Key witness in airport drug case defends testimony against alleged accomplices
Published: October 4, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Defense attorneys questioned the prosecution's prime witness in the District Court case against four men accused of trafficking cocaine from King Airport on St. Thomas.
Thomas Bruce was one of five men arrested after a months-long investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2011.
The department arrested Bruce on Oct. 22, 2011, and he helped agents apprehend four other men who he said were tied to the trafficking.
The four men - Leayle Benjamin, Aben Marrero Jr., Michael Samuels and Marlon Underhill - are charged with possession and intent to distribute narcotics.
Thursday was the second day of the jury trial, and it is expected to continue Saturday.
Bruce was the only one of the men to plead guilty to charges related to the case, though court documents were unavailable Thursday to reveal what those charges are and in what jurisdiction they were filed.
Bruce has a plea agreement that, to an extent, relies on the case at hand, as he has to provide any and all relevant information that he knows about the case, according to both the prosecution and the defense attorneys.
Bruce used "the truth" as his answer for many of the defense attorneys' questions on Thursday, all of them trying to establish that Bruce was not a trustworthy witness.
"Were you trying to provide more information than you had?" asked attorney Andrew Capdeville, who represented Benjamin.
Capdeville said that Bruce wanted to give away the "entire St. Thomas operation" so that he could avoid "a lot of jail time."
Attorney Gordon Rhea said that Bruce was living a lie and trying to put on a front that he was an honest man.
"You're a pretty good liar, aren't you?" Rhea asked. "It must have been a shock then when agents stopped you. You were shaking, weren't you? Your mind was racing, wasn't it?
All of the attorneys, including Darren John-Baptiste, who represented Marrero, and George Hodge Jr., who represented Samuels, emphasized that Bruce's plea agreement with the government would dissolve unless he turned over information about their clients.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Jones asked what would happen to Bruce's plea agreement if Bruce did not tell the truth about what happened. Bruce said the plea agreement would dissolve, and he would be charged with perjury.
Chief District Judge Curtis Gomez said that the details of the plea agreement could not yet be released in court, as the agreement still is under advisement.
All of the attorneys were dogged on the details of how Bruce knew all of the defendants and whether he did know them.
Bruce admitted that he was the "mule" and that he was the person who would transport the cocaine from St. Thomas to Atlanta, Ga.
Bruce said that Benjamin had recruited him for the job, and that Marrero was the one who gave Bruce the cocaine to transport.
Benjamin and Marrero both worked for the V.I. Port Authority at the airport.
Bruce, who was supposed to make other trips to Atlanta, Ga., for the same reasons, said only traveled once with the cocaine.
However, Homeland Security agents were watching Bruce, because an informant had alerted the department of the trafficking operation in months prior.
Bruce testified that he made the trip on Oct. 22, 2011, with what he said he believed to be 9 kilograms of cocaine, 2 kilograms of which were "sham," or fake.
When he reached the airport in Atlanta, Customs and Border Patrol officers apprehended Bruce, and Bruce testified that he asked for immunity and that he would give Homeland Security agents all of the information that they wanted.
Bruce said he then helped set up a fake exchange of the cocaine, which led to the arrest of Samuels, who was to arrange a meeting between Bruce and Underhill, who was to receive the cocaine.
Bruce said that he received $1,000 per kilogram for the cocaine that he successfully delivered.
Gomez said Thursday that the court would resume the trial Saturday.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.