Judge questions leniency for ex-officers

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ST. THOMAS - During a sentencing hearing Thursday in federal court, District Judge Curtis Gomez berated the U.S. Attorney's Office for requesting comparatively harsher sentences for three defendants whose case was similar to that of the drug conspiracy case of Roberto Tapia and Angelo Hill.

"You requested the lowest end of the guideline for Tapia's sentence," Gomez said to Assistant U.S. Attorney Ishmael Meyers Jr. "Now you are asking for the highest."

Regarding the sentencing hearing Thursday, Ignacio Batis-Joseph, Omar James-Byar and Eldry Santos-Guzman signed plea agreements in December pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.

Gomez sentenced Batis-Joseph, 37, to 70 months in prison, with five years of supervisory release; James-Byar, 37, to 46 months in prison, with five years of supervisory release; and Santos-Guzman, 33, to 33 months in prison, with four years of supervisory release.

All three made statements before Gomez, apologizing to the Virgin Islands community and to their families and friends. Gomez sentenced each of the defendants to time below what the guidelines suggested, given their individual profiles.

On April 17, the same day Gomez sentenced Tapia to 70 months in prison and Hill to 21 months in prison, the judge also sentenced Isa Noel to 151 months in prison after he was found guilty of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine while he was a baggage handler at King Airport on St. Thomas.

Noel was convicted after four co-conspirators, who are scheduled to be sentenced next week, accepted plea bargains from the U.S. Attorney's Office and testified against him.

On Thursday, Gomez could not proceed without reminding the prosecution of the sentencing requests made for Tapia and Hill, former law enforcement officials who were sentenced in April for similar charges.

"Are you saying Mr. Tapia - who was the head of law enforcement for a government agency - you're saying he is in a better position than Mr. Batis-Joseph?" Gomez asked, reiterating that he failed to see the logic of the prosecution.

Meyers did not prosecute the Tapia and Hill case.

Tapia, former director of enforcement for the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, was arrested in May last year with more than 7 kilograms of cocaine on him.

Tapia and Hill both admitted that they had been involved in drug smuggling for years, many of which were during their service with the V.I. Police Department. Tapia, who moved on to DPNR later, continued to organize cocaine sales, spanning from the British Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico, when he took his position at DPNR.

Tapia admitted also to orchestrating the smuggling while working in his capacity as a law enforcement official, while wearing his uniform and firearm from work, and at times while using a DPNR boat.

Batis-Joseph, who has struggled with substance abuse for years, according to his defense attorney, Federal Public Defender Gabriel Villegas, was trying to sell 10 kilograms to an undercover agent at the time of his arrest. Batis-Joseph never has held a law enforcement position.

Batis-Joseph, along with Santos-Guzman and James-Byar, was arrested Sept. 11 after an undercover sting, in which a Drug Enforcement Agency agent in Puerto Rico contacted the St. Thomas DEA office after receiving information from a cooperating defendant about a drug smuggling operation on St. Thomas.

An undercover agent met with Batis-Joseph in mid-July last year, and Batis-Joseph said he had "connections with several significant South American and Caribbean drug trafficking organizations that traffic cocaine," according to court documents.

Through numerous other phone conversations with Batis-Joseph, the undercover agent set up the purchase and transport of multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine, according to court documents.

In August, Batis-Joseph contacted the undercover agent and said that his boss, a Dominican man, had received a shipment of 100 kilograms of cocaine, court documents state.

The agent agreed to travel to St. Thomas to buy the cocaine, first in a block of 10 kilograms, with the other 90 to follow in a separate transaction, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The agent then met with Batis-Joseph, James-Byar and Santos-Guzman at Crown Bay Marina, and the three men produced 11.16 kilograms of cocaine, the affidavit states.

The men were taken into custody immediately.

Santos-Guzman and James-Byar were responsible for transporting Batis-Joseph and the cocaine to the meeting point at Crown Bay Marina.

The investigation also netted the arrest of Miguel Arias-Ramirez and Hector Mejia-Patino.

Mejia-Patino's sentencing is set for 9 a.m. Aug. 7.

The status of the Arias-Ramirez case is unknown, as documents for Arias-Ramirez are under seal.

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

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