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Video Killed the Drug Conviction: Chicago Narcs Busted Lying Through Their Teeth [FEATURE]

Part 10 of an occasional series on police and prosecutorial misconduct by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.

It was just another marijuana bust by Chicago's crack dope squad and should have resulted in an easy conviction, but thanks to a forgotten camera, things didn't exactly work out the way the cops planned. Now, the pot dealer is free, he has a bunch of cash in pocket, and it's the cops who are facing justice.

It went down on June 6, 2013, when three Chicago Police narcotics officer and a pair of suburban Glenview police officers pulled over Joseph Sperling on the pretext that he had failed to properly use his turn signal, then claimed Sperling told them there were drugs in his vehicle. The cops said they found marijuana in plain view and arrested Sperling on marijuana possession and distribution charges. Business as usual, so far.

But when it came time to go to court the following March, things went south for the cops. Prosecutors had been questioning Chicago PD narcotics officer William Pruente, who said in sworn testimony that when police pulled over Sperling they immediately smelled marijuana and ordered him to exit the vehicle and stand at the rear of the car.

Then, defense attorney Steven Goldman asked the veteran narc if Sperling was handcuffed after he got out of the car.

"No, he was not handcuffed," Pruente replied. "He was not under arrest at that time."

Chicago narcotic officers Sergeant James Padar and Vince Morgan and Glenview Police officers James Horn and Sergeant Theresa Urbanowski backed up Pruente's story.

Then, as Urbanowski was testifying, defense attorney Goldman dropped a bombshell. He interrupted the testimony to inform Judge Catherine Haberkorn that he needed to offer a videotape into evidence.

In a moment of courtroom drama like something out of "Law and Order," Goldman revealed that the video came from Urbanowski's police cruiser and that it flatly contradicted the sworn testimony of the police officers. The police had been lying to the court and to the judge and the video would prove it, Goldman said.

As Goldman patiently took Urbanowski back over the events she'd testified about, he played the recording and asked her to describe the difference between her original testimony and what was happening on the tape.

The footage contradicted the testimony of the police officers. Pruente had testified that Sperling had not been arrested or handcuffed until the cops had found the dope in plain view, but the video showed Pruente walking up to Sperling's car, reaching in the open window, unlocking the door, pulling Sperling out, handcuffing him, and placing him in the back seat of a patrol car. Only then did the officers move to search the car.

The video clearly showed the officers spending minutes thoroughly searching Sperling's car before finding weed and a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms in a black duffel bag.

As defense attorney Goldman noted during questioning, if the drugs had really been in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle, the officers had no need or reason to search it because they already had the drugs.

The brazen distance between the officers' testimony and what the video revealed infuriated Judge Haberkorn, who immediately granted Goldman's motion to suppress the evidence because the video showed police had neither probable cause to arrest Sperling nor a warrant to search his vehicle.

"This is very outrageous conduct," Haberkorn said from the bench. "All the officers lied on the stand today. All their testimony is a lie. There is strong evidence it was a conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."

Haberkorn then dismissed the criminal charges against Sperling.

"If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone," said Sperling, then 23, during a press conference with reporters after the release of his videotaped arrest. "I just happen to be one of the lucky few that had a video that proved the officers were wrong."

The Cook County criminal justice system may have been done with Sperling, but he wasn't done with it. Shortly after the charges were dismissed, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging illegal search and seizure against the Chicago and Glenview police departments. And he won. The two cities involved settled the suit, paying Sperling $195,000 for his troubles.

Others who have been similarly victimized could do the same. Under the US Code Section 1983, citizens are allowed to sue police in federal court as a result of an illegal search and arrest if the officer acted with malice "under color of law."

In Sperling's case, attorney John Loevy argued in the lawsuit that there was insufficient legal justification for officers to stop and arrest Sperling and search his vehicle, which was done without probable cause. Those illegal actions violated Sperling's civil rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments, as prescribed under Section 18 US Code 242. The argument was strong enough to force the cities to settle.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (twitter.com)
Former Houston Police homicide and narcotic gang investigator Rick Moreno told Drug War Chronicle the officers lied to protect an informant when they could simply have gone by the book and done their bust right.

"Once those officers had all the information about this guy having dope in his car they needed a warrant," Moreno explained.

But the narcs plotted a scheme disguised as a routine traffic stop to avoid having to obtain one.

"What they've done in this case was a 'wall off' technique." Moreno said, referring to a strategy most narcotic officers use to put a wall between the officer and the information provided by a snitch. And if everything goes as planned, the officer gets the dope without a warrant, they got the dope dealer and the snitch is protected."

"The biggest casualty in the war on drugs is the truth," said Chicago civil attorney Jon Loevy, who represented Sperling in his civil rights lawsuit.

"The ends justify the means," said criminal defense attorney Goldman, explaining the attitudes that drove the cops to lie on the stand. "So because they get the bad guy off the street or the drugs out of their hands, everybody's happy."

Well, not everybody, not when the lies are so blatant they cannot be ignored. The Cook County criminal justice system wasn't done with the cops caught lying on the witness stand. Sgt. Urbanowski's camera had caught them red-handed, and four of them were indicted by a Cook County grand jury on perjury, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct charges in June 2015. They all face up to five years in prison on each count. The three Chicago police officers were immediately suspended, and the Glenview police officer was later fired. Their trials got underway this week.

"The foundation of our criminal justice system rests on the concept of truthful testimony," said Cook County States' Attorney Anita Alvarez in a press statement announcing the indictments. "We expect it from our witnesses and we demand it from our police officers."

The criminal charges filed against the officers made headlines across the state and constituted another black mark against the much criticized Chicago Police Department. But the buzz around the courthouse was not just over the charges, but whether they would lead to the dismissal of other drug cases in which the charged cops were involved.

Calls to the Cook County prosecutor's office regarding whether the four indicted officers would be investigated for perjury or illegal tactics in previous drug cases have not been returned.

While Sperling won $195,000 in damages from his illegal search and seizure lawsuit, legal experts say such victories are rare. Defendants usually don't pursue such suits due to lack of funds, and if a case involving a bad search is dismissed, most defendants are just relieved the case is over and they no longer face charges, said Penn State University law professor David Rudovsky, a leading civil rights and criminal defense attorney and author of The Law of Arrest, Search, and Seizure.

Penn State law professor David Rudovsky (law.penn.edu)
Rudovsky told Drug War Chronicle there is also another reason such lawsuits are rare.

"Why would a jury award money for damages to a criminal already proven to have committed a crime?" he asked rhetorically.

Police perjury is nothing new -- the practice has even generated its own nickname, "testilying" -- but the Sperling case has renewed debate over why law enforcers resort to breaking the law.

"Police perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace," wrote former San Francisco police commissioner Peter Keane in a much-cited article on the topic.

"I've heard some police officers say in a social setting, 'If [the defendant] is going to lie to beat the case, why can't I lie too?" Cook County Public Defender, and former prosecutor Abishi Cunningham Jr. related.

"When police lie to make a case on someone they are saying the criminal justice system doesn't work... so I'm going to do it my way," Houston civil and criminal attorney Annie Briscoe told the Chronicle.

Briscoe recalled a drug case involving police illegal search where police recovered a sizeable amount of drugs from a client of hers. Houston police claimed he resembled a fugitive they were looking for. With her client facing up to life in prison, Briscoe convinced the trial judge to throw out the charge because of illegal search and seizure through the simple expedient of showing the judge a photo of the fugitive, who looked nothing like her client.

While the judge called Briscoe's client "one lucky guy," Briscoe had a slightly different take.

"The law should be enforceable by way of truth," she said.

Police are also incentivized by the war on drugs to cut corners so they can reap monetary rewards, whether through asset forfeiture or by earning federal anti-drug grants through aggressive enforcement actions. And each bust makes their numbers look better.

As NYPD Officer Adil Polanco once revealed through a surfeit of honesty, "Our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them. You have to write somebody, arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number is there."

Yes, there are numerous reasons cops lie. But none of them justify the lying, or the corrosive effect such behavior has on public trust and respect for law enforcement. These Chicago police officers are about to find out just how seriously the system takes such dishonesty, especially when it is so blatant the system can't pretend it doesn't see it.

Chicago, IL
United States

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Another jail guard in trouble, an Ohio narc heads to prison, and so does a veteran Alabama cop. Let's get to it:

In Live Oak, Florida, a county jail guard was arrested last Wednesday on charges he was selling smuggled cigarettes, synthetic cannabinoids, and cellphones to inmates at the Suwannee Correctional Institution. Michael Dale Lindblade, 28, is charged with official misconduct, unlawful compensation, and removal of contraband. At last report, he was being booked into his now former place of employment.

In Akron, Ohio, a former East Cleveland narcotics detective was sentenced last Wednesday to nearly six years in federal prison after he admitted being part of scheme to rip off thousands of dollars from suspected drug dealers. Antonio Malone, 34, is the third former East Cleveland officer to go down in the corruption case in the street crimes unit. The officers conducted illegal searches and falsified search warrants while stealing from suspects. Malone pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

In Huntsville, Alabama, a former Huntsville police officer was sentenced Tuesday to two years in federal prison for bribing a rookie cop to drop drug trafficking charges against an accused dealer. Lewis Bernard Hall went down after the rookie reported the bribe, starting a city and FBI investigation. The rookie also got shorted on the bribe money by Hall and the drug dealer. Hall copped to one count of conspiracy and must report to prison next month.

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Detroit's dope squad scandal continues to fester, a Louisiana head narc gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and more. Let's get to it:

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three Detroit police officers were indicted Wednesday on federal charges they conspired to bust drug dealers, steal their stashes, and even sell the stolen drugs themselves. Lt. David Hansberry, Officer Bryan Watson and Officer Arthur Leavells are part of a larger group of 11 Detroit Police Narcotics Unit officers named in civil cases alleging similar misconduct. These indictments supersede April 2015 indictments and add more charges. The federal government says the men surveilled big drug deals, then struck, "using their police authority to extort drugs, money and personal property." Hansberry faces 18 felony charges, Watson faces 16, and Leavells faces two, even though he's already copped to conspiracy to distribute drugs and is looking at a four-year mandatory minimum.

In Easton, Pennsylvania, a former East Stroudsburg University police officer pleaded guilty last Thursday to what are essentially "doctor shopping" charges. Matthew Bill, 42, had faced more than a dozen felony charges for obtaining hundreds of prescription pain pills by visiting at least 19 doctors. He copped to three counts of procurement of a controlled substance by fraud and was sentenced to three years' probation. 

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An Oklahoma sheriff and his deputy went a bit too far with asset forfeiture efforts, a Louisiana sheriff and his narcs went a bit too far in mistreating prisoners, and more. Let's get to it:

In Abingdon, Virginia, a Washington County jail guard was arrested March 22 on charges he was smuggling drugs into the jail. Guard Justin Andrew Brown, 22, went down after officials were tipped that a guard was smuggling contraband. Brown now faces charges of intent to distribute an imitation controlled substance, conspiracy to distribute a Schedule II drugs, and attempt to deliver drugs to a jail. He was jailed at the same place he worked until he made bail days later.

In Berkeley Township, New Jersey, an Ocean County juvenile justice officer was arrested last Tuesday as she allegedly prepared to make a heroin sale in parking lot near an elementary school. Erica Kotelnicki, 35, is charged with heroin distribution. A search of her home yielded more heroin, cocaine, scales, and cash. She has been suspended without pay.

In Columbus, Indiana, a former Columbus police narcotics supervisor was arrested last Wednesday on charges he stole drugs from the evidence room. Jeremy Coomes, 38, supervised the Columbus Police Narcotics Unit until October 2015, when an audit turned up various discrepancies, including missing drugs. An Indiana State Police investigation pointed to Coomes, who they said took drugs and sometimes replaced them with different items. He faces a number of charges, including possession of methamphetamine, possession of cocaine, theft, and official misconduct.

In Wagoner, Oklahoma, the Wagoner County sheriff and a deputy were arrested last Thursday over their efforts to use civil asset forfeiture to take $10,000 from a motorist. Sheriff Bob Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg claimed they were going by the book in seizing what they claimed were drug proceeds, but a grand jury disagreed, indicting them on conspiracy, bribery, and extortion charges. Colbert and Gragg pulled over a driver and his passenger, then arrested them for "possession of drug proceeds" when they declared they owned the cash. The driver then asked what he could do to stay out of jail and Gragg told him that the only way he was "going to go home was to disclaim his ownership in the $10,000." The sheriff and his deputy then released the pair and deleted records of their arrests. The money was placed in the sheriff's asset forfeiture fund.

In Edcouch, Texas, a former Edcouch police officer was arrested last Friday on charges he took cocaine from a March 2013 drug seizure. Vicente Salinas allegedly switched out four of 15 bundles of cocaine that had been turned over to the Hidalgo County Task force. No word on what the official charges are.

In New Orleans, a ninth Iberia Parish sheriff's deputy pleaded guilty last Thursday in a growing investigation into the sheriff's office. Deputy Jeremy Hatley pleaded guilty to deprivation of rights and making false statements in a case that centers around the repeated beating of inmates by deputies, including six former department narcotics agents. The deputies who copped pleas are expected to testify against Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal and Lt. Gerald Savoy, who had initial court appearances last week.

In Leesburg, Virginia,a former Loudon County sheriff's deputy was found guilty last Thursday of stealing $229,000 from the department's asset forfeiture program. Frank Pearson, 45, was found to have been sticking his hand in the cookie jar for more than a decade, even though he bizarrely claimed to have no memory of doing so. He's looking at up to 10 years in prison.

In Miami, a former Miami Police officer was sentenced last Friday to nearly four years in state prison for taking money for offering protection during drug deals. Jose Maldonaldo Dick, a seven-year veteran of the force, had been charged with two counts of armed cocaine trafficking, which is punishable by up to life in prison, but copped to a single count of providing protection for a drug dealer and being paid to do so. Dick has already spent 18 months behind bars awaiting trial.

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In Rocky River, Ohio, a Linndale reserve police officer was arrested last Tuesday on charges she was slinging marijuana and ecstasy. Reserve Officer Jonida Alicka and her sister, Denisa, are accused of obtaining ecstasy in Canada and distributing it in Ohio. They are both charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana and ecstasy.

In Mount Holly, New Jersey, a state prison guard was arrested last Thursday on charges he was selling drugs to inmates. Guard Jacquae Hollinshead went down after a long-term investigation by the Department of Corrections into prisoner drug use at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility. She is charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, official misconduct, money laundering, and providing contraband to inmates.

In Covington, Louisiana, a former Tangiapahoa Parish sheriff's deputy pleaded guilty March 11 in a scheme to re-sell seized drugs. Johnny Domingue, 27, was arrested in January for crimes that occurred while he was a member of DEA task force. A second Tangipahoa deputy was arrested on similar charges last month. They were both accused of stealing oxycodone pills and cash during one drug raid, stealing methamphetamine and cash in another, and Domingue was accused of also breaking into the evidence room and stealing 20 pounds of marijuana.

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In Lisbon, Ohio, a Columbiana County jail guard was arrested last Friday as he tried to smuggle drugs into the jail. Corrections Officer Steven Michael Hamilton, 27, was caught carrying joints, pills, and loose tobacco into the jail hidden inside a Burger King bag. He admitted being paid $50 to do so. He is charged with illegal conveyance of a drug of abuse.

In Corinth, Mississippi, an Alcorn County jail guard was arrested last Saturday as he tried to smuggle drugs, alcohol, and other contraband into the jail. Acting on a tip, sheriff's deputies searched Ethan Wayne Little's vehicle when he reported to work and found meth, cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, alcohol, and a cell phone bundled in a package. It's not clear what the precise charges are.

In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a former Dupont police officer was convicted Tuesday of letting a drug dealer go free in exchange for prescription pain killers. Kenneth Shotwell, 46, was convicted of bribery, obstruction of justice, and official oppression. He went down after pulling over the known dealer, accusing him of driving on a suspended license, and then letting him go in exchange for oxycodone tablets.

In Sacramento, California, a former deputy US Marshal was sentenced last Thursday to 10 years in federal prison for ripping off 24 pounds of marijuana from drug dealers in Yuba City. Clorenzo Griffen, 38, and two acquaintances stole the weed at gunpoint in a motel parking lot, but then attracted the attention of a Highway Patrol officer by blowing through a stoplight as they fled. The robbers then abandoned their vehicle, and Griffen ran into a nearby building—which happened to be the Sutter County Sheriff's Office—where he was arrested.

In Philadelphia, a former prison guard was sentenced Monday to 2 ½ years in federal prison for delivering OxyContin pills to prisoners in return for cash. Joseph Romano, 31, pleaded guilty in December to attempted organization and two counts of attempted distribution of controlled substances. He quickly confessed to his offenses, and that confession helped lead to a sting that resulted in the indictment of five other prison guards. Romano said he was addicted to opioates because of an injury and said he would focus on his recovery. 

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In Miami, a Miami-Dade narcotics bureau detective was arrested last Friday for pocketing some of the money seized in a drug raid. Detective Armando Socarras, 30, was part of a group of police officers who raided a motel and seized $17,400 in suspected drug cash. But when he got back to the station, Socarras only reporting seizing $16,100, keeping $1,300 for himself. When confronted by colleagues, he said he took the money "for personal reasons." He is charged with theft. 

In Whiteville, North Carolina, a state prison guard was arrested Sunday for allegedly brining synthetic cannabinoids into the prison at Whiteville and selling them to inmates. Guard William Katrell Jacobs, 29, is charged with possession with the intent to manufacture, sell or deliver a synthetic cannabinoid (F), delivering a synthetic cannabinoid (F), maintaining a place for a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance in prison/jail, and possession of a weapon on state property/courthouse. Authorities found a gun in his vehicle when they searched it after his arrest.

In Cincinnati, a former Mount Vernon police detective pleaded guilty last Friday to stealing drugs and money from the departmental evidence room and having one of his snitches sell the dope. Matthew Dailey, 45, a sergeant who was in charge of the evidence room, admitted stealing the drugs, but claimed he did so because he was strung out on Percocet due to an injury received in the line of duty. He copped to one count of extortion and agreed to repay $8,000 to the department. His sentencing date has not yet been set, but he's looking at up to 20 years in federal prison.

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A pair of Louisiana deputies on a DEA task force are accused of moonlighting as drug dealers, a sticky-fingered Miami narc goes down, and more. Let's get to it:

In Amite City, Louisiana, two Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office narcotics officers were arrested last Wednesday on drug distribution charges. Deputies Karl Newman and Johnny Domingue are accused of being members of a drug distribution conspiracy operating in neighboring St. Tammany Parish. Newman is charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and abuse of office, while Domingue was hit with 18 counts of principal to distribute Schedule I drugs and conspiracy. Both deputies worked closely with a DEA drug task force.

In Miami, a Miami-Dade Police narcotics bureau detective was arrested last Friday on charges he pocketed $1,300 in cash seized during a street-level drug sales bust. Detective Armando Socarras, 30, went down after detectives seized $17,400 in suspected drug money, but he reported seizing only $16,100. He has been charged with grand theft and suspended without pay.

In Farmington Hills, Michigan, a state prison guard was arrested Monday after he was caught selling prescription drugs near a high school. Michigan Department of Corrections officer Lawrence Tylutki went down after police set up surveillance on him after receiving a tip. Tylutki was busted after selling more than 250 pills, including Adderall and Xanax, to an informant for $1500. After cops arrested him, they found another 290 pills in his car. He is now charged with six unspecified felonies. 

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Sleazoid LAPD cops get nailed on sex charges, an Ohio drug task force officer gets nailed and hangs himself, a Kentucky special deputy gets charged (again) in a drug trafficking scheme, and more. Let's get to it:

In Los Angeles, two former LAPD officers were arrested last Wednesday on charges they extorted sexual favors from four women they had arrested on drug charges. James Christopher Nichols and Luis Gustavo Valenzuela face multiple counts of forcible rape, rape under color of authority, oral copulation under color of authority, and oral copulation by force. The pair of officers had been investigated for "luring women into cars and forcing them to perform sex acts" in 2013, but that investigation only gained traction when multiple women came forward. They are now looking at up to life in prison.

In Delaware, Ohio, a former Reynoldsburg police officer was arrested last Thursday on charges he was peddling various drugs. Officer Tye Downard, 43, a veteran SWAT officer and member of the department's drug task force, was accused of making more than 20 drug deliveries to another person since October and was charged with possession with intent to distribute and distribution of a controlled substance. Early Monday morning, he committed suicide at the jail where he was being held.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a former Bullitt County special deputy was arrested last Friday as part of a bust of six people charged with distributing large amounts of cash and more than a ton of marijuana from Bullitt County. Chris Mattingly is accused of being the head of a drug cell that coordinated with a drug cartel operation in Riverside, California. He is charged with marijuana and methamphetamine distribution offenses, and he is also accused of plotting to kill a drug task force member investigating him. He was earlier indicted last October after being arrested with $237,000 in cash in California and has been in jail ever since.

In Tucson, Arizona, a former Customs and Border Patrol officer was sentenced last Wednesday to eight years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to smuggle marijuana and accepting bribes to let loads of pot through. Johnny Acosta was a port of entry inspector at the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry. He had attempted to flee to Mexico last October, but was caught by the FBI at the International Bridge in Nogales.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A massive bust of corrupt prison guards in Georgia, drug prosecutions halted over sleazy police tactics in Waco, a San Antonio cop gets his hand slapped for stealing from citizens, and more. Let's get to it:

In Waco, Texas, drug prosecutions were put on hold last Thursday after a narcotics detective was accused of putting false information in a police report. Waco Police Detective David Starr allegedly made false claims in a report and an affidavit from Starr regarding a February 2015 drug case. The report claimed the bust resulted from "interdiction" operations conducted by the Waco Police, but Starr later admitted the bust arose from a confidential informant and that he was ordered to misleadingly word the reports. Now, the Texas Rangers are investigating and hundreds of drug cases are at risk. "Unfortunately, as a further result of this unacceptable conduct, I will be forced to dismiss certain cases while an investigation into this matter is conducted," the McLennan County prosecutor said.

In Atlanta, 46 current and former prison guards and staff were arrested by the FBI last Thursday as the result of a two-year undercover operation targeting "staggering corruption within Georgia Department of Corrections institutions," as federal prosecutors put it. Among those arrested were five members of an elite squad charged with targeting drug dealing in the prisons. The guards and staff are accused of smuggling liquor, drugs, cell phones and other contraband into the prisons, as well as facilitating drug deals involving multiple kilos of cocaine and meth on both sides of the prison walls.

In Boston, a Bridgewater state prison guard was arrested Tuesday after state police set up an undercover heroin deal. Stephen Lebreux, 40, sold heroin to undercover officers on multiple occasions while off-duty and not at the prison. He is charged with heroin trafficking.

In San Antonio, a San Antonio police officer was sentenced last Thursday to three years' probation for stealing marijuana, a rifle, and thousands in cash from a local couple. Officer Konrad Chatys had responded to a domestic dispute between the couple when he took the items. As he did so, he told them he was "letting them get away with too much already." Chatys must also pay restitution to the couple.

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