Trial begins for 4 men charged in armed robbery of Imperial Jewelers


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ST. THOMAS - On Monday, Imperial Jewelers staff testified about the March 15 armed robbery that lasted only a minute, at the most two, but left the store short of more than $1 million worth of jewelry.

The incident led to the arrest of four young men, who sat quietly in federal court Monday during their first day of trial before District Judge Curtis Gomez.

Shaquim Fredericks, 19; Warkim Gabriel, 18; Chefton Newton, 25; and Alvin Thomas, 18, were arrested the day of the incident alongside two 17-year-old boys whose identities have not been disclosed because of their ages.

The defendants who are facing federal charges before a jury each facing counts of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery; interference with commerce by robbery; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence; conspiracy to possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence; and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number.

The prosecution argued that the evidence - nine masks, three firearms and a smattering of black clothes abandoned near Fireburn Hill, the area where the defendants were arrested - proves that the defendants were the ones who terrorized Imperial Jewelers about 9:40 a.m. on March 15.

It was only an hour or so later that V.I. Police arrested the defendants, who police said they found in the same vicinity of the clothes, firearms and masks.

"When they found the defendants, some were without shoes, some were without shirts," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Lake.

Lake said that Thomas had made a statement, admitting to the crime, though Gomez stopped Lake in her description of Thomas' confession.

The defense counsel argued that, no, the evidence does not add up.

The DNA found in the masks does not match the defendants, and the firearms found had not been shot and were fully loaded, though the police department said that the suspects had fired at their officers.

The clothes, the defense argued, were simply extras kept around because their clients had been planting marijuana in the bush and did not want to get their other clothes dirty.

Defense attorney Michael Sheesley, who is representing Fredericks, said that Fredericks and Gabriel had planned on planting marijuana in the bush near Fireburn Hill when they heard gunshots ring out, and so they hid in a dilapidated shanty, where police found him.

"He ran for cover. He hid in the only shelter that was around him," Sheesley said.

Yohana Manning, attorney for Gabriel, said the same, that his client was just going to - as the police put it - "cool out" and plant marijuana with his friends.

Public defender Gabriel Villegas, representing Thomas, said that despite Lake's claim his client confessed, there is no audio recording from that meeting and only a written statement was produced.

"What is going to be an issue is what was said during that meeting," Villegas said.

Newton's attorney, Russel Pate, reiterated the same points about his own client, stating that the evidence simply is not there.

The shopkeepers who testified Monday said that the armed robbery took a mere minute, two at the very most. Video footage from the store showed seven suspects sprinting into the shop, all of them dressed in black masks and black clothes.

Several employees were in the shop at the time, as were several customers, the latter of whom were startled and left in the midst of the robbery. One woman can be seen walking past the shop, seeing what was taking place and sprinting off.

The store employees are seen inside, crouching next to the displays while the perpetrators smash out the glass cases with a hammer and a wrench, some of them leaping behind the counters, others pointing their guns at the employees, one of them seemingly pushing one of the employees.

"We had our hands over our eyes, so we couldn't see much," said Navin Mirchandi, the sales manager at the store.

Mirchandi recalled how the men told the employees to get down, and stay down. The employees were scared, Mirchandi recalled.

At wholesale value, Mirchandi estimated that the thieves stole more than $2 million worth of inventory, of which more than $1 million was returned, he said.

Villegas questioned the estimate, noting that it initially was reported that the estimated value of the missing goods was $1,030,000, and that $1 million in goods was returned.

Villegas also suggested that one or more pieces of jewelry went missing while in the possession of the V.I. Police Department, the original investigators of the crime.

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also investigated the crime.

Neither Mirchandi nor any of the other employees identified the defendants as the suspects, several of whom were seniors at Charlotte Amalie High School earlier this year.

However, a V.I. Education Department employee said she had seen the men hanging out with some other people between 7:48 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. the same day.

A previous statement she had made to police also placed the men in the area near Fireburn Hill after 9 a.m.

She recalled that about 10 a.m., hearing sirens and then gunshots, recalling the smell of gunpowder it was so close to her home. The men were nowhere in sight at the time, she said.

The trial is expected to continue today in District Court.

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

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