What to Know
The arrests come months after a bombshell I-Team report exposed allegations of extreme hazing of customs officers at Newark Airport
Authorities announced in July they had broken up a customs team at Newark Airport and suspended nearly a dozen officers
One officer claims there was a notorious conference table known as “the rape table” in middle of the room where senior officers went wild
Three Customs and Border Protection officers have been arrested following a bombshell I-Team report exposing allegations of extreme hazing of colleagues at Newark Airport, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.
Tito Catota, 38, Parmenio Perez, 40, and Michael Papagni, 32, all of New Jersey, are charged with forcibly assaulting, impeding, intimidating and interfering with two male customs officers while they were on duty at Newark. They are expected to appear in federal court later Wednesday.
Attorney information wasn’t immediately available. NBC 4 New York has reached out to CPB for comment on the arrests.
In July, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it had disbanded an elite passenger screening team at Newark Airport and disciplined 11 officers in the wake of the initial I-Team report in May. The move was made two days after the exclusive I-Team report, but not revealed until two months later.
The officers, including three supervisors, were stripped of their firearms, badges and access to sensitive databases, and placed on administrative duty. The suspensions were disclosed in a letter from acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey).
McAleenan also revealed that CBP’s Passenger Enforcement Rover Team (PERT) at Newark was disbanded on May 11, two days after the I-Team reported that three CBP officers – all assigned to PERT – detailed sexually abusive hazing by veteran officers, including the pinning down of victims to a “rape table.”
The investigation by the DHS Office of Inspector General was launched after CBP headquarters became aware of the alleged misconduct in Newark on or about Jan. 23.
“We share your concerns about the alleged hazing of CBP officers by their fellow officers,” McAleenan wrote to Rep. Watson Coleman, who’d demanded answers from CBP after the I-Team report. “To date, CBP has yet to identify any additional allegations, in Newark or at other locations, involving ritualistic hazing by one or more CBP employees as alleged in this case.”
McAleenan also said 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.”
The hazed officers say the abuse happened for years in a secure room in Terminal C where security cameras are monitored. A conference table in the room, they say, is central to the hazing rituals.
CBP officer Vito Degironimo told the I-Team that the veteran officers called it “the rape table.” While clothing was never removed, the ritual involved the grinding of genital areas on victims, he said.
“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,” he 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, 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.
All of the officers who spoke with the I-Team have been interviewed by the DHS Office of Inspector General and all have requested transfers out of Newark Airport.