them pilfer hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug proceeds -- pleaded not guilty Friday to charges including money laundering, narcotics conspiracy, and lying to federal agents. Both former officers left federal court without speaking to reporters. But a lawyer for the courier, Dawn Florio, contended her client had information that could further damage the department's reputation. "This thing is going to mushroom," she said. "If my client had to be arrested, at least he's going to bring down a lot of police officers."
Vasquez and Rachko apparently met when they worked together as detectives on a team of officers seeking to disrupt drug trade in the Upper Manhattan area. Investigators allege that, starting in 1998, the detectives either stole cash from detained suspects or took cocaine and recruited dealers to sell the drug for a cut of the profit, authorities said.
Their success became evident late last year during a search of a storage locker rented by Vasquez. Inside was $744,370. Rachko allegedly stashed $68,680 at a garbage dump.
Rachko, 45, retired in 2002. Vasquez, 43, stayed on the job but left narcotics to join a gun-investigation unit. He quit the force after his arrest.
Even though Rachko was already retired, authorities say, the two worked together one more time on the day before Thanksgiving last year.
Hernandez, the courier, had alerted them he would be delivering $169,000 to a money launderer, and the men allegedly hatched a plan to stage an arrest and divide the cash.
However, a team of city officers and federal investigators had been trailing Hernandez in a separate investigation. The man Hernandez believed was a money launderer was actually an undercover officer, authorities said.
On Nov. 26, Hernandez got out of a car with a black bag and walked toward the undercover officer, authorities said. At that moment, Vasquez and Rachko jumped out of an unmarked police car and grabbed the courier, authorities said.
Vasquez "looked inside the bag, smiled, and gave a thumbs-up gesture to defendant Rachko," court papers said.
An agent confronted Vasquez, who claimed he was in the midst of his own electronic surveillance operation, authorities said.