Three Customs and Border Protection officers have been arrested following a bombshell I-Team report exposing allegations of extreme, sexually abusive hazing of colleagues at Newark Airport, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Tito Catota, 38, of Lyndhurst, New Jersey; Parmenio Perez, 40, of Hawthorne, New Jersey; and Michael Papagni, 32, of Staten Island, are charged with forcibly assaulting, impeding, intimidating and interfering with two male customs officers while they were on duty.
All three men appeared in federal court later Wednesday and were freed on $100,000 bond. Attorney information for the men wasn't immediately available.
A spokesman for Customs and Border Patrol told News 4 in a statement it welcomes the indictments and that it "fully supported" the investigation by the Inspector General.
"We do not tolerate misconduct in our ranks and are committed to a safe workplace environment free of harassment or intimidation," said spokesman Anthony Bucci, adding that CBP authorities took "administrative and management actions to correct the situation."
He added, "The overwhelming majority of CBP employees, and our men and women in uniform at the port of Newark, perform their duties with honor and distinction, working tirelessly every day to keep our country safe."
According to the criminal complaint, all three officers were assigned to the agency's pPassenger Enforcement Rover Team (PERT), an elite passenger screening team at Newark that was disbanded in May, two days after the exclusive I-Team report.
The removal of the team wasn't revealed until July, though, when acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan disclosed in a letter to U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), who had sought action in the case, that 11 officers had been suspended pending the outcome of a federal investigation.
The two male victims referred to in the criminal complaint are not named, though three came forward publicly to the I-Team months ago with allegations matching the behavior described in the federal court documents.
According to the complaint, one victim was assigned to PERT in October 2016. Within his first two weeks on the job, Papagni allegedly told him that the PERT office table in the team's second-floor officer at Terminal C was known as the "rape table," and threatened that the victim would have to get on it.
Months later, the victim was asked to forward a document related to the prior drug seizure. While the victim and another individual were scanning it, Papagni allegedly warned the victim he had five minutes to get out of the office or Papagni would teach him "what this team is about." Moments later, another individual with customs shut off the lights in the PERT office. Papagni, Catota and another person held the victim down, according to the complaint.
While they did so, Perez allegedly got on top of the victim and grinded against his genitals through his clothing in a motion simulating a sex act, the complaint says. The victim tried to push him off but could not. Eventually, Perez got up and the three people holding down the victim let him go, the complaint says.
The second victim was also forced onto the purported "rape table;" in his case, it was in November 2016, the complaint says. He allegedly saw one officer lock one of the doors to the office and tried to leave, but was grabbed by Catota, Papagni and Perez and thrown onto the table, the complaint alleges. While two of the defendants held him down, the other got on top of him and grinded against his leg, again simulating a sex act, the complaint alleges. The victim struggled to break free until the suspects eventually released him.
Wednesday's arrests come nearly four months to the day the I-Team exposed the hazing allegations in an exclusive report. The hazed officers told the I-Team the abuse happened for years in that secure room in Terminal C. Though no victims are identified in the criminal complaint, officers came forward to the I-Team with allegations similar, if not exactly akin, to what prosecutors allege.
"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," CBP officer Vito Degironimo said, describing it as sexual attack. "I’m grabbed by other officers against my will. I don’t know how much more criminal you can get."
"Hazing wouldn’t do this justice. This is complete assault. They take you in a room and your fellow officers are all watching as officers grab you," he said.
CBP officer Diana Cifuentes, who also said she suffered abuse at the hands of fellow officers, said, "I’m afraid for my life, my safety."
In June, a fourth officer who was not assigned to PERT and did not want to be named, told the I-Team he’d been taped to a chair by fellow officers and feared suffocation when a plastic bag was placed over his head.
The DHS Office of Inspector General launched an investigation in late January after CBP headquarters became aware of the alleged misconduct at Newark Airport. All of the officers who spoke with the I-Team have been interviewed by the DHS Office of Inspector General and all requested transfers out of Newark.
McAleenan said in his July letter to Waterson Coleman that managers and enforcement team trainers from JFK Airport had been assigned to Newark “to review and assess operations, provide training, and assist with the organization of Newark’s Enforcement Team."
Federal prosecutors said Wednesday they were appalled by the allegations.
"The defendants, who were members of a unit responsible for identifying dangerous contraband and threats to national security, allegedly subjected their own colleagues to senseless physical abuse, all while on duty at Newark Liberty International Airport," Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said in a statement. "This behavior would be abhorrent in any environment, especially one serving a critical law enforcement function. The hardworking men and women who protect our borders deserve better."
Watson Coleman commended CBP and DHS for taking action on the Newark allegations, but said now the attention needs to focus on preventing such alleged abuse in the future.
"Beyond the outcome of this specific incident, we need to work diligently to ensure that CBP and DHS leadership take the steps necessary to eliminate abuse and other inappropriate conduct issues within the agency," Watson Coleman's statement said. "It is imperative the men and women who help keep our nation secure can do their jobs safely and with dignity and that they are held to the highest legal, ethical and performance standards."