NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Three U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers were arrested Wednesday after allegedly using a 'rape table' to haze two of their male colleagues at Newark Liberty International Airport, federal prosecutors said.
The officers — Tito Catota, 38, of Lyndhurst, Parmenio Perez, 40, of Hawthorne, and Michael Papagni, 32, of Staten Island, New York — were each released on $100,000 bonds following their initial court appearances. They did not enter pleas during those appearances, which came hours after their arrests on charges of forcibly assaulting, impeding, intimidating and interfering with the two victims.
Alan Zegas and Lorraine Gauli-Rufo, the respective attorneys for Catota and Perez, both said after the hearings that the officers maintain their innocence. Papagni's lawyer, Chad Seigel, declined comment.
"We don't think there's any crime here," Gauli-Rufo said.
A CBP spokesperson said the agency "welcomes these indictments. ... We do not tolerate misconduct in our ranks and are committed to a safe workplace environment free of harassment or intimidation." The agency also said it has taken administrative and management actions to correct the situation.
The three indicted officers were members of a unit responsible for identifying dangerous contraband and threats to national security, acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said. They were on duty when the alleged attacks occurred, he said
"This behavior would be abhorrent in any environment, especially one serving a critical law enforcement function," Fitzpatrick said.
Officers who reported being hazing victims said the abuse happened for years.
Senior officers would allegedly take newer officers into a secure room, throw them on a table and grind against their genital areas, according to the indictment. Papagni allegedly told one victim that the table was known as the "rape table" and one day he would get the victim on it.
On another occasion, Papagni, Catota and another officer allegedly threw one victim on a table and held him down while Perez grinded his body against the clothed victim in what the indictment described as a simulated sex act.
The hazing allegations came to light in May, when NBC New York spoke with officers who said they had been harassed. They described an environment where they were helpless in a culture where hazing was a norm. They said they were initially too intimidated to formally complain.
"Once the lights go out, they grab you up like a gang, and they forcibly throw you on the table and one officer ended up mounting me and pretty much riding me like a horse," Officer Vito Degironimo told the station. "I'm grabbed by other officers against my will. I don't know how much more criminal you can get."
The victims weren't named in the indictment.
Officer Diana Cifuentes told NBC she was a victim of the broad hazing culture, citing one alleged instance in which an officer pulled a gun on her in the office.
"I took a deep breath and kept on typing like nothing was happening," Cifuentes said. "I know that if I reacted either he was going to pull the trigger or I was going to draw the weapon myself and shoot him."
Patrick Metz, a lawyer who represents several officers who have claimed harassment, said Wednesday that "it's a sad day when law enforcement personnel have to be arrested, but these charges are so egregious that something had to be done. Our position is that this is the tip of the iceberg."
This story has been corrected to show the towns where all three officers live, as per prosecutors.