WILKES-BARRE — A city resident who was wrongfully arrested during a major drug bust has reached a $150,000 settlement with the state Attorney General’s Office, according to his attorney.
John Cole, of 553 N. Pennsylvania Ave., last week settled the false arrest and imprisonment lawsuit against agents Anthony B. Panzarella and Robert Speicher, both of the agency’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation in Wilkes-Barre.
Cole’s attorney Joshua E. Karoly said Friday that there were a number of major differences between Cole and the true offender, including different phone numbers and heights. The actual offender, who was later charged after the case against Cole was dropped, also has a sleeve tattoo that Cole does not, he said.
“It was clear from a layperson’s perspective that they had the wrong person, but apparently they didn’t care because they wanted to put their publicity in the newspapers,” Karoly said, describing the investigators as demonstrating a “blatant lack of due diligence.” “John has been through hell based upon these agents’ faulty police work, and I think he has the right for it to be as public of an exoneration as was his alleged criminal conduct.”
Cole was one of 36 local people the Attorney General’s Office snared in October 2017 during “Operation Outfoxed,” which dismantled a major drug ring that funneled more than $1 million in heroin and crack from New York City to Luzerne County. Prosecutors alleged the operation’s ringleader was the local head of the Crips street gang.
But the lawsuit Karoly later filed against the agents and their supervisors said he “had absolutely no involvement in any illegal activity, much less dealing drugs.”
When Cole learned the police were looking for him, he was at a job site working as a project manager in upstate New York, the complaint said. Cole called the police to clear the matter up and offered to provide an alibi, but the agent he spoke to would not provide him with information about what he was alleged to have done and when, according to the complaint.
As a result, Cole left work and returned to Wilkes-Barre to turn himself in, the suit says. Agents charged Cole with solicitation to commit drug trafficking, drug possession and criminal use of a communication facility.
Cole was jailed at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility for a short time before posting $25,000 bail. While free on bail, he was subject to “onerous pre-trial supervision” and limitations on his freedom, the complaint says.
He was not permitted to return to the job in New York and had to submit to assessments, classes and treatment for a “non-existent drug problem,” according to the complaint.
“(Cole’s) good reputation was instantly smeared based upon the false charges, which were widely disseminated starting with a front page news article in the local newspaper, The Citizens’ Voice, plastering a picture of (him) with the caption, ‘BUSTED,’” the lawsuit said, adding that multiple other news outlets also reported on the arrests.
Cole was “greatly humiliated” by the ordeal as friends and family members called to ask about the charges, and his tire business in Plains Twp. “immediately began to suffer,” the complaint says.
After his continually protesting his innocence, Cole was finally called to the Attorney General’s Office about a month after his arrest. The man investigators were seeking was shown on surveillance footage as having a sleeve tattoo on his left arm, and Cole showed agents that he had no such tattoo, the complaint said.
“Obviously, (Cole) was not the individual who allegedly committed the crimes charges, and this should have been apparent, prior to his arrest, to any reasonable prudent investigating agent acting with the requisite due diligence,” the complaint alleged.
Even after being confronted with that information, however, it took the investigators another 12 days to drop the charges against Cole, according to the complaint.
Court records show the parties settled the case last week and that U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani subsequently closed it.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.