Trial begins for man charged in Kmart armed robbery


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ST. THOMAS - Both security guards who were shot in the December robbery of Kmart testified in federal court Monday on the first day of trial for the man accused of robbing the Lockhart Gardens store.

Richard Antonio Hodge Jr. is accused of absconding with $33,500 after shooting two security guards employed by Ranger American Services, a company that transports money between clients, most of whom are businesses, and their banks.

Authorities have made no indication that the stolen cash has been found.

Hodge initially faced charges in V.I. Superior Court related to the Dec. 3 incident.

According to the first reports from V.I. Police, a man shot two guards at about 3:30 p.m. on that Tuesday in front of Furniture Inn at Lockhart Gardens. One of the guards was carrying money from Kmart to an armored vehicle, the probable cause fact sheet stated, when the man shot both the guards and then fled with the money across Centerline Road and into the Oswald Harris Court housing community.

One of the guards, and a taxi driver who witnessed the incident, pursued the man, the police report said.

Police located Hodge hiding in nearby bushes, police reported at the time, and arrested and charged him in connection to the robbery.

Authorities re-arrested Hodge in March and charged him with one count of interfering with commerce by robbery, a federal offense. During his trial in federal court this week, he also will be facing a slew of local charges, including three counts of using and discharging a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence; two counts of attempted first-degree murder; two counts of using an unlicensed firearm during the commission of a crime of violence; three counts of first-degree assault; one count of first-degree robbery; and one count of fire-degree reckless endangerment.

"A man who did this crime had a ski mask, a gun and a bag of money, and he took off," said Federal Public Defender Omodare Jupiter, the defense attorney for Hodge. "A mask, a gun and a bag of money - none of that was connected to Mr. Hodge."

The prosecution, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Jones, presented a different story, one of Hodge coming up behind the guards in broad daylight, shooting them and then fleeing with the giant bag of money before hiding in the bushes until an off-duty law enforcement official spotted him.

Among the prosecution's witnesses that testified Monday in the trial were the guards, the Lockhart Gardens Kmart store manager and a taxi driver who was near the scene at the time of the incident and said she saw Hodge, whom she knows as "Richi," running past her with a black gun and a black leather bag.

Guards' testimony

"I felt a sharp pain in my back," recalled guard Asim Powell, who was critically wounded during the incident. "I put my hand on my chest and noticed there was blood."

Powell, who was shot several times, could not remember hearing the separate shots fired, though he remembered feeling each of them.

Powell fell to the ground, where emergency medical staff eventually found him in front of Furniture Inn.

"Somebody put a pillow - I think it was from the furniture store - under my head," Powell said.

The other guard, who also was shot several times - though not critically like his co-worker - chuckled at the question of whether or not anything out of the ordinary took place Dec. 3.

"Yes," said Clement Bougouneau, the guard who ran after the man who shot him on the day of the incident.

Bougouneau said that he pursued him until the man escaped his sight behind one of the Oswald Harris Court buildings.

"I took my gun, and I just run after him," said Bougouneau, who was not entirely clear on when he realized that he had been shot.

Bougouneau said that, while pursuing the man, he saw the man wearing something to cover his face, as well as a black and white jacket - the same as the one shown in a picture from the police's evidence.

"In training, we were told we cannot shoot in the back, so I was trying to get to his side or something," said Bougouneau, who remembered getting within about five feet of the man, but never close enough to catch him.

Police found Hodge in the bushes, shirtless, though Jones said that a jacket, shirt and face mask - matching the description of those worn by the man that robbed Kmart - were found within the vicinity of Hodge.

Jupiter argued that they were not Hodge's, that they were too far from him to have been his, and that a DNA test indicated that another man's DNA, not Hodge's was found within the face mask.

The trial is expected to continue with testimony today in federal court.

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

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