Jury hears opening statements, testimony on Day 2 of 'Lazee' Williams murder trial


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ST. CROIX - When testimony began Tuesday morning in the V.I. Superior Court case of five people accused of torturing and killing V.I. Police Cpl. Wendell "Lazee" Williams during the summer of 2001, jurors heard testimony from the witness stand that could have a strong influence when it comes time to deliberate.

The day began with opening statements by the lone prosecutor and the five defense attorneys, and it ended with the start of testimony from the prosecution's key witness, who testified she witnessed Williams' murder.

Maximiliano Velasquez III, Juan Velasquez, Jose Ventura, Jose Rivera Jr. and Sharima Clercent are facing first-degree murder charges in the case being tried before Senior Sitting Judge Darryl Donohue Sr.

The prosecution contends the defendants kidnapped Williams a short 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 East End, where he was tortured and fatally shot before his body was dismembered and thrown out to sea and was never found.

Key prosecution witness

Before the court recessed for the day, prosecutors called their key witness, Theresa Coogle, who previously had only been referred to as the confidential informant or source of information.

She testified on direct examination by Roberson that she had been in a relationship with Maximiliano Velasquez since she was 14 years old and was 18 when she witnessed Williams' murder in 2001.

Coogle testified she and Maximiliano Velasquez had been out celebrating their engagement before he dropped her at home.

A few hours later, he called her to come meet him at the old Grapetree Beach Complex and that was where she saw the murder take place, she said.

When the trial resumes today at 9 a.m. Coogle will return to the stand to continue her testimony.

Other witnesses

Williams' sister, Jaslene Williams, took the stand as the prosecution's first witness. She described the relationship with her brother as a good one, saying that she saw him at least three times a week and that they shared a mail box and she cooked for him at times.

Williams testified that she last saw her brother on June 10, 2001, when their mother - who had been visiting - left the island. She said that as the days went on, she left several messages for him but never got very worried when she got no response.

"Wendell was 47, he lived his life and I lived mine," she said. "He never left island without telling me, but I didn't think anything had happened at that point."

James Liburd, one of Wendell Williams' close friends also testified Tuesday, saying that he last saw him June 14 about 9 a.m. at Five Corners Service Station, where they used to hang out, and has not seen him since.

Cross-examination

On cross-examination, attorney Jomo Meade, who is representing Clercent, questioned a statement that Jaslene Williams had given to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents months after her brother's disappearance. At that time, she said she had gone to the federal law enforcement authorities for assistance because she did not believe that the local police were doing everything that they could to help find her brother, although he was one of their own.

She told federal agents that she was suspicious that someone in the local police department was responsible for her brother's disappearance.

"There had been discussions about police officers being indicted soon, and I know he has said that he knows police secrets," she told the FBI agents.

Later in her testimony, under cross-examination by Assistant Public Defender Yolan Brow Ross, who is representing Maximiliano Velasquez, Williams agreed that she also was concerned, because as the investigation into Wendell Williams' disappearance continued, she learned that someone had been marking him present for duty on the books for up to five days after he last was seen alive.

Jaslene Williams filed the missing person's report June 21, a week after her brother last was seen and said she turned over keys to his home to investigators on the case. Months later, when they returned the keys, items from his home were missing, including his CD collection, jewelry and blue police shirts, she said.

Opening statements

Earlier in the day, the jurors heard opening statements from the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Kippy Roberson, and the defense attorneys - Daniel Cevallos, representing Ventura; Vincent Colianni Jr., representing Juan Velasquez; Meade; Gordon Rhea, representing Rivera; and public defender H. Hannibal O'Bryan, representing Maximiliano Velasquez.

O'Bryan is being assisted by Ross and attorneys Leslie Davis and Nesha Christian-Hendrickson.

In his opening, Roberson gave the jurors a preview of the evidence and witnesses that he plans to present.

He told the jurors that the prosecution anticipates there may be some inconsistencies in some of the testimony, but that results of testing, evidence and all of the witness testimony will allow the jurors to return a guilty verdict.

He said his key witnesses will describe how she saw the defendants and other unknown individuals torture, then shoot Williams, and he said he also will present testimony from two other people who saw Williams restrained in the back of the cab of a pick-up truck driven by Jose Rivera.

Defense rebuttals

During his opening statement, Meade reminded the jurors that even after evidence is presented by the prosecution they will be able to find beyond a reasonable doubt that his client is not guilty.

"You will be able to conclude that she did not kill or participate or kidnap anyone," he said.

Rhea told the jurors that they will be hearing from some witnesses, and they should prepare to hear stories that sound like they came out of a movie.

"There are things that she is the only one that said that these things happened," he said about the prosecution's key witness.

Rhea said he will show that Rivera had been shot months before Williams' disappearance and had gone through surgery days before and could not physically carry out the things he is accused of doing.

He told the jurors to look at each story line, how soon the witness came forward with a story and consider whether there is a motive to lie.

O'Bryan also told the jurors to brace for some storytelling by the prosecution's key witness.

"She told the story dozens of times. It always started the same; it ended the same, but somewhere along the way the story changed up every time," he said.

O'Bryan said even the extent of the witness' relationship with Maximiliano Velasquez was all in her mind and that the woman never said she saw his client do anything.

Colianni said his client was said to have been there but was not named to have done anything wrong and he is confident that the jurors will have no doubt that his client is not guilty.

"Those inconsistencies you will hear are enough for an acquittal," he said, referring to the prosecution's key witness. "Even if you believe everything that she says - and you won't - you will see he did nothing wrong."

Cevallos said his client has been waiting two years to see why he was accused of such a horrific crime and is waiting to see the evidence.

"You figure if the prosecution brings him here they must have really good evidence right," he asked. "Actually, all this will boil down to is one witness and a few words, like 'I can't recall' or 'I don't remember.' "

Cevallos said there will be no DNA, gunshot residue or fingerprint evidence. He said the prosecution's key witness made a deal to give information if she got help in getting custody of her young daughter and she decided to do anything - even lie to get her daughter back.

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

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