With a little help from his mother, Planning and Natural Resources official Roberto Tapia might be able to avoid a jail cell for now, but he will be pretty much on home confinement pending the outcome of his trial, according to bail conditions set Tuesday by District Court Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller.
Federal agents arrested Tapia, 54, late last week and charged him with possession with intent to distribute of more than seven kilograms of cocaine. Federal attorneys said at a press conference Monday that they would be pushing for Tapia to be denied bail pending trial – a strategy that they tried to execute Tuesday during Tapia’s detention hearing on St. Thomas.
In the end, however, the judge ruled that Tapia could be released after posting a $250,000 bond, but said that he would be subject to GPS monitoring and must stay at home unless reporting to the court or to a probation officer; he must be accompanied by his mother and have court approval before leaving the house; he must avoid contact with any witnesses; he must avoid phone communications; he must stay in the country and surrender his passport, among other things.
During the hearing, Tapia’s mother testified that she would serve as her son’s third party custodian and would be willing to put up her land as collateral for bail. Helen Tapia said her property is located in Estate Contant and is split in half – one piece with a mortgage valued at $775,000 and the other without a mortgage valued at $175,000, according to the testimony.
The judge’s bail decision came on the heels of detailed testimony from federal agents, which sounded like something straight out of a spy movie. Appearing on the stand Tuesday, FBI agent Jackson Purkey said that, on May 17, he was informed that Tapia was going to receive drugs from contacts in Puerto Rico.
Purkey said agents observed Tapia arriving at DPNR’s dock in Krum Bay dressed in full government uniform. Purkey said that Tapia then boarded a DPNR boat, left and went to Sail Rock – located three miles off the southwest coast of St. Thomas – to meet a red “spider-type” boat with two engines.
Two individuals were seen on the other boat and Purkey testified that they handed Tapia a “green and black bag,” which he took back to Krum Bay. Tapia then went to his government vehicle, put the bag inside and later that evening, traveled to the Red Hook terminal, where he boarded a ferry to St. John, Purkey said. Tapia was arrested upon his return, allegedly holding the same green and black bag.
“When he left, the bag was not full, when he returned, the bag was full,” Purkey said. Feds searched the bag and allegedly found 7.72 kilos of cocaine, which they then field tested.
When asked Tuesday by government attorney Kelly Lake what he thought the drugs were for, Purkey responded, “for distribution.”
Purkey said during the testimony that federal agents believed the green and black bag initially contained cash which Tapia took to St. John and exchanged for the narcotics.
On cross-examination, Tapia defense attorney Gabriel Villegas argued that federal agents did not have the authority to make the arrest. Questioning Purkey on the stand, Villegas pointed out there were a number of gaps in the feds’ surveillance of Tapia and that, throughout the whole process, no one stopped Tapia until he returned from St. John.
But Purkey said he had information, other than the bag and what it contained, to go on.
Villegas responded by asking whether the feds had an informant, but the question was never answered, just met with objections from the other side.
Villegas then asked if Purkey opened the bag or saw what was inside.
Purkey said another agent, Eric Barnard, was the one who handled the examination and search at the dock. Purkey added that Tapia was then transported to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area facility on St. Thomas.
In response to Villegas’s questions about Tapia’s behavior at the dock, Purkey said Tapia fully cooperated with the agents and didn’t put up a fight.
There appeared to be a slight disagreement, however, about Tapia’s criminal record. Villegas said that his client didn’t have one, but prosecutors said that they had found a history for a Roberto Tapia with the same birth date, but are not sure yet if it is the same man.
After Tapia’s mother was brought to the stand, Tapia was arraigned on charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. At that time, prosecutors said that there was “more than enough probable cause” for Miller to deny bail, and described Tapia as a flight risk who had used government resources and his authority to run drugs.
“If he is out, he can use his power to stop witnesses from testifying,” Kelly said.
Villegas disagreed and initially asked Judge Miller to dismiss the case, arguing that the agents did not have the authority to make the arrest. Miller denied the request, and Villegas pushed for his client to be released, saying that Tapia is not a public threat, would hand over his passport, needed to be around to take care of his two children, and would be under his mother’s care.
Miller did not say much as she made her bail ruling, but made it clear that if Tapia would be monitored closely and if he violated any conditions of his release, the punishment would be severe.
“Big Brother will be watching you,” she said.
Tapia’s alleged conspirators, Steven Torres and Eddie Lopez-Lopez, will be appearing in District Court on Wednesday for their detention and arraignment hearings.