Tapia, Hill, co-defendants plead not guilty in court
Published: September 24, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Six of seven defendants in the drug trafficking case that netted Roberto Tapia, who was the chief of enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill, pleaded not guilty in District Court on Monday after prosecutors issued a second superseding indictment alleging that some of the illicit activities began as early as January 2008.
One defendant, Eddie Lopez-Lopez, and his attorney, Daniel Cevallos, did not show up for the scheduled court appearance, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist said that his office would refrain from issuing another arrest warrant until it was clear whether the defendant had deliberately skipped court or whether there had been a failure of communications.
Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller rescheduled Lopez-Lopez's arraignment for Wednesday and issued a show-cause order for Cevallos. The order mandates that Cevallos tell the court whether his client was properly informed of Monday's scheduled proceeding.
Lopez-Lopez, of Puerto Rico has been placed on home incarceration since posting a $50,000 appearance bond.
The third indictment in the case was filed Sept. 12. It does not contain substantially different allegations of drug trafficking, racketeering and corruption from the allegations in the first two indictments.
However, it expands the timeline of the conspiracy, specifying in some counts pertaining to conspirators arrested after an initial drug sting led to the May 17 arrest of Tapia that the conspiracy began "from an unknown date but no later than January 1, 2008."
According to motions filed in the case, the beginning of 2008 is when Tapia first became a target of the Drug Enforcement Administration, after confidential sources identified him as a local cocaine trafficker. That information was used to support the issuance of six Title III wire taps that covered phone communications between Tapia and those who federal agents say are his co-conspirators from May 25, 2012, to June 1, 2013.
Federal agents approached Tapia the evening of May 17 while he was carrying 7.72 kilograms of cocaine away from the Red Hook ferry terminal, according to court documents.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents also arrested two fishermen from Puerto Rico after boarding a boat in the open waters of Sail Rock. They said the men supplied Tapia with the money he used to purchase the 7.72 kilograms of cocaine from Hill on St. John. They also believe, based on intercepted phone communications and surveillance, that Tapia planned to use his DPNR issued boat to meet the fishermen and give them the cocaine for transport to Puerto Rico, according to court documents.
Raymond Brown, Hector Alcenio and Edwin Monsanto - all of St. Thomas - are accused of being cocaine brokers and suppliers along with Tapia and Hill. Stephen Torres and Lopez-Lopez are the fishermen from Puerto Rico who federal agents said were waiting for a delivery of about 7 kilograms of cocaine from Tapia when he was arrested May 17.
The ring is believed to have been funneling cocaine from St. Thomas to a buyer in Puerto Rico, according to court documents.
The men are charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources named throughout the 35-count indictment as the "enterprise."
Tapia's role appears to have been as a ringleader, according to the indictments.
Brown, Monsanto and Alcenio helped supply Tapia with cocaine or assisted him in setting up drug transactions, according to the indictments.
Alcenio and Tapia traveled by boat to the British Virgin Islands to set up a drug sale at some point between Sept. 26, 2012, to May 20, 2013, according to the indictments.
The indictment also states that Tapia is guilty of federal program theft because he used his DPNR-issued boat and vehicle to traffic drugs.
Tapia also tried to orchestrate a $40,000 bribe for a DPNR contract for the removal of marine scrap metal and illegally sold two vessel engines belonging to DPNR for personal gain, according to the indictment.
Defense attorneys have moved to suppress the bulk of evidence obtained through wire taps and surveillance, contending that the wire taps were issued without sufficient probable cause and that everything discovered after and through them falls under the legal doctrine of "fruit of the poisoned tree."
Chief District Judge Curtis Gomez has yet to rule on any of the motions pertaining to admissibility.
An omnibus hearing, which is a proceeding where such matters are argued and dealt with, is scheduled for Nov. 4, with a trial date set for Nov. 12.
DPNR officials confirmed that Tapia resigned in a letter dated May 24 from his position as chief of enforcement. It is unclear whether Tapia has filed an application with the Government Employees Retirement System to collect his pension benefits. Tapia began his law enforcement career with the V.I. government as a conservation enforcement officer in 1988.
St. Thomas-St. John Police Chief Darren Foy said last week that Hill has not resigned from the department. Hill was suspended without pay following his May 24 arrest.
- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.