NEW YORK (AP) — A federal jury in New York began hearing testimony in the murder trial of a former New York police officer accused of masterminding the killing of four people — one strangled to death with a zip tie and three others shot execution-style — over money in a drug operation.

All four men were found buried on the property of the former suburban New York police officer, Nicholas Tartaglione, whose trial, which began Thursday, is expected to last a month in U.S. District Court in White Plains.

But defense attorneys asserted that Tartaglione had nothing to do with the killings and was being used by the government as a convenient fall guy.

Tartaglione gained further notoriety as a former cellmate of Jeffrey Epstein, before the disgraced financier committed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell in August 2019 while awaiting sex-trafficking charges.

Prosecutors contend that Tartaglione lured one of the victims, Martin Luna, to a bar because he believed Luna had stolen money intended for the purchase of cocaine.

The government says the three other victims — a friend and two of Luna's nephews who had nothing to do with the drug operation — accompanied Luna to the bar. Luna was strangled with a zip tie then taken to the defendant's ranch in Otisville, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Manhattan.

The three other men were alive and bound when Tartaglione's associates drove them to the same property, where they were shot in the back of the head. Prosecutors accuse Tartaglione of shooting one of the victims.

Investigators dug up the bodies in December 2016, about eight months after they were killed and buried.

Three of Tartaglione's associates are expected to testify on behalf of the government, who defense attorneys contend are doing so to gain favor with U.S. prosecutors in their own cases. A fourth associate — also a former police officer — killed himself.

Tartaglione retired from the Briarcliff Manor Police Department in 2008 after suffering an injury five years earlier.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.