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Four of their former colleagues from the Buffalo Police Narcotics Unit are already in federal prison. A fifth took a plea deal and awaits sentencing. A sixth faces charges that he provided information to a drug trafficker.

On Tuesday, Paul Skinner and Sylvestre Acosta became the latest former Buffalo drug investigators to face trial in federal court.

The two suspended detectives are accused of stealing from drug dealers, putting false information in search warrants and paying some of their informers with drugs.

Among the allegations:

Skinner, 45, is charged with stealing a laptop computer and a knife during a 2001 drug raid at the West Avenue home of an accused dealer, John Toledo. The laptop was recovered in the family room of Skinner's home.

Acosta, 50, is accused of stealing more than $3,000 cash, jewelry and other valuables during drug raids on Center Lane, Potomac Avenue and West Delavan Avenue.

Both men are accused of conspiring with other narcotics investigators to use their police powers to steal from drug suspects.

"They decided to disregard their oath of office to benefit themselves," Assistant U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said in an opening argument. "They literally began to use their badges as a license to steal."

The trial before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara continues a story line of corruption that allegedly dates back to at least 1993, when a group of city detectives began conspiring to "oppress, threaten and intimidate" drug suspects, according to prosecutors.

But defense attorneys say one of the prosecution's top witnesses -- former narcotics detective Rene Gil -- was the most crooked cop of all.

Gil, who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in 2002, resigned from the police force and became a cooperating witness for the FBI. He is expected to provide some of the key testimony against Skinner and Acosta.

"When you look up 'bad cop' in the dictionary, Rene Gil is smiling at you," said Skinner's attorney, Patrick J. Brown. "Gil was a kilogram-level drug dealer. He sold drugs to his own family . . . He's the glue that holds the government's case together."

Acosta's attorney, John J. Molloy, asked jurors to "closely analyze" the testimony of Gil, who is expected to take the witness stand sometime next week.

But Kennedy, the prosecutor, asked jurors to also consider that Gil had a close working relationship with both defendants.

"You may find (Gil) to be a very unsavory character, but he is someone who worked with these two defendants every day . . . for years," Kennedy said.

Kennedy said witnesses in the trial will include drug dealers, drug informants, cops and judges who issued search warrants based on information from Skinner and Acosta. The trial is expected to last at least a week.

There have been several scandals in recent years involving city narcotics detectives. In August 2001, FBI agents searched the lockers and desks of several detectives at Police Headquarters, looking for evidence of bribery and shakedown schemes. Skinner and Acosta were among the targets.

In 2002, Darnyl Parker, John Ferby and Robert Hill -- Skinner's former partner -- were sentenced to prison terms in the theft of $36,000 from an undercover FBI agent posing as a cocaine dealer.

Paul Skinner's brother, Gerald T. Skinner, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in September of this year. Gerald Skinner, who was indicted with his brother and Acosta, pleaded guilty to felony civil rights crimes that included stealing and using false information on search warrants.

In October, another former narcotics detective, Andres Ortiz, was charged with providing information to a city drug dealer, Franklin Johnson. The information allegedly included warning Johnson that the FBI was investigating him. Ortiz denies the accusations.

Buffalo police officials have made several efforts to clean up the narcotics unit, at one point installing a hidden camera to spy on detectives.


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