NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) – A Jersey City police officer pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges that he stole 600,000 cigarettes and robbed a government informant he thought was a drug courier.
Wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, Mario Rodriguez, 39, appeared in court with shackles on his wrists and ankles. He spoke only to say he understood the charges against him: cargo theft and conspiracy to commit extortion. The judge entered the not guilty plea for Rodriguez into the record.
Several supporters in the gallery wept, and one woman who left the courtroom could be heard sobbing in the hallway.
Rodriguez, who the criminal complaint says went by the nickname “Mad Dog,” also appeared to be struggling to keep his emotions in check.
“He’s lived a law-abiding life,” his attorney, Brian Neary, said. “These allegations go to the core of what he is and how he sees himself.”
U.S. District Judge Cathy Waldor ordered Rodriguez released on $250,000 bail to home confinement and electronic monitoring. A cargo theft conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison; a conviction on the conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Jersey City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said Rodriguez, an officer with the city for 8 1/2 years, is suspended without pay, while the criminal prosecution proceeds.
According to the criminal complaint, Rodriguez was approached last month by a government informant who offered to help Rodriguez steal cigarettes and TVs from a trailer parked in Secaucus. With law enforcement agents doing surveillance, the two allegedly stole 50 cases of cigarettes and several TVs and drove to Staten Island, where Rodriguez allegedly sold the cigarettes to an undercover agent for $5,000.
A week later, Rodriguez, the informant and the undercover agent allegedly met with another undercover agent to discuss robbing a female drug courier, who was also working undercover. Two weeks later, on July 24, they allegedly went with a friend of Rodriguez’s to meet the courier in a mall parking lot in Jersey City.
Rodriguez and friend Anthony Roman, 48, approached a car that law enforcement agents had set up with a bag containing $20,000, the complaint says. The two men identified themselves as law enforcement officers and threatened to arrest the woman then pretended to arrest the informant and then left with the money. They later divided up the money at a casino in Pennsylvania.
If convicted, Rodriguez faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000.
Roman was also charged in the case. He made a court appearance last Friday and was released on bond.
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