Police to begin moving vehicles into new impound lot
Published: June 18, 2012
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ST. CROIX - The Police Department is expected to begin moving vehicles today into its newly constructed impound lot as it strives to put an end to the unauthorized removal of vehicles, which has led to the dismissal of at least one vehicular homicide case and jeopardized the prosecution of two others.
St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell said during the weekend that the Police Department has never had an actual impound lot and that vehicles impounded or kept for evidence were generally stored in a vacant area near the K-9 facility at the former Patrick Sweeney Police Headquarters.
"This has never been an ideal situation, and the facility has certainly not been a properly run facility," he said.
V.I. Superior Court Presiding Judge Darryl Donohue heard oral arguments and some testimony last week in response to a motion filed by defense attorney Martial Webster to dismiss the charges in the case where Kenneth Milligan is charged with vehicular homicide and related charges in the auto-pedestrian crash that claimed the life of Agusta Alcindor on Aug. 15, 2009. Police said Milligan was driving under the influence of alcohol when he lost control of his vehicle and it veered onto the shoulder of the highway and fatally struck Alcindor.
The basis of Webster's motion is that Milligan's truck was removed from the custody of the V.I. Police Department where it was being held as evidence. Webster said that he was preparing for trial and was ready to hire an expert witness on accidents when he learned that the truck was not available for inspection because it could not be located.
Milligan's truck is the third documented incident in which a vehicle involved in a homicide case has been removed from a secured Police location without proper authorization.
In 2010, negligent homicide charges against Tristian Hannah were dismissed after police said they could not locate the Toyota Tacoma truck that he was driving Aug. 13, 2009. Police said Hannah collided with another vehicle on Melvin Evans Highway, claiming the life of 41-year-old Lorraine Spencer.
Hannah, 23, is the son of former St. Croix Police Chief Thomas Hannah. Police said Hannah caused the accident when he changed lanes improperly and collided with the car in which Spencer was a passenger. That car flipped, and Spencer, who was in the backseat, was ejected from the vehicle, according to police. She later was pronounced dead at Luis Hospital.
The charges later were dismissed when investigators said the truck could not be located and had been disposed of for parts, according to police reports.
Earlier this month, Donohue denied a defense motion on behalf of N'Fari Benjamin that requested that his charges be dismissed because the sports utility vehicle he was driving Jan. 27, 2008, cannot be located.
The charges against Benjamin stem from the accident in which police said Benjamin was driving a Toyota RAV 4 on Rattan Road and lost control, striking a Toyota Tercel that had two occupants. Darin Bergman, 31, was killed on impact.
Benjamin had fled the scene on foot and was extradited from Tennessee that summer.
During the investigation into the missing SUV, it was determined that it had been removed during a cleanup of the impound lot, according to police.
Howell said the construction of the facility was not necessarily prompted by the removal of any one vehicle. He began pushing for it when he came on board as the district's deputy chief close to a year and a half ago. "I realized that the need was there and pushed to get that done and now we have a fenced in area with barbed wire and rolling gate that can hold up to 50 vehicles," he said.
Howell said there had been more than 100 vehicles in the K-9 area and in the bushy area around it for years, and he recently started a program to identify the owners of the vehicles and prepare them for disposal at the landfill.
"Some of the vehicle had been here so long, nobody remembered where they came from," he said. "That won't be the case with the new lot and the new procedures - everything will correspond with paperwork."
Howell said he has began drafting policy that should be ready by mid-summer that would establish clear mandates on how the chain of custody for any vehicle should be dealt with.
"There has always been an understanding on how vehicle custody and acquisition should be handled, but there has never been any written policy and it would take looking into three different manuals for direction," he said.
Police Officer Arthur Joseph testified last week that in the case of Milligan's truck, when the V.I. Attorney General's Office called to arrange for the vehicle to be inspected by the defense, he discovered that the truck was not in the lot, where he had left it.
Joseph testified that unknown to him and without his authorization, the insurance adjuster handling Milligan's claim had determined the vehicle was a total loss and then had sold the wreck to another police officer for $600.
Joseph said that based on his investigation, he learned that the damages to the truck's hood, air bags, fender, bumper and other parts have been repaired, and the vehicle is now registered and on the road in the hands of another police officer.
Howell said he is concerned about how an officer would buy an impounded vehicle without proper authorization, especially if he had been previously advised that the vehicle was being preserved as evidence at trial.
"There is no doubt that this is clearly a conflict of interest," he said. "An internal investigation has been launched and based on the findings we will decide on administrative action."
Howell said that only the Attorney General's Office has the power to authorize the removal of a vehicle from the Police lot.
At last week's hearing, Assistant Attorney General Tom Sedar agreed that negligence was involved in the disappearance of the vehicles, but he argued that in Milligan's case the defense would have to prove bad faith on the part of the government to justify a dismissal.
Defense attorney Martial Webster argued that dismissal of the charges is the only remedy because no truck exists for his expert witness to inspect.
A ruling from Donohue on the motion could come at any time, but he has scheduled a status hearing for August 20 in the event a decision has not been made by then.
- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email email@example.com.