Tapia testifies against 2 alleged suppliers in drug ring

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ST. THOMAS - Law enforcement official-turned-convicted drug trafficker Roberto Tapia took the witness stand for the prosecution Monday in the first day of trial for two final defendants in a wide-sweeping drug ring case.

Testimony from Tapia, the former chief of enforcement at the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, was cut short midway during the separate but simultaneous trials of Raymond Brown, who Tapia said was one of his suppliers, and Walter Hill, who Tapia also said was a supplier.

Brown and Hill are charged with drug possession and distribution charges.

They are the only two remaining defendants with set trials in a case that netted Tapia, who also was a former police officer, as well as former V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill, and four others who have pleaded guilty.

Defendant Hector Alcenio is the only defendant whose status is in limbo, as he had a trial date set until recently. PACER, an online court records system, currently shows no set date for Alcenio within federal court, nor does it show any record of a proposed plea agreement.

The other defendants in the case, including Angelo Hill, pleaded guilty. Tapia, Edwin Monsanto, Eddie Lopez-Lopez, Angel Negron-Beltran, Stephen Torres and Angelo Hill all are scheduled now for sentencing in the coming months.

However, only Tapia and Negron-Beltran will be testifying in the trials of Brown and Walter Hill.

Both will testify to two sets of jurors, though the two juries will be listening to all of the evidence together.

It is unclear why presiding Judge Curtis Gomez chose to have two juries - one per defendant - and yet hold the trials simultaneously in the same courtroom. Even the attorneys seemed befuddled by the unorthodox proceedings.

The juries will have to decide whether they agree with the defense or the prosecution, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Lake.

Both juries on Monday listened to the testimony of officials from various agencies that contributed to the investigation of the case, which dates back to 2012.

The bulk of the evidence presented Monday was derived from more than 17,000 phone calls between a number of the defendants. Of those calls, between 1,800 and 1,900 were pertinent to the investigation, according to FBI agent Rafael Fernandez, who oversaw the translation and transcription of the calls.

During his opening statement Monday, defense attorney Joseph Mingolla II, attorney for Walter Hill, said that the investigation appears to be an example of "overkill" and agents gone "rogue." Mingolla suggested that the FBI did not adequately minimize the recording time of the phone calls, since federal law requires agencies to limit their recording time unless information gleaned from the calls is pertinent.

While Negron-Beltran did not testify Monday, Tapia spent much of his time reviewing recordings of himself having discussions with either Negron-Beltran, whom he knows as "Peewee," or with Brown, according to Tapia.

The bulk of the discussions centered on cocaine shipments, many of them indirectly, according to Tapia's account. Many of them were conversations about where to meet up to make a cash exchange or about the fluctuating prices of cocaine, though the word "cocaine" was not mentioned in the recordings presented thus far.

Tapia admitted that he and his cohorts used common code words that would mask the true nature of their conversations.

"Mr. Tapia is saving himself. He will do anything," said Brown's attorney, Arturo Watlington Jr.

While Tapia, who pleaded guilty to racketeering in September last year, spoke only briefly of his interactions with Walter Hill on Monday, he spoke more in-depth about his interactions with Brown.

He spoke little of specific dates on Monday, but most of the recorded calls were dated from about December 2012.

Tapia recalled meeting Brown at various times, at one point in his office while Tapia was a DPNR director.

He also recalled leaving $250,000 in a parked vehicle, after he and Brown organized an exchange in which Tapia would leave the money and Brown would leave 24 kilograms of cocaine in the parked vehicle.

For every transaction in which Tapia acted as the middle man, he received about $500 per kilogram, he said. At the time of the transactions, the cocaine was priced at about $10,000 to more than $15,000 per kilogram, he said.

"I would negotiate the prices. Sometimes I would test the merchandise to make sure it was good, and make sure it got to its destination," Tapia said.

Tapia, who largely was made out to be the orchestrator of the drug trafficking ring, recalled first getting into the trade somewhere between 2001 and 2002, when he still was employed at the V.I. Police Department.

He was the first of the defendants to be arrested in May 2013 when Drug Enforcement Administration agents apprehended him at the Red Hook Ferry Terminal and found 7.72 kilograms of cocaine in a backpack that he was carrying.

Court documents chronicle the activities of Tapia's drug trafficking ring primarily between 2008 and 2013.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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