Judge expected to rule today on photos of burnt car

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ST. CROIX - When the V.I. Superior Court trial of five people charged in the 2001 murder of veteran V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams continues today - during its second week of testimony - Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. is expected to rule on a defense motion seeking to suppress pictures of Williams' torched Suzuki Vitara that was found days after he was reported missing.

Maximiliano Velasquez III; Juan Velasquez; Jose Ventura; Jose Rivera Jr.; and Sharima Clercent are facing charges of aiding and abetting each other in committing first-degree murder and could spend the rest of their natural lives in prison if convicted.

The prosecution contends the defendants worked in concert to kidnap Williams some time after he got off work on June 14, 2001, and took him to an abandoned building at the former South Grapetree Bay Resort on the island's East End, where he was tortured and fatally shot before his body was dismembered and thrown out to sea and was never found.

In February of 2012 police arrested all of the defendants on St. Croix, with the exception of Rivera, who was extradited from Georgia to face the charges. With the exception of Clercent, the defendants remain jailed, unable to satisfy bail conditions.

Friday afternoon, after a full week of testimony, the jurors were dismissed for the day and Donohue entertained a motion filed by Ventura's attorney Daniel Cevallos and joined by the other defendants that asked for the exclusion of three pictures taken June 25, 2001, when the shell of Williams' vehicle was found on an overgrown dirt road just north of Estate Castle Burke.

In making his oral arguments on the motion, Cevallos said nothing was established that connects the defendants to the vehicle.

"There could probably be a connection with one defendant but that would cause devastation to the other defendants," he said.

Donohue had tentatively precluded the use of the pictures before the trial started and Cevallos said, since then, nothing has changed.

"There has been no new witnesses who testified to the defendants' connection to the car or the damage of the car," he said. "There has been no foundation and there is only a very remote connection to possibly one defendant."

Attorney Gordon Rhea, who represents Rivera, said that the discovery of car means nothing. He said nobody knows what happened and that Williams could have even burned the car before going into hiding.

Juan Velasquez' attorney Vincent Colianni said he supports the suppression of the pictures because there is no evidence, no testimony or anything else about its connection to the defendants. He said the pictures are so grotesque and violent that they would unduly prejudice the defendants.

Defending his position to present the pictures, Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson cited testimony from the witness stand. He said several witnesses testified about the kidnapping that occurred while Williams was in the vehicle.

"We have to prove the kidnapping and murder and this shows the destruction of some of that evidence by torching the car," Roberson said.

He said the taking of the car for the kidnapping is the link to the felony murder committed and that is the government's position in seeking to admit the pictures as evidence.

Donohue took arguments from both sides under advisement and said he would reserve making a ruling until today.

If the motion is denied, the prosecution would have retired forensic technician Sgt. Jonathan Hitesman to testify about the evidence recovered from the burned-out Vitara. If the defense motion is granted, the prosecution could present Hector Davis as its final witness and could rest its case in chief before lunchtime today.

Jury selection in the case began Jan. 21 and lasted a week. When testimony began last week the jury heard from Wendell Williams' sister and a friend who confirmed the dates that he last was seen and when he was reported missing.

They also have heard from Theresa Coogle, the prosecution's key witness, who testified that she saw the torture and murder specifically by Rivera, Ventura and other unknown individuals and that she and Clercent were ordered to clean up the blood after the disposal of Williams' body.

Coogle spent two full days on the witness stand and has admitted to extensive drug use that began after 2001 and her statements to police during the years since Williams' disappearance are rife with inconsistencies.

FBI agent Donald Kidd has testified about taking Coogle's initial statement and making a site-visit with her in 2002 before the case became inactive.

On Friday, the prosecution called two convicted felons, Jimmy Davis and his brother Hector Davis, to the stand. After some courtroom drama that caused the jury to be removed on three occasions, Jimmy Davis testified that federal agents tried to force him to lie about Rivera admitting to the kidnapping and murder.

If Hector Davis gets to the stand today, he is expected to give testimony about seeing Williams tied up in the back of a black truck that Rivera was driving.

While Jimmy Davis has testified that he never gave statements against Rivera, FBI Special Agents Clifford Goodman and Kimberly Quesinberry have testified to the contrary. Goodman also said that based on discussions with Elton Lewis, who was the V.I. Police commissioner at the time, there was a widely held public perception of police corruption.

Goodman said he learned during discussions with local investigators that two days before his disappearance, Williams had made allegations that two officers recovered a handgun during a traffic stop and did not turn it in as evidence.

Earlier in the day, jurors had heard additional testimony from the case agent, V.I. Police Detective Frankie Ortiz, who had begun his testimony Thursday afternoon and forensic technician George Felix, who testified that once the investigation reconvened in 2011, he was sent to Grapetree Bay to process the scene and found no trace of DNA evidence.

When the prosecution wraps up its case, the defense attorneys are all expected to make routine motions to dismiss the charges against each defendant because of insufficient evidence.

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

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