3 men plead guilty in pair of St. Croix robberies

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ST. CROIX - Three men arrested more than a year ago and charged with federal gun possession and robbery charges pleaded guilty to some of the charges against them in District Court.

Rusiel Encarnacion, 30, of Estate Whim; Francisco Hassell, 28, of Estate Whim; and Edwin Hendrickson, 28, of Hannah's Rest, appeared before Magistrate Judge George Cannon on Friday morning and accepted a plea offer from prosecutors in connection with their arrests last year. Police said the men carried out two separate robberies in the space of two hours the night of Jan. 12, 2013, and into the early morning hours of the next day.

The men had pleaded not guilty to the charges and were scheduled to go forward with a jury trial Tuesday before District Judge Wilma Lewis, but at the last minute, opted to accept the plea offer from the government.

The men initially were arrested by local police and already had been arraigned on the charges in V.I. Superior Court, but their case later was transferred to the federal court because one of the robberies took place near a school zone. The federal system has enhanced charges and more severe sentencing guidelines.

Each man faced charges of first-degree robbery; carrying or using a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence; possession of a firearm by prohibited persons; unauthorized possession of a firearm; possession of a firearm in a school zone; third-degree assault; possession of stolen property; and unauthorized possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

According to the plea agreement, each man agreed to plead guilty to two counts of the lesser included charge of third-degree robbery and to one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence.

Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the remaining charges against them in exchange for the guilty plea.

In the affidavit supporting the arrest warrant for the three, FBI special agent Thomas Calhoon said the men were charged in connection with an armed robbery reported near a Peter's Rest bar and a second robbery in Christiansted town. The charge of possession of a firearm in a school zone was added because of the close proximity of the bar to the Church of God Holiness Academy, just a few hundred feet east of the bar.

In the first incident, three men reported to police that three assailants, now identified as Hassell, Encarnacion and Hendrickson, robbed them at gunpoint and fled in a silver Toyota Corolla.

In the second incident, which police said took place just more than an hour after the first robbery, two men said they were walking on Education Street in Christiansted when they were robbed at gunpoint.

The victims told police that a silver Toyota Corolla passed them before turning into a yard on Education Street. The men said they kept walking and two men ran at them from the car with guns drawn and demanded their valuables.

Police issued an all-points bulletin for the silver Toyota, which officers stopped shortly after the second robbery, and found the occupants, who matched the description of the robbers. Police searched the car, which belonged to Hassell's girlfriend, and found three fully loaded handguns and extra bullets and items that had been reported stolen from the men outside the bar in Peter's Rest.

Even after pleading guilty to the significantly reduced charges, the men still face a mandatory minimum of seven years to life in prison on the gun charges and up to 10 years on each of the two robbery charges.

Sentencing has been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. June 16 in Lewis' courtroom.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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