Friends, family members and fellow defendants protest sentences for men convicted in murder of VIPD officer


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ST. CROIX - When Jose Rivera and Jose Ventura were sentenced Friday to spend the rest of their lives in prison, family and friends vowed to fight for their release, saying that the case was a smokescreen to allow a small group of corrupt police officers get away with killing veteran officer Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams more than 13 years ago.

Following the sentencing hearing, about 15 supporters of the two men braved heavy downpours and began protesting.

They set up camp under a bus stop adjacent to the court, and they shouted and incited support from motorists along the busy Queen Mary Highway that runs east-to-west down the center of the island.

Vanessa Velasquez, who is a sister to Ventura - as well as to defendant Maximiliano Velasquez, who was acquitted, and defendant Juan Velasquez, whose charges were dismissed - said justice has to be served as she walked back and forth along the roadway.

"They feel good about what they do, but they sent innocent men to jail and that is not justice," she said. "The VIPD knows the corruption that is being covered up and the truth must come out."

As detectives associated with the case drove out of the court's parking lot, the supporters became more incensed, stepping out onto the street, toward the cars, shouting and cursing at them.

The protesters also shouted out for justice as random police vehicles passed on the road.

Other family members chanted "we want justice," "police are killers" and "freedom is a must" as they incited motorists to honk in support.

In addition to Ventura's brothers, Maximiliano and Juan Velasquez, Sharima Clercent also was a defendant, and charges against her were dropped halfway through the trial.

Maximiliano and Juan Velasquez both joined their family members outside the courthouse to show support.

Maximiliano Velasquez said he is grateful that he was found not guilty by the jury, but it hurts him every day and breaks his spirt to see that two other innocent men are suffering for a crime they did not commit.

"It is so frustrating, because I know that none of us had nothing to do with this crime," he said. "We had nothing to do with it, and there was no evidence that proved differently."

He said during the trial he heard the testimony and the prosecution's key witness - Theresa Coogle, who testified that she witnessed the murder - wrapped herself up in a tight web of lies and should not have been believed by any jury.

"It was obvious that she was making it all up," Maximiliano Velasquez said. "She said one thing, then changed it and just made a mess. Nothing was there to find anybody guilty in the case."

Juan Velasquez stood in the bed of a truck with a bright green poster board in hand that read, "Police killed officer Williams. Freedom is a must."

He said he was angry because he never knew the corruption was real until he lived it as a victim.

"I see it. I feel it. I lived it," he said. "They covering up for the corruption, but God don't sleep, and justice going to come out and the truth is going to come out."

Other signs read "Frankie Ortiz needs to be in jail" - referring to the case agent, V.I. Police Detective Frankie Ortiz - "Too Much Corruption in the VI" and "We want justice."

Maximiliano Velasquez said he had spent two years in jail between the time he was arrested and when he was found not guilty, and he lost a lot during the time.

"I lost things they can never give me back and that hurts," he said. "My two youngest children don't even remember me and that is hard."

He said the prosecution ruined his life and that of his family and friends because of the word of one witness and it is not fair.

"They have taken away so much from me," he said, adding that even with the judgment of acquittal from the jury entered in his case, a cloud of guilt still hangs over his head in the eyes of many in the community.

"I have to sleep with one ear open and walk with eyes behind me, because I don't know who is after me. I have been targeted and marked for something I was not associated with," he said. "I only deal with fishing. We all just deal with fishing, and to be dragged through this is something I would not want for anyone."

Maximiliano Velasquez said he has seen a lot of suffering in jail and has met prisoners who are detained for years before having their case dismissed and that is unfair, because the time you lose can never be given back.

"I just hope that the day of justice come soon for them. We work hard. We have been living our lives, and I don't know how this could be dropped on us like this," he said. "The people who really do this have Williams' blood and other police officers' blood on their hands, and it has to come out. It has to come out soon."

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

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