More than two years after law clerk Gabriel Lerner was shot and killed on St. Thomas, the man accused of pulling the trigger has finally gone on trial for murder.
During opening statements and testimony from five government witnesses Monday, the prosecution painted Auriel Devon Frett, 24, as a cold-blooded killer who shot Lerner and went joyriding in his car while his friends and colleagues frantically searched for him.
The defense argued that the defendant is a victim of a scheming accomplice who was determined only to save his own skin.
Frett, who is from Tortola, allegedly carjacked Lerner with the help of John Jared Southwell, 19, then killed Lerner in a wooded area in the island’s West End on Oct. 26, 2008.
Southwell pleaded guilty last September to one count each of second-degree murder and first-degree assault-robbery and is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence.
In his opening statement, lead prosecutor Michael Motylinski said statements Southwell made while under police questioning pointed the finger at Frett as the triggerman, an allegation the defense denies.
"This case is about a good deed that led to death," Motylinski said, as Lerner’s family wept quietly in the gallery.
Motylinski described how Lerner picked up Frett and Southwell while they were hitchiking on Cassi Hill and offered them a ride to Red Hook. Lerner was on his way to Lindqvist Beach for a Baha’i bible study class.
The prosecutor detailed exactly how that ride ended in Lerner’s abduction and ultimate death shortly thereafter.
"Frett pulled out a gun and said ‘You ever been robbed before?’" Motylinski said.
The two men forced Lerner to get in the trunk of his own car. They then allegedly drove to a convenience store in Four Corners and made a purchase with Lerner’s credit card before heading out to Bordeaux, past the point where the smooth pavement ends and the rough dirt road begins.
"Gabe would have noticed that the road got bumpy all of a sudden, then he would have noticed that the car stopped," the prosecution continued.
Frett marched Lerner into some bushes and allegedly shot him in the back of the head, then the two men took off in Lerner’s maroon Ford Focus.
Attorney Arlene Williams, a fellow law clerk and friend of Lerner’s, testified that Lerner was scheduled to meet her in the office on Sunday afternoon to catch up on work, but he never showed up. She tried to call and text Lerner throughout the day Sunday but got no reply.
"It was weird that he did not call me back," she said. "The phone would ring and ring and then go to voicemail."
After Lerner failed to show up for work on Monday, Williams put up flyers and posted them around Hull Bay in an attempt to help find her friend, whom she began fearing the worst for.
When Lerner, who was a clerk for V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda J. Hollar, did not show up to work again on Tuesday, Hollar sprung into action.
"When I didn’t see Gabe Tuesday, I started to get alarmed to some extent," Hollar said on the stand. She described how she enlisted the help of several marshals and went to Lerner’s apartment, which they found unlocked but with no one inside.
After she realized Lerner’s car was missing from the parking lot of the apartment complex, Hollar filed a missing persons report with police chief Rodney Querrard.
Querrard put out an all-points bulletin for Lerner’s vehicle around noon on Oct. 28. Police located the car almost immediately with the two suspects inside. They gave chase, but the two men escaped into the bushes after crashing near Four Corners about five minutes later. They were caught later that day in a law enforcement dragnet that included foot patrols, helicopter and canine units.
Officer Walter Richardson was the man who actually apprehended both suspects in the dense brush around 5:30 pm on Tuesday. He described how he lay in wait in an area where he believed the men to be, using a "cover and concealment technique" that involved lying on the ground in a prone position partially covered by grass. After a few minutes he heard someone in the brush moving nearby, and sprung into action.
"I saw someone moving slowly forward and backwards, then side to side," Richardson said. "I thought, this must be one of the suspects." He then pounced on the man, subdued and handcuffed him. The suspect identified himself as Frett. Two or three minutes later, Southwell emerged from the bushes, sweaty and exhausted, and Richardson subdued him, too.
In his opening statement, Frett’s attorney, public defender Michael Joseph, referred to Southwell as a "little monster" who lied about the incident in order to get a less severe punishment.
"Is Southwell’s word proof beyond a reasonable doubt?" he asked. "I will show that he sold his soul for 20 years to pass the guilt on to Frett."
In his rambling monologue Joseph did not specify an alternate theory of the crime; but, in an attempt to create reasonable doubt amongst jurors, made vague references to situations that might seem to point toward Southwell (or others) as the guilty party.
He alluded to a gun that Frett may have sold to Southwell, a possible grudge Southwell may have had against Judge Hollar, and an affair between Frett and a police officer’s wife.
"There’s no doubt a vicious, terrible crime has been committed," he said. "But who done it is what you’re here for. This individual would not have risked taking the life of a high-profile young man, then expected a 17-year-old to keep his mouth shut about it."
Joseph also emphasized that the case should be about the facts in evidence, and urged jurors not to let their emotions or other extraneous information cloud their judgment.
"The fact that Lerner was a law clerk does not add anything to the proof," Joseph said. "The fact that the defendant is an illegal immigrant does not add to the proof of who committed the crime. Don’t focus on the dead body, or the gory pictures or the ballistics. You’re going to determine which one was the monster."
In addition to the murder charge, Frett also faces charges of kidnapping, robbery and possession of an unlicensed firearm, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, unauthorized use of a vehicle, and possession of stolen property.
The case is being presided over by Judge Harold Willocks of St. Croix at Magistrates Court in Barbel Plaza.
The trial continues Tuesday.