Tapia details ins and outs of drug trafficking ring while testifying against his suspected suppliers
Published: March 26, 2014
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ST. THOMAS - Defense attorneys pressed convicted drug racketeer and star prosecution witness Roberto Tapia during the second day of trial for two men who Tapia testified used to be cocaine suppliers for his drug smuggling ring, which spanned from the British Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico.
Tapia, who has already pleaded guilty to drug trafficking conspiracy charges, and Angel Negron-Beltran, who also pleaded guilty to federal drug charges, both testified for the prosecution in the trial of Walter Hill and Raymond Brown in District Court on Tuesday.
On Monday, Tapia testified that Hill and Brown both were suppliers for him.
On Tuesday, attorneys for Brown and Hill suggested, among other things, that Tapia would have turned in his own mother, that he smuggled illegal immigrants into the territory using a government vessel, and that he failed to implicate one of his own relatives despite implicating a slew of other people during the case, which also netted former V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill.
Tapia denied many of the defense allegations, stating that he never brought any illegal immigrants into the territory, an accusation made by Joseph Mingolla II, Walter Hill's attorney.
Tapia also denied the involvement of his own cousin - who Tapia admitted under oath is a convicted drug trafficker - in a $250,000 transaction that Tapia made to buy cocaine.
"Mr. Mingolla, you don't know my mother. You never walked in her shoes, so don't go that way," Tapia said to Mingolla, who made the comment about Tapia's mother.
Mingolla, as well as Arturo Watlington Jr., Brown's attorney, both brought up that Tapia only a week ago signed a "supplement" to his original plea agreement.
Though no guarantees were included in the plea agreement, nor the supplement - which is more or less a revised plea agreement - Tapia admitted that his sentence was likely to be further reduced based on his own agreement to share more information about the case.
"This supplement has an additional reward," Watlington stated, to which Tapia agreed.
Tapia also admitted that there is the possibility of another supplement, which could mean an even more greatly reduced sentence.
Both defense attorneys in the first day of trial, Monday, told jurors during opening statements that Tapia and Negron-Beltran are testifying against Brown and Walter Hill to reduce their own sentences. Tapia and Negron-Beltran are scheduled for sentencing in coming months.
"I have not implicated anyone," Tapia said, explaining that all of the defendants in the case, though they are not all interconnected, were arrested before he mentioned their names to investigating authorities. Those authorities included, but were not limited to, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
However, Tapia's arrest on May 17, 2013, was the first in a string of related arrests. On later dates, authorities also arrested Angelo Hill, Edwin Monsanto, Eddie Lopez-Lopez, Negron-Beltran and Stephen Torres - all of whom have pleaded guilty.
Also arrested, aside from Brown and Walter Hill, was Hector Alcenio, though he currently has no trial date scheduled.
$250,000 cocaine deal
The agencies' wiretaps were the main source of evidence to accuse each of the defendants, all of whom face drug charges - some for buying, some for selling and others for transporting cocaine. Portions of the recordings were shared in court Monday and Tuesday.
The focus of the recording evidence Tuesday was a single transaction between Tapia and Walter Hill - the deal that ultimately led to Tapia's arrest - as well as a separate transaction between Tapia and Brown.
While attorneys asked Tapia extensive questions about the latter transaction Monday, Watlington made a bold suggestion Tuesday about the transaction.
On Monday, Tapia said Brown at one point supplied him with 24 kilograms of cocaine, which Tapia retrieved from a parked vehicle. In that same vehicle, Tapia recalled leaving $250,000 for the cocaine purchase on behalf of Negron-Beltran.
Watlington and Mingolla both questioned Tapia about how he could just leave a quarter-of-a-million dollars in a random car.
"I know that car. It's been in the area before," Tapia said.
Watlington stated that the car was actually that of Tapia's cousin, who Tapia admitted had been previously convicted of drug charges. However, the cousin has never been named in court documents.
One of Tapia's main buyers
Negron-Beltran, a food business owner and auto mechanic from Puerto Rico, followed Tapia as a prosecution witness on Tuesday. According to Tapia's testimony, Negron-Beltran was one of his main buyers.
Negron-Beltran said that he first met Tapia 20 years ago during a sailboat race in the Virgin Islands. The two became friends, and in later years worked together in the business of drug trafficking.
"He would always inform me when he had drugs," Negron-Beltran said through an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English.
Negron-Beltran testified that he knew Brown personally, though he said he did not know Walter Hill. He testified that he knew Brown just as an acquaintance or friend.
Based on his own testimony, Tapia dealt with the suppliers. He testified that he dealt with Walter Hill primarily through Angelo Hill, one of his points of contact on St. John.
The day that authorities arrested Tapia, he had taken an early morning ferry from Red Hook on St. Thomas to St. John, where Angelo Hill picked him up, according to several recordings of phone conversations between Tapia and Angelo Hill.
Angelo Hill then took Tapia to meet Walter Hill, whom Tapia only knew through Angelo Hill, Tapia said.
An agreement was struck that Walter Hill would supply 7 kilograms of cocaine to Tapia at a price of about $14,500 per kilo, Tapia testified. The final price was unclear based on various numbers shared during testimony.
At the time, Tapia was trying to bargain a better price for his buyer, Negron-Beltran, but Angelo Hill said it was unlikely that Walter Hill would budge, Tapia testified.
Angelo Hill brought Tapia to Walter Hill, who spoke only briefly with Tapia before he told Tapia which parked vehicle he left the cocaine in, Tapia said.
Tapia retrieved a box containing the 7 kilograms, then paid Walter Hill, who helped Tapia pack the cocaine into his backpack before Angelo Hill took Tapia back to the St. John ferry for his return trip to St. Thomas.
Upon Tapia's arrival on St. Thomas, more than a dozen federal agents surrounded him and arrested him, he said.
During his cross-examination, Mingolla asked Tapia why he initially did not tell authorities about Walter Hill's role in the operation. "I was fearful for my life," Tapia said.
Mingolla then asked why Tapia had not been placed in protective custody or why authorities failed to mention his fears in their records of Tapia's statements.
"In this kind of business, there's certain things that you would rather take to your grave than reveal," Tapia responded.
Tapia's drug smuggling
Tapia testified that he conducted his drug trafficking operation for more than a decade in the territory. He started while he was an officer with the V.I. Police Department and continued when he became assistant director of enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in 2006, he said.
In 2010, he recalled his promotion to director of enforcement for the department, after which he continued to conduct a drug smuggling operation, often times while dressed and armed as a DPNR official, and while in a DPNR vehicle or vessel.
The scope of the investigation into Tapia and his drug trafficking affairs is limited to 2008-12, according to indictments.
It has yet to be seen whether either Walter Hill or Brown will testify in court.
Their trials are scheduled to continue today.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.