Judge denies bail to St. Croix man charged with packing gun on flight to St. Thomas

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ST. THOMAS - Federal agents are accusing a St. Croix man of flying to St. Thomas with a loaded gun in his carry-on luggage.

Jamal Rivera, a 27-year-old horse trainer, was arrested Tuesday morning at King Airport after his flight landed on St. Thomas. He is charged with bringing a loaded firearm onto an aircraft.

V.I. Port Authority officers and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized the firearm, a .45-caliber handgun, which Rivera said was not his.

District Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller determined Wednesday that Rivera was a danger because he has an extensive criminal record.

Rivera, who only ever has been convicted of burglary - 10 years ago - has faced a slew of other charges including first-degree murder, first-degree assault and reckless endangerment in the last decade.

Rivera was acquitted of the murder charge, though it is unclear what the circumstances of the acquittal were. The remaining charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning the plaintiff, or plaintiffs, could press the same charges in the future.

"He placed a loaded firearm in his luggage at the height of Carnival," Miller said. "This is a disturbing set of circumstances."

Rivera boarded Seaborne Airlines flight 2351 on Tuesday morning, according to Steven Waters, special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The firearm was found in Rivera's carry-on bag, Waters said. Airlines staff stowed the bag in the cargo hold, as they do with all carry-on baggage, according to Gary Foss, president and CEO of Seaborne Airlines.

Because the bag containing the firearm was not located in the cabin of the plane, Rivera faces a less severe charge of bringing a loaded firearm onto an aircraft, Waters said.

When Rivera's flight landed, V.I. Port Authority and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers X-rayed the passengers' carry-on and checked baggage and discovered that one of the bags contained what appeared immediately to be a loaded firearm, according to Waters.

Rivera said that the bag was his, as were all of the items inside the bag, except for the firearm, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Jones, who is prosecuting the case.

Federal Public Defender Gabriel Villegas, who is representing Rivera, said that the prosecution need not make it sound as though the bag was in Rivera's possession during the flight.

"They call it a carry-on so it looks like he's sitting there readily armed," Villegas said.

Seaborne Airlines officials said Wednesday that they were entirely unaware of Rivera's arrest or that a loaded firearm ever was brought on one of their flights.

The responsibility of checking carry-on and checked baggage is that of the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Foss said.

"We take the baggage. We load the baggage. When our customers get off, we hand them back their baggage," Foss said.

To Foss' knowledge, Seaborne Airlines's inter-island flights are the only flights that had no screening prior to the flight, he said.

It is out of the ordinary for the baggage to be X-rayed upon landing, Foss said, leading him to believe that security officials received a tip prior to the flight's landing.

"It's concerning that anyone would carry any contraband, but tell me how anyone could be endangered if they had no access," Foss said.

Foss emphasized that it is up to law enforcement to ensure that baggage contain no contraband items prior to all airlines' flight.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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