Judge hands down life sentences to two men convicted of murdering St. Croix police officer

Font size: [A] [A] [A]

ST. CROIX - Family and friends of two men sentenced to spend the rest of their natural lives in prison for the murder of V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams took to the streets in protest shortly after the men's sentencing hearing in V.I. Superior Court was over Friday.

The relatives said they are demanding justice and hope to expose police and government corruption in the community.

Inside the courthouse, Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue sentenced Jose Rivera and Jose Ventura to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 2001 murder of the veteran police officer.

Before and during the sentencing hearing, the portion of Queen Mary Highway that runs parallel to the courthouse was shut down to traffic just after the prisoners arrived at the courthouse in a prison van, escorted by two other vehicles with heavily armed Corrections officers.

The road remained blocked off, with traffic diverted around the area until the sentencing was over and the prisoners were whisked away in speeding vehicles.

The trial against Rivera and Ventura took place in February with three additional defendants - Ventura's brothers Maximiliano and Juan Velasquez and Sharima Clercent, who was in a relationship with Rivera in 2001.

At the end of the prosecution's case, charges against Juan Velasquez and Clercent were dismissed by the judge following procedural motions by each attorney asking for dismissal on the grounds that there was not sufficient evidence to cause a reasonable jury to convict them.

Once the case was turned over to the jury, they deliberated for two days before returning with a not-guilty verdict for Maximiliano Velasquez and found the two remaining defendants guilty of the single murder charge.

The prosecution contended 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.

Theresa Coogle, the key witness for Assistant Attorney General Kip Roberson, testified that she witnessed the murder and gave details to implicate the men.

During the sentencing hearing Friday, more than 20 supporters filed into the courtroom and sat shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for Donohue to impose the sentence. Deputy marshals stood strategically throughout the courtroom; four lined the back wall, and one was positioned at each corner of the gallery and on either side of the judge's bench.

Before hearing from the parties, Donohue advised them that he had issued an order essentially denying their motions for judgement of acquittal and would issue a memorandum of opinion at a later date.

Rivera's sentence was first.

Bound by chains around his ankles and wrists, he sat behind his attorney wearing a khaki guayabera outfit, with his long locks wrapped up and around the crown of his head. His court-appointed attorney, Gordon Rhea, told the court that there was not much that he could say because of the mandatory life sentence that must be imposed.

Rhea said Rivera moved to Atlanta in 2005 where he was raising a family and living a peaceful life until he was brought to face the murder and related charges in Williams' killing. He asked the court to take note of Rivera's continued family support and said Rivera continues to maintain his innocence in what Rhea described as a miscarriage of justice.

Rivera declined to make an in-court statement, but Rhea said he would rest on his comments in his pre-sentencing report.

Deputy Attorney General Bruce Marshack said the Legislature had spoken in making the mandatory sentence law, and the jury had spoken with the conviction so there was no reason for him to speak on the matter.

Donohue read a letter from Williams' sister, Jasleene Williams, in which she said the years since her brothers' disappearance have been long and hard.

"We've suffered for many years because of the unknown. We are hoping not only for justice from man, but also justice of the Almighty," she said. "We miss him and wondered who would want to hurt him and how he spent his last minutes."

Before imposing sentence, Donohue noted Rivera had a number of arrests, but only two convictions - one on a misdemeanor charge and the other on a voluntary manslaughter charge from 1990. The judge said the Legislature had set a mandatory sentence for first-degree murder so Rivera would be remanded to serve that sentence.

Ventura's sentencing immediately followed, and by then, some family members had tears rolling down their faces and were overcome with emotion from seeing a loved one sentenced and knowing they most likely would remain in prison until they die.

Attorney Yohanna Manning substituted for Ventura's attorney, Daniel Cevallos, for the hearing. He said Ventura has been a fisherman for 25 years and the crimes he has been accused of and the one convicted of by the jury is totally contrary to the man standing before the court. Manning argued that life without the possibility of parole would be considered cruel and unusual punishment, and he asked the judge to use his discretion.

Dressed in dark blue jeans and a blue patterned shirt, with his legs and arms chained, Ventura addressed the court, saying that he and Rivera are innocent.

"We were wrongly accused, wrongly judged and wrongly convicted," he said. "We are human and make mistakes, and in this case the court made a mistake."

Ventura said he intends to fight for justice so that the real killers could be found out and brought forward.

Marshack had no additional statements to make other than to say that the jury had spoken and that the sentence was law and was not unconstitutional.

Donohue agreed that the sentence was not a violation of the defendants' Eighth Amendment rights, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. He then sentenced Ventura to the care, custody and control of the Bureau of Corrections for the remainder of his natural life.

Donohue also advised both men of their right to appeal their sentence within 30 days.

Family members left the courtroom and expressed their objection to the conviction and sentence. They described the trial and conviction as a cover-up to protect corrupt police officers and said justice was not served and two innocent men are now paying for the crimes of others.

Despite a heavy downpour, they stood in the road outside the court, inciting motorists to honk their horns in support as they cried out for justice.

"We want justice for them two men," Mariella Velasquez said. "They know is the police who kill that man, and they allowing innocent people to go to jail."

The friends and family members spent the day outside the courthouse and said they intend to return next week.

V.I. Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. issued a statement Friday afternoon saying the sentencing marked the end of a long and arduous journey.

"Now the officers who were close to him, as well as his family, can find solace in knowing justice has finally been done. Officer Williams' spirit can now rest in peace," Querrard said.

In the statement, St. Croix Police Chief James Parris credited the cold case squad for reopening the case and tracking down new evidence. He said their professionalism was put to the test as they were faced with the full knowledge of the torture Williams endured, but they can now lay the case to rest knowing they've done the best they could to find that long-awaited justice that Williams deserved.

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

We welcome user discussion on our site, under the following guidelines:

To comment you must first create a profile and sign-in with a verified DISQUS account or social network ID. Sign up here.

Comments in violation of the rules will be denied, and repeat violators will be banned. Please help police the community by flagging offensive comments for our moderators to review. By posting a comment, you agree to our full terms and conditions. Click here to read terms and conditions.

Best of the VI

Best of the VI: After more than 100,000 text and Facebook votes were cast, it is time to unveil the winners.

Daily News E-Edition

Try our e-newspaper delivered to you every day

Island Trader

Good stuff, best buys, great fun

Crucian Trader

Celebrating St. Croix History, Culture and People

Island Action

Your complete guide to where to go and what to do this week in the Virgin Islands.