Authorities arrest five in connection with V.I. Police Cpl. Williams' murder


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ST. CROIX - Authorities arrested four men and one woman in the pre-dawn hours Friday during a series of operations executed in connection with the 2001 kidnapping, torture and murder of former V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams, officials said.

A Cold Case Unit investigation that picked up traction in the last year - even in the absence of finding Williams' body - allowed detectives to trace the series of events that began with his kidnapping on June 14, 2001, and culminated in his torture and murder at an abandoned building on St. Croix's east end, according to officials and police records.

St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell said the investigation moved along only through "commitment and an unwavering pursuit of the truth."

The suspects had "counted on the notion that we'd given up," he said. "But there is no place on the planet that we won't pursue you and there is no length of time that we won't forget."

The V.I. Police Department teamed up with the FBI and Georgia law enforcement for the operation, which involved a heavy show of force on St. Croix and in an area northeast of Atlanta, officials said. The operation on St. Croix resulted in the arrests of four people scattered across the western half of the island, while the operation in Georgia targeted the fifth suspect in the murder.

"This day will go down in my memory as one of the most significant moments during my career," Howell said at a Friday morning press conference to announce the arrests. "I am confident that today will mark a new point for the VIPD and the community we serve."

On St. Croix, 62 hand-picked V.I. Police officers, along with FBI agents and the assistance of a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Blackhawk helicopter, searched four homes and five vehicles beginning about 3 a.m. and finishing within the hour. The raids resulted in the arrests of 38-year-old Maximiliano Velasquez, 29-year-old Juan Velasquez, 41-year-old Jose Ventura and 32-year-old Sharima Clercent.

In Sugar Hill, Ga., about 70 law enforcement officers with the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and FBI collectively moved in on 39-year-old Jose Rivera Jr. shortly before the first arrests on St. Croix were made, Howell said.

All five suspects were charged with first-degree murder.

An 18-year veteran of the Police Department and described by many as a well-liked and quiet man, Williams, 48, disappeared on June 14, 2001, after completing an all-night shift. His family reported him missing on June 21, and officers went out in full force in search of Williams.

On June 25, police found his vehicle, a black and silver 2001 Suzuki Vitara, burned beyond recognition in a remote area in Estate Castle Burke, causing police to upgrade the case from a missing person search to a criminal investigation.

The search continued for months, as police officers, private citizens and a search and rescue dog combed land and sea for sign of the missing officer.

Police offered a $35,000 reward for any information leading to those culpable and, through a legislative appropriation, that reward increased to $135,000 by mid-2002.

The event caused widespread speculation in the community.

Howell described Williams' disappearance as "perhaps the greatest mystery in Virgin Islands history."

On Friday, Howell said the Police Department finally can put the rumors to rest.

Howell dispelled a number of rumors that the incident somehow tied back to the V.I. Police Department, though he would not comment on any of the details surrounding the case or the investigation.

"We're not going to get into the motive today, but I will dispel any rumors that the VIPD was involved. It was not," he said. "None of the suspects are former VIPD officers."

He would not say what had caused the case to turn, nor would he comment on whether Williams was specifically targeted for being a police officer. In the aftermath of the disappearance, officers on St. Thomas received threats, and a number of off-duty officers were shot on St. Thomas in Estate Contant.

"That's going to have to come out during trial," Howell said. "All I can say is the Cold Case guys worked very, very hard over the last year."

It was in the last year that the case started coming together, he said. Williams' body has not been discovered - "and from what I know of this case, it never will be," Howell said.

However, police records showed that investigators were able to trace the murder to an abandoned property in Grapetree Bay - a lightly developed and very expensive area on the island's south shore not far from Point Udall.

After developing a case strong enough for prosecutors, police sent off for warrants and, more than a month ago, set the take-down date for Feb. 10, Howell said.

V.I. Superior Court Judge Julio Brady signed most of the warrants by Feb. 6.

The 70-officer team in Georgia struck first - just after 2:30 a.m. - as the officers on St. Croix left their briefing and took to the road. Howell said the reason there were so many Georgia officers in on the operation was because they found out the victim was a police officer and started volunteering.

On St. Croix, police officers dressed in all black gear and bullet proof vests with "Police" across the chest flooded the Clifton Hill area first, going after Maximiliano Velasquez, a local fisherman, at his home. After arresting Velasquez about 3:12 a.m., the force moved down the street in search of Juan Velasquez, also a fisherman.

"We hit him second, but he wasn't home," which was the only real snag in the operation, Howell said.

The team quickly turned its attention to Estate Whim and found Ventura at home just after 3:30 a.m.

Just 15 minutes later, Clercent was in custody after a search of her Estate Two Brothers home.

None of the suspects resisted, Howell said.

Juan Velasquez turned himself in shortly after 10 a.m.

Howell said that all of those arrested have criminal records and had been "on the police radar" for a long time, though he did not have information on their specific histories.

Recently confirmed V.I. Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. spoke at the press conference Friday, as well, and commended the Cold Case Unit for their work.

"This matter was one of the first things I was introduced to when I arrived here," he said. "The Cold Case Squad that made it their mission to get to the bottom of this should be very, very proud."

Through an associate, Williams' sister, Jaslene Williams, declined to comment to The Daily News.

In a statement released Friday, V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen commented on the news and how the disappearance has affected the family.

"Having been close with his sister, Jaslene Williams, I know this loss has been difficult," Christensen said. "It won't bring him back, but just the knowledge that those believed to be responsible will be brought to justice will bring some closure."

All four of the suspects arrested on St. Croix were held on $1.5 million bail and await an advice-of-rights hearing set before Brady on Monday morning.

Rivera, also held on $1.5 million bail, remained in custody in Georgia, pending his extradition to the Virgin Islands, police said.

- Contact Daniel Shea at 714-9127 or email dshea@dailynews.vi.

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