CHICAGO (CN) — A federal judge ruled that a man who spent 10 years in prison on drug charges before being exonerated can pursue claims against a former police officer behind bars for his role in a distribution ring.
Refugio Ruiz-Cortez sued former police officer Glenn Lewellen, his ex-partner Noel Sanchez and the City of Chicago in March 2011 for conspiracy and malicious prosecution.
Prosecutors vacated Ruiz-Cortez's prison sentence in 2010 following a probe into a criminal enterprise led by Lewellen, who was convicted of narcotics distribution conspiracy and sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.
In 1999, Lewellen and a paid informant set up a drug deal to get their hands on 20 kilograms of cocaine, using Ruiz-Cortez as the fall guy, according to court records.
According to Ruiz-Cortez, the informant threatened to hurt his family if he refused to store cocaine in his apartment.
On the day of his arrest, Ruiz-Cortez had just arrived home sometime after 6 p.m. Lewellen was reportedly camped out behind his building while his partner Sanchez watched the front door.
As part of their scheme, Lewellen and the informant used a courier to pick up a yellow bag filled with 20 kilos of cocaine from the back of the building. Lewellen then put the bag of drugs in his trunk and told the courier to get lost, court records show.
Sanchez testified that he couldn't see Lewellen from his position and did not see Ruiz-Cortez during the surveillance.
Lewellen called out to Sanchez that a drug transaction was made, and Sanchez called for backup and waited in the front of the building.
"Sanchez further testified that when he reached the back of the residence, he saw that Lewellen was carrying a bag believed to contain narcotics," according to an Oct. 26 ruling from U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber.
Lewellen then secured the bag in the trunk of his car, entered the home with Sanchez and arrested Ruiz-Cortez. Lewellen allegedly pocketed 10 kilos to sell and inventoried the rest with the police department.
A federal court sentenced Ruiz-Cortez to 17 years in prison for intent to distribute 10 kilograms of cocaine, even though his fingerprints were not on the yellow bag.
For years, Lewellen used his badge to tip off violent drug dealers of potential raids in exchange for drugs and money, and kidnapped and hog-tied other dealers until they turned over their inventory, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In total, Lewellen and his cronies snatched 550 pounds of cocaine and $3 million in cash, while the police department forked out more than $800,000 to an informant for "fruitful" services, according to news reports and court records.
On Wednesday, Judge Leinenweber dismissed Sanchez as a defendant, finding Ruiz-Cortez's allegation that he was a co-conspirator speculative.
"As for the allegation that Sanchez should have known about Lewellen's illicit activities, plaintiff brings nothing more than the circumstantial evidence he brought under his fabrication of evidence claim," the judge wrote in the 73-page opinion.
The City of Chicago was also dismissed as a defendant in the case.
However, Leinenweber ruled that Ruiz-Cortez can pursue malicious prosecution and fabrication of evidence claims against Lewellen.
"Lewellen's strongest argument may be that he had probable cause to arrest Ruiz-Cortez. However, this is not sufficient to defeat a malicious prosecution claim because... there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether Lewellen fabricated evidence or withheld [certain] materials after the arrest," Leinenweber wrote. "Viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, Lewellen "engineered plaintiff's prosecution" and prevented the prosecuting attorney from exercising 'independent discretion to proceed with charges and the prosecution.'" (Emphasis in original.)
Ruiz-Cortez's attorney Christopher Smith did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.