The Fresh Air Interview: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for the 10-month series "Tainted Justice." Their reporting on an allegedly crooked police narcotics squad resulted in the review of hundreds of criminal cases — and started an FBI investigation into one of the Philadelphia police's elite units.

Covering 'Tainted Justice' And Winning A Pulitzer

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

With city newspapers around the country in jeopardy, we have a story today that illustrates the importance of a daily city paper. My guests, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker of the Philadelphia Daily News, just won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism. They uncovered a story of police corruption so sensational, you'd expect to see it on a TV crime show.

Ruderman and Laker's story started with a drug informant coming to them and telling them about a narcotics officer who was fabricating evidence to get search warrants so he could arrest suspected drug dealers. The reporters discovered that this narcotics officer was part of a squad that raided neighborhood bodegas and smoke shops that sold small Ziploc bags, which police consider drug paraphernalia.

During the raids, the police disabled the store surveillance cameras. Then, according to the store owners, the police raided the stores and took money and merchandise.

Ruderman and Laker's articles led to an FBI investigation in conjunction with the Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. The Philadelphia police already made major changes in the narcotics division as a result of the Philadelphia Daily News series.

Last week, while Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker were still celebrating their Pulitzer Prize win, their paper, along with the Philadelphia Inquirer, was sold to the paper's largest creditor, raising many questions about the paper's future.

Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the Pulitzer. That's really great, and these are great stories that you've written.

Ms. WENDY RUDERMAN (Journalist, Philadelphia Daily News): Thank you.

Ms. BARBARA LAKER (Journalist, Philadelphia Daily News): Thank you. Thanks so much for having us.

GROSS: Let's start with something really dramatic that you unveiled, which is the raids of mom-and-pop mini-marts and bodegas in Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods. I want to ask you to describe one of the typical raids that you uncovered.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, the first raid that really comes to mind is the one that takes place in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, a really gritty neighborhood. The bodega owner, like many of the others, he's an immigrant. He speaks very little English. He was really hard to understand.

You can - there was actually a video of the raid, and he is - you see him talking on his cell phone very nonchalantly in his store, and he's wearing flip-flops, and he's kind of pacing back and forth on the surveillance camera.

And all of the sudden, these police officers burst into the store with their guns drawn. They're in plain clothes, although they do wear jackets that say police, and they act like they've just busted, like, the biggest drug kingpin in all of Philadelphia.

There's a lot of police officers that descend right away. They want to know if he has any guns. They tell him, you know, get off the phone, get off the phone. And then they're supposedly there because he's selling these little glassine bags, those little, tiny bags you see drugs being sold in.

GROSS: Tiny Ziploc bags.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Tiny Ziploc bags. A lot of the bodega owners were really confused by the law because they could buy it legally from a wholesaler, and then it's only illegal if you know or should have known that the person buying it from you is using it for drugs. So according to the police department, it's illegal to sell those.

This particular squad, they're an elite narcotics squad, and they're supposed to be going after big-time drug dealers. But at some point, they started focusing on little mom-and-pop stores all over Philadelphia that were selling these tiny, glassine kind of Ziploc bags.

GROSS: Okay. So the police come in looking for these little Ziploc bags, and what do they do once they get into the store?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, the bodega owner is clearly taken by surprise. All of these officers rush in in plain clothes, guns drawn, and they're, like, put your hands up, put your hands up. And you see, he's like: What is going on? He's terrified. He doesn't know what's going on. He doesn't know what he did.

And in his case, he said that he had just purchased the store. He was Dominican. He had just purchased the store, and the prior owner already had the bags in the store. He bought it with all the merchandise in it.

So he's trying to explain that to them. They clearly don't care what he has to say. Plus, they can't really understand what he's trying to tell them - not that they're listening, but there's a severe language barrier there.

But right away, once they established that he doesn't have any weapons and they have him handcuffed, they begin to focus intensely on his surveillance system. And they tell him that his surveillance system is illegal, that they need to take it for evidence.

So the police are just - want to know where all the cameras are, how the system works, whether he can view this system at home on his home computer, whether his wife is watching right now at home.

And then they go about - they spend a good 10 minutes figuring out how to disconnect the system. They go and they get bread knives out of the deli in the back, you know, and they're very jocular during all of this.

You know, it's clear that they don't view this bodega owner as a threat. There's this one scene where the police officer - one police officer is behind the register, and he keeps looking at the money in the drawer and then looking up at the video camera, and looking at the money and looking up at the video camera.

I mean - and they're whispering to each other. And they didn't realize that there was audio. And I think one of the really interesting things about this case is that Jose Duran, the bodega owner, yeah, he struggled with the language, but he was actually very bright and he had studied computer technology. So he was a bit of a techie. So I think that they underestimated him and maybe - perhaps because he didn't speak the language well, they took him for being stupid, when actually, his system was very sophisticated, more sophisticated than they knew.

GROSS: His surveillance system.

Ms. RUDERMAN: His surveillance system.

GROSS: But the basics are he was - he had - he was recording this at home?

Ms. RUDERMAN: He was. It was downloading.

GROSS: And so this was an incredible break in your story, because he gave you a video of the cop disabling the surveillance system. So what do you see on the video? How much do you see of...

Ms. LAKER: You see everything. You see every single officer in the store talking about how many eyes the surveillance system has and how they disable it. And you see a hand go up, an officer's hand go up with a bread knife and cut it. You see - another image is of an officer. He can't figure out how to disable it, so he just yanks it out of the wall. And you see the officers spread out in the store, just fixated on not Jose Duran or the baggies, but this surveillance system and making sure that they disband it, disable it, and so no one can ever see it.

GROSS: So were they trying to hide something by disabling the surveillance system?

Ms. LAKER: We believe so, and we asked other people, other experts, including the commissioner, whether it's ever protocol for officers to go in a raid and disable and smash cameras and slice wires, and no one told us that there was any reason whatsoever for the officers to do this.

GROSS: What are the allegations of what they did?

Ms. LAKER: Well, all different types of store owners alleged that the police would come in, focus on the cameras, smash them, in some cases take a sledgehammer to them, and then the people in the store would be arrested.

Once they were taken to jail, when they returned to their stores, their stores were in shambles. Cigarettes were missing. All kinds of merchandise was missing: batteries, sandwiches. Refrigerators were left open, Snicker bar wrappers on the floor, and a lot of their money was missing.

So the police would record that they took $1,000, but actually, the store owners were alleging, no, I had $7,000 in my store.

A lot of these store owners dealt in cash. They paid their vendors in cash. They didn't trust banks. One woman, I believe she was Korean, she was an older woman, and she didn't speak any English. She kept - she had $10,000 under a mattress in a room above the store where she slept. That's how hard these people worked. They literally had to live above their stores. And they kept money squirreled away in various locations.

And so in addition to just having their stores left in shambles, they alleged that thousands of dollars were gone. And when they told their attorney about it, their attorneys were saying, well, you know, everybody says that. Everybody says that all the time. How are you going to prove it? It's your word against their word.

GROSS: But what you found was a pattern.

Ms. LAKER: We found a pattern, and we also found a pattern of none of these merchants had criminal records. They were clean merchants who were doing a business, working really hard and dealing in cash, and they were terrified.

We talked to merchants who - one merchant told me that she wet her pants when the officers came in because she thought she was actually being robbed, and she didn't even know - she didn't speak enough English to know that these officers were officers - and had never been arrested before, and then saw all their store destroyed and all their hard-earned money gone.

GROSS: When you broke the story of the store owner who actually had a video of the cops disabling the surveillance system, that still - a still from that video of a cop reaching up to the camera was on the front page of your paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. What impact did that front-page photo have?

Ms. LAKER: I think it was amazing, because a lot of people who may have been skeptical at first with the first story - even though we had 16 merchants who went on the record saying this happened to them, when people could see visually that this was a - were officers who were disabling cameras in stores, they - I mean, it was incredible, the response, because they could see it and they could believe it. And any kind of criticism that we'd gotten before from the police department went away.

GROSS: What kind of criticism had you been getting? And was it criticism, or was it threats?

Ms. RUDERMAN: I think it was a little mixture of both, and the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia is very, very strong. A lot of people are afraid of them. They have incredible political power, and they held a press conference just to debunk our stories. And it was very odd to be a part of that press conference, and then as soon as it was over, all the television cameras turned on Barbara and I.

So the press conference was specifically about us, and it was designed to discredit us. And for me, it was a very hard story to write, because it was writing a story that was critical of myself and Barbara, and we struggled with it.

We struggled with it a little, but we just kind of leaned into it and -but, yeah. The police put my home address on a Web site that they have.

GROSS: Oh, my.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUDERMAN: And they would say all kinds of nasty things like, you know, I hope that she gets, you know, robbed or raped and needs a police officer, and nobody comes to her aid, these kinds of things.

The reality of it was that we couldn't have done the story without many of our cop sources. And when we first saw the video, we had a narcotics officer who became one of our good sources come in and watch the video so that he can sort of tell us what we should look for in the video, whether this was procedure or not procedure.

He helped identify the officers in the video, and he provided insights that we never, ever would've noticed.

GROSS: So after you broke this story, there were threats against you, a lot of nasty things said, press conferences - threats to sue you?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. LAKER: Yeah. We had that early on, threats that they - one attorney told us he would sue us personally, and - if we ran the first story, that he would sue us and close the paper. I mean, we had a lot of threats like that, but we - Wendy and I really believed in this story. We believed in the people who spoke to us. We talked to every single person independently. They didn't know each other. And they told us the same, exact story. And so we believed in it, and so we just continued on.


GROSS: So you've described to us one part of this incredible story that you uncovered, and the part that you described is how rogue cops from the narcotics squad would go into mom-and-pop bodegas and mini-marts and bust the owners for having little Ziploc bags that could be used for marijuana and cocaine.

While the police were there, they would disable the surveillance cameras, and after the surveillance cameras were disabled and the owners arrested, they'd help themselves to stuff in the store, take more money than they reported, and other unethical and illegal things.

One of the cops that showed up in each of these busts that you mention was a cop you were already onto. You'd already written about him. Wendy, what did you write about him for?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, actually, we were specifically focused on this one officer, Officer Jeffrey Cujdik, because the allegations began, the story began with an informant of his who had a very close relationship with him for seven years, an undercover drug informant, who their relationship had soured, and he had come into our office.

GROSS: The informant had?

Ms. RUDERMAN: The informant had come into our office looking for protection. He was terrified that he was going to be either killed by somebody, a police officer, or he was going to be killed by a drug dealer on the street. And by the time he got to us, he was a wreck.

And he alleged that him and this officer fabricated search warrants, fabricated evidence. When they couldn't make drug buys out of a house, the officer told him to go buy drugs elsewhere, and they were doing all of this kind of as a money-making thing.

GROSS: To buy drugs elsewhere and pretend it came from the house that they wanted a search warrant for.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: So they were fabricating evidence for search warrants for the homes of people they suspected were drug dealers, but that didn't have the evidence to really get a search warrant.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Right. And one of the problems is that, in Philadelphia, it's becoming more and more difficult for narcotics officers to do their jobs because the drug dealers are wise to them. They're not going to sell drugs to someone they don't know and someone they don't trust because they know how the police operate.

So as the drug dealers become more wise and more savvy, it becomes harder for the narcotics officers to do their jobs.

GROSS: Okay, so you have an informant coming to you saying I fabricated evidence to get search warrants to go into people's homes, people who we suspected of being drug dealers.

So, Barbara, how did you check that out? You're not just going to take it at face value, obviously.

Ms. LAKER: No, we didn't at all. We checked it out by listening to him for hours upon hours, the informant. And he told us drug buys that he'd done that were legitimate and all these other buys that had gone into executing search warrants in which he didn't do the buy. And when he told us - he gave us addresses or told us where to find the house, and he'd say, like, on a certain block, you go to this red house with a red door and a green awning, and that's what we found.

And he'd say I didn't buy from that house. I bought from a bar around the corner, or I bought from this other house. Everything he told us, we checked out.

GROSS: Did you go to the homes that they searched illegally and talk to the people?

Ms. LAKER: Yes, we went to the homes, every single house where he said that he didn't make the buy. Some of these people had been locked up, but we talked to relatives, and we asked them what happened during the raid.

GROSS: How do you do that? How do you knock on a door of someone who was suspected of being a drug dealer, the police used a fabricated search warrant to enter their home, and you're going to go and talk to them about all of this? I mean, why would they - why would they want to talk with you? Yeah.

Ms. LAKER: Because I think Wendy and I really believed in looking into this story. I don't think we're threatening people, and we were just open. We knocked on the door and said, you know, we're Barbara and Wendy from the Daily News, and we just wanted to know what happened during the raid.

And almost in every single case, people let us in their home, and we sat in their living room and talked to them about what happened during the raid.

GROSS: How many people did you do this with?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Oh, my gosh, probably hundreds of people.

GROSS: Hundreds of people?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Hundreds of people. Because one of the things that we did was after we met with the informant, his informant number was 103. So the people who got arrested only knew that they had sold drugs to number 103 when they looked at the search warrant paperwork.

So what we did was we went over to the Criminal Justice Center and we pulled every single search warrant with 103 and this officer, Officer, Jeffrey Cujdik. And then we split up. We split up the search warrants and went door to door.

GROSS: So what pattern did you see going door to door and getting different people's stories? What was the pattern that emerged?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, it's funny, because a lot of the people that we did talk to were drug dealers, and they readily admitted that they were drug dealers. But the thing was, you know, they didn't sell that brand of drugs. They didn't - they were busted for cocaine, but they were marijuana sellers. And they were perplexed by the whole thing.

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. So they told you they were marijuana sellers?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Yeah, there were lots of funny stories...

GROSS: Did they ask you not to report that part?

Ms. RUDERMAN: No, because they were already in jail, arrested, charged, you know, through the system. And they were perplexed until we had knocked on their door. They knew that something wasn't right. They had told their attorney something wasn't right. But who's going to believe them?

The system is entirely stacked that it's the police officer's word against your word, and you can get up there and say yeah, I sell drugs, but I don't sell that kind of drugs - and, you know, who's going to listen to you?

GROSS: Well, what happened as a result of your stories is that a lot of cases have to be reexamined because the people were convicted on false evidence. So what has been kind of put into a state of turmoil as a result of these fabricated search warrants?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, the whole justice system sort of came to a screeching halt. There are all these cases that are - that were still going through the system that are just getting thrown out one by one.

In addition to that, there's people who were convicted who are now looking for what's called post-conviction relief, and there's those cases pending, and they're pending, waiting for the outcome of the FBI investigation.

But, you know, what was hard for Barbara and I is that in one of our stories, we let out a major drug dealer who was in federal prison, and they had fabricated his search warrant. He was a heavy guy. His name was Pooh Bear. He weighed like 300-and-something pounds, 400 pounds, and the search warrant described him as a thin guy, had a completely inaccurate description of him, and federal prosecutors had to let him out.

And that was hard. I think that was really hard for Barbara and I. That was hard.

GROSS: Because you knew he really was a drug dealer, and now he was going free as a result of your story.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of people were really angry with you for that, too, like look what you've done. Real drug dealers are going free because of your reporting.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Right. And I think that they had a legitimate complaint about that, because I would lay at night thinking about this drug dealer back out on the street, thinking about the kids in that neighborhood. I have kids. It sort of did haunt me, but I tell my - I sort of console myself by saying, well, I didn't do that. Those officers did that, because if they had played by the rules, he would still be in jail right now. So I tried to console myself that way.

And a lot of our readers are more conservative, and they're very pro-police. So their thoughts were, well, any way the police officers can do it, let them do it that way. But the problem becomes that if the system is built on a lie, what happens when you and me and somebody else get stopped, and we're completely innocent, and nobody wants to hear what we have to say? It's just such a slippery slope.


GROSS: Well, something else that you found was that there were women in the houses that were searched with the fabricated search warrants, women who were sexually harassed by one cop. And that's another amazing part of the story that you uncovered that you won the Pulitzer for. So how did you get onto that story of sexual harassment?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, we went to one house that had been raided by this squad, and just by chance, this woman who - the wife of the man who was arrested, Lady Gonzalez, told us that she was home alone at the time with her children, and that this one officer took her to a back room off the kitchen, and none of the other officers were with her, and he fondled her breasts. He lifted up her shirt. She feared that she was going to be raped. He commented on her breasts and on her tattoos, asked her to pull down her jeans a little so he could see her tattoo. She was petrified, absolutely petrified. She could not identify the officer. We just knew that this officer was on that squad. And we had heard from sources that this one officer had a fetish for women's breasts and had fondled other women in other raids.

So after we found the first woman, Lady Gonzalez, we went back to all the thousands of search warrants. We pulled every single search warrant where this officer who we had heard had allegedly sexually assaulted women was present, and there were hundreds of them. We didn't have the names of the women. We didn't have addresses of the women, and we just split it up and went back to the street and knocked on hundreds of doors, asking people what happened during the raid.

GROSS: How many women did you find who were sexually harassed during the raids on their homes?

Ms. RUDERMAN: We found three, and two of the three went on the record with their name and did videos. The third woman we did grant anonymity to because the allegation was that the officer shoved his hand in - up her - into her vagina, and she was petrified and went to the hospital that night, and they did a rape kit. And because of that - and she was scared, and so we granted her anonymity. But the other two were very courageous women, and gave us their names and told their story with there faces, names, everything.

GROSS: So what happened to the officer who's alleged to have harassed these three women?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, he's now on desk duty. His gun and his - he has no police powers, and his gun has been taken. And, you know, we're hearing buzz that there is a grand jury hearing evidence, I guess specifically about the allegations against him. But one of the things that was so disturbing to me is when we first met with the confidential informant, we tried to get as much information out of him as possible. And one of the things he mentioned was that there was an officer on the squad who was a quote-unquote "boob man." He had a boob fetish.

When we started writing the stories, Barbara got a call from a police officer who was talking about this "boob man." And then, you know, so there were prior complaints against this officer. When this woman went to the hospital and had the rape kit done, she did not know the name of officer, who the officer was, but the people - but Internal Affairs knew who it was and took him off the street pretty much that night. But then they, for some reason, they hit some dead ends and they ended up putting him back on the street a couple of months later.

So it was kind of like an open secret, and it was almost like, well, this is just what this cop does.

Ms. RUDERMAN: And some of the - all the women felt like the police department wasn't really hearing them, because they couldn't identify the officer by name. But when they went to Internal Affairs, Internal Affairs showed them, like, an array of 80 photographs of police officers, and a lot of the photos dated back years, when the officers first joined the police department. And...

GROSS: So they didn't even look like they look now.

Ms. RUDERMAN: They didn't look like they looked. And generally, we talked to former prosecutors who said usually, in these cases, the women are given, like, an array of, like, eight photographs. And 80 was just way too much for anyone to identify someone who had assaulted them in a home during a raid.

GROSS: Now how did you get them to identify the officer?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, what we did is after we - we had the video taken of this squad during that raid of the store. And so when we put it in the paper, we had blurred out the faces of these officers to protect their identity, because they work undercover. And so what we did is we asked the women to come into the office, and we showed them the video with the faces not blurred so they could see who these officers were.

We sat silent next to them. We told them we couldn't say a thing to them, just watch the video and see if, by chance, that they could identify this officer. Two of the three women identified him by voice alone, even before they saw his face. And when they saw his face, all of them broke down crying, saying that's him. And they told us they were 150 percent sure it was him.

GROSS: Could we just talk about motives for a second? One of the big stories here is searching houses with fabricated evidence that was used for the warrants. I presume that the motive of the police in those cases was to get access to people who they truly believed were drug lords, but they were trying - they didn't have the evidence to back it up, so they fabricated the warrant. Yes? Is that fair?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Yeah. That would be a motive.

GROSS: Okay. In the case of the bodegas and the mini-marts, what was the motive for trying to bust them on these sales of these little Ziploc bags that you could use to put marijuana and cocaine in and disabling the surveillance cameras? What was the motivation there, do you think?

Ms. RUDERMAN: I think all of the motivation - I mean, one of the things that Barbara and I noticed in going through the search warrants was that this particular squad did an enormous amount of these bodega raids, 10 times more than the other squads. And we had sources on the other squads saying, God. I think I've done maybe two of those kind of raids in my entire history in the narcotics force.

But I disagree that they weren't motivated by greed in the instances with the houses, because one complicated part of the story was that the informant was living in a house owned by Officer Jeff Cujdik and was paying him rent money. And how he was paying the rent money is every time the informant made a drug buy, a successful one, or found a gun in the house, he would get paid for that from the police department, and then that money would go to the officer for the rent on the house.

So, I do believe that the whole - the slippery slope with the search warrants wasn't entirely altruistic on the part of the officer. I think that there was a certain amount of power, greed, money. Police officers on this squad were doubling their salaries in overtime and court time, court testimony time, and commendations. You know, a lot of these officers got commendations from the police department for great work taking drugs off the street, a lot of prestige.

And these officers were also, you know, the golden children of the force. They were very active. They were very tough. They had tough reputations, and they were like the favorite children. So, in a lot of ways, they got away with things that other units did not get away with because they because they were productive, very productive.

GROSS: So what do you think the motivation was for busting the mini-marts and bodegas on the premise of looking for these little Ziploc bags in which the person who bought the bags could put marijuana or cocaine?

Ms. LAKER: I think that was driven by money, because yeah, some of - these grocery stores did sell the little Ziploc bags. But in the video, they didn't even seem concerned about the bags. They were more concerned about cutting the video camera wires, smashing the cameras. And then after they left, all this money was missing. The food was missing. The store was looted. So we have to - we suspect that the motivation was money.

GROSS: So what happened to those shop owners whose places were searched and looted?

Ms. RUDERMAN: They were arrested, and they were charged with drug paraphernalia. They had to hire lawyers, and then a lot of them got probation in the end, but they had their stores - a lot of them lost their stores as a result. They paid thousands of dollars in legal fees, and a lot of them left the stores. They gave up the stores because they couldn't afford it anymore and they were scared that it would happen again.

GROSS: So did your stories change their fate?

Ms. RUDERMAN: I think in the pending cases - the cases that were pending, yes, it did. But then, in other cases, it was too late. Like, we interviewed this older Korean woman who had given up here store, right? Her store ended up in forfeiture.

Ms. LAKER: Yeah, forfeiture.

Ms. RUDERMAN: And it's still in limbo. And so a lot of these store owners, like they lost their faith in the American dream, because they were working 12, 14-hour days. They didn't believe they were doing anything wrong at all, and then, all of a sudden, they're faced with criminal charges that go on their record. And some lawyers actually recommended that they take probation, and they did, fearing that something worse could happen.


GROSS: Barbara, in doing some of the interviews that you did, you were attacked, weren't you, by one of the family members of somebody you were interviewing?

Ms. LAKER: Yeah. I was attacked by a female informant. I was in her mother's house and talking to the mom about the relationship between her daughter, the female informant, and Officer Jeffrey Cujdik. And her mom was telling me that Tiffany, the female informant, was arrested and that the officer had come to the house and given bail money to the mom.

The female informant was hearing from upstairs. She heard what her mom was telling me, and she didn't want her mom telling me any of this. She didn't want the relationship that she had with Jeffrey Cujdik out, or in any detail whatsoever. So she came downstairs and threatened to hurt me, and then stormed over to me and slapped me twice in the face and threw my notebook across the room. And I was really scared, but I knew I had to get out of there. So I ran across the room, grabbed my notebook and bolted out of the door.

And she came running after me, and I was on the cell phone with Wendy saying, "She just hit me. She just hit me and - but don't worry. I have my notebook." It was one of our funnier moments, now looking back on it. But, yeah, it was scary, but, I mean, some people don't want people in their lives to talk to reporters and tell them what happened.

GROSS: Were you ever afraid just in the neighborhood? Just going door to door in neighborhoods? They're tough, inner-city neighborhoods that have a lot of drugs. That's why you're there, because the drugs are part of the story. And you're alone. You'd split up. You weren't even together. And just walking down the street would be dangerous, let alone knocking on doors through the neighborhood. You'd look really suspicious. You'd really stand out - and also, I should say, being white in neighborhoods that were predominantly not white.

Ms. LAKER: Well, I think Wendy and I are both obsessive-compulsive people, so we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAKER: ...we kind of went with this no matter what and put kind of our safety on the back burner. But I also think that people saw us as people who just wanted to know what happened. We weren't a threat. We weren't there to arrest people. We walked up to drug dealers, and I'm telling you, so many people came up to us and said, look. I'll watch your back.

And people in the neighborhood protected us when we were walking up and down the street, because they knew why we were there, and they didn't see us as someone who was threatening their lives or taking anything away from them. They were honored, I think, in so many ways that someone just cared enough to come to their block and ask what happened. And that's the thing. We didn't have any threats from people in the neighborhood, whatsoever.

GROSS: So, finally, what's your relationship with police now in the Philadelphia police force? You uncovered a really dirty story.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Well, I have plenty of police officers calling me with other tips and thinking, you know, that I can take on all the problems of the police department. And that's a heavy burden, to get these calls from police officers who want to tell me incredible wrongs that are happening in the force that they don't feel are being addressed, and they want me and Barbara to address it. And - but then on the other hand, the FOP president doesn't talk to us. He doesn't return our calls. He badmouths us. So we have our friends and we have our enemies, and our relationship with the police department is gray, just like everything out in the world of drugs and the streets, it's gray.

GROSS: So having reported on the Philadelphia police and found rogue cops, do you also know a lot of good cops on the police? Do you leave this Pulitzer Prize-winning series that you wrote with confidence that there's a lot of really good cops in Philadelphia, in spite of the bad cops?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Oh, yeah. I think there's wonderful cops on the police force, and a lot of them helped us with the story. I think that our critics in the police department, what they don't realize is that when there's rogue cops out there and they have a bad interaction with someone in the public, especially someone like a bodega owner, who totally then becomes jaded on the police department, then that affects their ability to do their jobs. And now people don't trust them, and you really need that trust. To solve crimes in the community, you need the trust of the community. So when that trust is breached, it - that is a problem for good officers. And I just, you know, I just wish that our critics would see it that way.

Ms. LAKER: Because it taints the department, and it taints the reputation of good cops who are doing the right thing and do everything by the letter of the law. And so when they go back into the community after a story like this, people are very distrustful. They don't want to talk them and see them as the enemy. And so, in the end, it hurts the whole police department because without that trust, they can't do their jobs the right way.

GROSS: As if your story - your series of stories that's just won the Pulitzer weren't amazing enough, to make the story more complicated and paradoxical, right after you win, your newspaper is sold. It was just sold, and it was sold at a very low price to the people who were basically the creditors for the current owner. So, on the one hand, like, you're celebrating the Pulitzer, on the other hand, you know your paper's in jeopardy.

I mean, your paper's owned by the same owner as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Web site So all three things now, the two newspapers and the Web site, everything's kind of up in the air. You don't know what the future's going to be. There's already been an enormous amounts of cuts at your paper. So can you give us a sense of what it's like to be celebrating in the shadow of the sale of your newspaper?

Ms. RUDERMAN: It's very difficult, because you go from such a high to such a low. And I think the only thing that gets us through it is that this is the kind of story that is the reason why I went into journalism and a lot of people went into journalism.

GROSS: Actually, it's a kind of story only a local paper's going to do.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Right. And...

GROSS: No paper outside of Philadelphia is going to report on the inner workings of the Philadelphia police the way you did. No one's going to do that.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Right. I think that the Pulitzer really validated us as the local paper, as the voice of the people. And the Pulitzer came at a really good time for our paper and it really lifted the spirits of the staff, because there's this sense that we're survivors and we're in there doing what no one else is going to do and there is a need for it. Civically, there's a need for it. The people want it. So there's - so without us, I don't know. A lot of people think that we're essential to Philadelphia and to democracy, and having the Pulitzer - the whole staff felt like it was their Pulitzer, and it was.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much, both of you, Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, thank you for being here, and congratulations on your much-deserved Pulitzer. Thank you.

Ms. RUDERMAN: Thank you.

Ms. LAKER: Thanks so much. We're honored to be here.

GROSS: Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker won a Pulitzer Prize for their Philadelphia Daily News Series "Tainted Justice." You can find links to all of the articles from their series on our Web site:, where you can also see a picture from a surveillance camera just before it was disabled by police.

Coming up: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biographer of publisher Henry Luce.

This is FRESH AIR.

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