Making their final cases in the V.I. Police corruption trial in federal District Court Friday, attorneys for both sides agreed that a missing kilo of phony cocaine and a $5,000 bribe paid to police by a well-known drug dealer can only be called by one name. But that’s where the agreement ends.
The defense called it a “shame” that federal agents would have the nerve to investigate the two VIPD officers and a civilian who they say were doing the people’s business by playing dirty cop to investigate a possible murder-for-hire plot.
Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, called it “extortion.”
A jury of 12 will decide Monday after Friday’s closing arguments and detailed instructions by Judge Curtis Gomez for jurors to ignore the attorneys’ performances and regard only the evidence in their difficult deliberations.
VIPD Capt. Enrique Saldana, Sgt. George Greene and St. Croix resident Luis Roldan face six federal and four local charges ranging from extortion to obstruction of justice. Greene faces several more charges, including money laundering.
“It’s cloak and dagger,” said defense attorney Thurston McKelvin, explaining why his client, Greene, accepted a $5,000 payoff from self-described gangster Richard Motta in exchange for returning evidence that Greene and Saldana never recorded and for making the potential for federal drug charges against him disappear.
McKelvin said that for Saldana’s newly minted VIPD intelligence unit, deep in an investigation, deception was survival.
“That’s what they do,” he said Friday during his closing arguments. “But that doesn’t mean they’re violating the law.”
Saldana, one of the Virgin Islands’ highest ranking police officers — one of only two captains on St. Thomas, a rank above St. Thomas Police Chief Rodney Querrard — stands to lose the most, including a stellar 22-year career in the VIPD and a top spot as chief of all detectives and special operations.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist told jurors Friday that given the absence of recorded evidence or an official paper trail, the unlogged kilo of sham drugs and missing $5,000, “there is nothing to suggest an investigation into drugs, drug trafficking or murder for hire. Nothing.”
“The business of an investigation was simply an excuse for the extortion,” he said.
Fake Dope, But Dangerous
Whether “cloak and dagger” or police corruption, the case in question began on the night of Dec. 4, 2008, when Saldana, Greene and other members of his intelligence unit conducted a patrol of the Paul M. Pearson housing community and found a kilo of “white powdery substance” wrapped in clear tape inside an illegally parked and unlocked car.
With a field test they found the kilo to be phony cocaine – but just as lethal as the real thing because it often leads to retaliatory violence on the streets when it is passed. Federal agents and VIPD officers who testified this week said it should have been handled as if it were cocaine.
The faux dope, everyone agreed, belonged to 51-year old Motta, who had cooked rice flour in a microwave and packaged it like a kilo of cocaine, planning to sell it to an unnamed buyer for $12,000.
Motta testified this week that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment a short distance away when he saw Saldana’s team search and tow away the rental car he had borrowed from his boss, St. Thomas realtor and businesswoman Rosemary Sauter.
Through numerous witnesses, including VIPD officials and federal agents, prosecutors have shown that neither Saldana nor any member of his team ever logged the fake drugs into the forensics lab or into evidence that night or thereafter, and only made an official report of the incident nine days later when an entry was inserted out of sequence into the VIPD blotter.
Saldana’s defense attorney Darren John-Baptiste echoed the other defenders in downplaying that lapse and many others.
“It was reported late, but it was reported nonetheless,” he said Friday.
“I don’t want to make light of a failure. A failure is a failure,” he said. “It happens. It happens. But do you want to beat the man down about being nine days late?”
According to testimony this week, on Dec. 5, the day after the phony drugs were seized, Sauter and Motta went to police headquarters to claim items that had been in the car, except for the fake drugs, which Motta said he failed to mention. Their trip was unsuccessful except for a phone number Motta said he received from one of the officers who told him to call Saldana.
When Motta failed to call, Saldana called him at least twice that day trying to get him to meet. Saldana has testified that he had no suspect to connect with the kilo of fake drugs until Sauter and Motta ventured into police headquarters. He said he was just trying to lure Motta in for questioning.
Prosecuting attorney Lindquist told jurors Friday that Saldana’s phone calls initiated the extortion scheme that he says followed, making Saldana “the boss” from then on.
“Who better to extort than a known criminal?” Lindquist said during his arguments Friday.
Part of the federal government’s case against Saldana, Greene and Roldan are phone records of calls between the trio, including a sudden spike of activity on Dec. 20. Prosecutors say that on that day, Saldana’s civilian friend Luis Roldan approached Motta in a pickup along the St. Thomas waterfront with a message from Saldana and Greene: pay them $10,000 or they would turn over the kilo to federal agents.
When Motta told Roldan he didn’t have that kind of cash, prosecutors say Roldan reminded Motta that his boss, Sauter, did. Prosecutors say Roldan then spiced the exchange with news that his police friends had fingered Motta as the hit-man contracted by Rosemary Sauter to killer her husband, Jacob Frett, leaving Motta no choice but to agree to pay them off.
Motta immediately told Sauter who called on her high-placed friend, then-V.I. Police Commissioner James McCall, who testified this week that he saw in their tale a possibility of public corruption and took them to see the FBI on Dec. 22.
The defense attorneys cried foul on Sauter’s relationship with McCall as they addressed the jury Friday.
“Some people have friends in high places,” John Baptiste said. “Some people have the commissioner on speed dial. These people make things happen.”
The FBI launched an investigation and coached Motta to arrange a meeting and make the deal.
Explaining the prosecution’s shady star witness to the jury Friday, Lindquist it was risky for the FBI to put Motta — “an individual who appeared to be a drug trafficker and had a reputation of unsavory involvement” — in the key role in their investigation.
“They put the situation to the test,” Lindquist said. He said agents wanted to “see if Mr. Motta was up to games or if there was in fact an extortion scheme in the V.I. Police Department.”
After an initial meeting in Anna’s Retreat, Motta arranged to meet on the night of Dec. 23 in Frenchtown. He wore a hidden body wire and camera and carried $5,000 of FBI money to consummate the deal with Saldana, Greene and Roldan.
Only Roldan and Greene showed up.
When Motta handed Greene the $5,000, Greene gave Motta the items from Sauter’s rental car as promised and said the drug problem would not come back to bite him.
“Everything is blessed,” he said on the tape.
“There is no doubt in those taped conversations and videotape what Sgt. Greene was doing,” Lindquist told the jury Friday.
"A Dirty Job"
But John Baptiste insisted that the bribe was all part of an official investigation into the alleged murder-for-hire scheme and part of a plan Saldana had developed according to his job description, which includes the need to “exercise considerable independent judgment.”
“It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it,” he said of Saldana’s role in authorizing the meeting with Motta. “Capt. Saldana followed up on what he believed to be criminal implications.”
Saldana seems to have a solid alibi that night. He said he was out to dinner with his wife and 10-year-old daughter and some friends. But while leaving that dinner, he said he received a call from Greene, who reported the payoff.
Saldana said he told Greene that he was responsible for the money, which was never reported nor ever made it into the evidence room. Greene, however, deposited $1,800 into his personal account the next day, an action that netted him a money-laundering charge on which the jury must decide Monday.
Throughout closing arguments Friday, defense attorneys disparaged the government’s witnesses. Motta took the brunt.
“If there is not an investigation going on him then somebody has done dropped the ball,” said McKelvin.
McKelvin told jurors that the government failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt —- the threshold they face when deliberations begin at 9 a.m.
“They want to package this up,” he said, “and sell you a bill of goods.”