More than one and a half years after being arrested in a nighttime operation near the North Sound area of Virgin Gorda, four men are facing trial after being accused of importing and intending to sell 307 kilograms of cocaine worth about $30 million.
Following their Oct. 27, 2019 arrests, Virgin Islanders Cryton Browne and Nickel Simon and Venezuelans Hober Efren Morillo Ybarbia and Wilfredo Jose Lopez Vargas were charged with importation of a controlled drug and possession of a controlled drug with intent to supply to another.
Messrs. Ybarbia and Vargas were also charged with illegal entry.
Though neither the defence nor the prosecution, led by Crown Counsel Kael London, has fully laid out its case, Mr. London called six Virgin Islands and United States law enforcement officers to the stand this week and questioned them about their involvement in arresting the four accused men, tracking a speeding vessel from which passengers allegedly threw packages into the sea, and documenting the cocaine recovered by US law enforcers that same night.
Meanwhile, the attorneys representing the accused have mounted a vigorous defence, cross-examining the witnesses and repeatedly blocking Mr.London from tendering witness statements, photographs and recorded interviews into evidence.
The trial, which was delayed from January, had a laboured beginning on Monday.
Magistrate Tamia Richards, who had previously presided over the case, was out sick, so Magistrate Jack Husbands was called on to lead the trial on short notice.
About 18 minutes after the trial was scheduled to start on Monday morning, the prosecution claimed it received an email from PST Law stating that Patrick Thompson, the lawyer who had previously represented Mr. Simon and has since left the territory, would not be appearing on record.
On the advice of his former attorney, Mr. Simon secured the services of Jason Hamilton, a lawyer from St. Kitts and Nevis, but Mr. Hamilton was not able to travel to the territory because of quarantine guidelines established by the Magistrates’ Court.
Although Mr. Hamilton initially said that he would not be in a position to proceed until the next day, after Mr. London shuffled around some witnesses the trial began on Monday, with Mr. Hamilton representing Mr. Simon via Zoom.
Mr. Browne was represented by attorney Chesley Hamilton, also of St. Kitts and Nevis, while Messrs. Ybarbia and Vargas were both represented by VI attorney Leroy Jones.
While laying out their allegations against the accused in 2019, prosecutors had previously summarised the events leading up to the capture of the four men on trial, but a police officer who gave testimony on Tuesday provided the most detailed account yet.
After receiving a call around 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 27, Kennedy Emmanuel, a constable in the Police Marine Unit, left the Road Reef base to investigate, travelling aboard the Defender police vessel towards Virgin Gorda with other officers, he said.
When the Defender was about a quarter mile off Necker Island, Mr. Emmanuel and the other officers spotted a speedboat and “facilitated an interception,” he testified.
Because the speedboat was illuminated by a helicopter following overhead and by the lights aboard the Defender, Mr. Emmanuel was able to see “the vessel and its occupants,” he said.
The boat, the New Life, had a blue hull and white interior, and was fitted with three 300-horsepower engines, Mr. Emmanuel testified.
He also testified that the all-male crew was composed of a captain wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt and light pants, a man to his right wearing a white t-shirt, and two other men who wore a black t-shirt and a white polo shirt, respectively.
Positioned near the bow of the boat, Mr. Emmanuel gave clear directions for the captain to stop the vessel, but the captain instead “conducted evasive manoeuvres … swerving his vessel in an attempt to evade the interceptor,” Mr. Emmanuel testified.
At a high speed, the Defender trailed the New Life to the shoreline near Gun Creek in North Sound, where Mr. Emmanuel observed the four occupants disembark and flee on foot, he said.
The captain of the Defender safely beached the boat, and Mr. Emmanuel and another officer gave chase.
While running up a hill, Mr. Emmanuel “observed” and “secured” two of the occupants, who he later identified as Messrs. Ybarbia and Vargas, he claimed.
Mr. Emmanuel added that Mr. Vargas was carrying a black duffel bag.
The other officer continued his search, eventually returning with the passenger wearing the white t-shirt, who Mr. Emmanuel later identified as Mr. Browne, he said.
Realising they were missing another occupant of the vessel, Mr. Emmanuel and the other officer continued their search to a gas station in Gun Creek.
With the helicopter still providing ample lighting, they walked downhill to the gas station, where they came across an individual who “had a phone to his ear and a beverage to his mouth,” Mr. Emmanuel said.
He recognised this man as the captain of the boat wearing the blue long-sleeve shirt he had previously seen, and later identified him as Mr. Simon, Mr. Emmanuel said.
Mr. Simon was escorted to a secured area at the top of the hill, and Mr. Emmanuel searched Mr. Vargas’ duffel bag.
Mr. Emmanuel did not find anything illegal, though he recovered Mr. Vargas’ passport and wristwatch, which he handed over to Police Constable Ron Augustine.
A search by Mr. Emmanuel of the New Life also did not turn up anything illegal, the constable testified.
The four men were then transported to the Road Town Police Station, where Mr. Augustine conducted separate audio/visual interviews with each of them, Mr. Emmanuel said.
He added that he, Mr. Augustine, and each defendant signed their names on CDs of the interviews, while a Spanish-language interpreter signed the CDs of the interviews of the twoVenezuelans.
Mr. London followed the police constable’s testimony with a line of questioning about whether he was able to identify the envelopes containing the CDs of the interviews.
In response to further questions from Mr. London, the police officer said that although Mr. Browne was informed of why he was being interviewed and cautioned that he had the right to remain silent, he did not request the presence of his lawyer and he responded to the allegations.
“Objection!” yelled Chesley Hamilton.
Mr. Hamilton said he had yet to see any written document or transcript of the interview with his client.
“If he is about to say what a witness said then it should be recorded, it should be written, there should be a document produced, signed, initialed, or otherwise marked,” Mr. Hamilton said.
In accordance with VI legislation, any waiver of his client’s right to an attorney “must be in writing, and the exact nature of that waiver must be in writing,” the defence attorney added.
This objection was upheld, and after a phone call between Messrs. London and Jason Hamilton during a brief adjournment, Mr. Husbands concluded proceedings for the day.
This was not the first time in the trial that a defendant’s attorney had blocked material from being tendered into evidence.
On Monday, Mr. London questioned Alexia Troise, a US Coast Guard agent previously serving on the Charlie Davis Jr., a cutter stationed off Puerto Rico that attempted to intercept a speedboat the night the four men were arrested.
After Mr. London asked Ms. Troise about her role in photographing a narcotics test her senior officers conducted on substances they recovered from the water, he asked whether she would be able to recognise the disks containing her photographs.
Though she responded in the affirmative, citing the standard process of labelling the name of the responding ship and the date, Jason Hamilton objected.
“The witness hasn’t said if she wrote on the disk,” he said, adding, “She hasn’t even said who wrote on the disk.”
The two other defence attorneys adopted the same motion, and Mr. London never displayed any of the photos taken by Ms. Troise.
Customs and border patrol
The attorneys also cross-examined the witnesses called by the prosecutor, including Bobby Taylor, an aviation enforcement agent with the US Customs and Border Patrol.
In response to questions from Mr. London, Mr. Taylor testified that he crewed a helicopter flying above a go-fast vessel that was being chased down by a VI police vessel near Virgin Gorda on Oct. 27.
Mr. Taylor also claimed that he observed four passengers on-board, and that the passengers started throwing packages on the front of the boat into the sea.
Mr. Taylor also claimed that the target vessel attempted “evasive manoeuvres” to try and escape the pursuing police boat.
He also said that he later observed the boat beached on an island with its engines still on, and that “the persons who jumped off the boat were observed running.”
But when it was Chesley Hamilton’s turn to cross-examine the aviation officer, he asked whether cloud cover would affect the quality of the images from the infrared cameras they were using to track the passengers aboard the target boat and the people running on the island.
Mr. Taylor said that it would.
During Mr. Hamilton’s cross-examination, Mr. Taylor also said that because of cloud cover on the night of Oct. 27, he had not actually seen the boat run aground, though he did see more than four people running on land when he resumed surveillance.
Asked by Mr. Hamilton how, using an infrared camera, he could identify some of the people running on the island as law enforcement agents, Mr. Taylor said that he could identify law enforcement officers by the gear they wore.
Mr. Hamilton then asked if Mr. Taylor would be able to tell if a law enforcement officer was wearing civilian gear.
“No,” said Mr. Taylor.
After being adjourned on Tuesday, the trial was scheduled to resume today at 10 a.m.
The Crown previously said that the accused were charged with importing 309 kilograms of cocaine, but during the trial Mr. London amended the weight to 307 kilograms.