Three years after being charged for the murder of his wife, former Police Capt. Enrique Saldana finally got his day in court Monday, but arguments made during the opening of his trial on St. Thomas brought out new details that prosecuting attorneys said illustrate Saldana’s “jealous” and “violent” temper.
The 53-year-old Saldana is charged with one count each of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, first-degree assault, second-degree assault and three counts of third-degree assault, all crimes of domestic violence, in connection with the 2014 death of his wife, Jeanette Magras-Saldana.
When the case first broke, initial court documents indicated that Saldana called 911 dispatchers early on May 2, 2014, to report that his wife was no longer breathing. According to a police affidavit, Magras-Saldana’s body was badly bruised; it appeared that her windpipe was crushed and that she also had a dislocated jaw.
After bringing his wife to the hospital, Saldana was taken to the police station. There, he waived his rights and did a recorded interview with police. In his 2014 statement, Saldana recounted a series of events that ended with the couple heading to Vessup Beach for a morning swim. Coming out of the water, Saldana told police Magras-Saldana appeared to have fallen and, while helping her to the car, Saldana noticed that she appeared unable to speak.
In his 2014 statement, Saldana said that he also attempted to perform CPR and then went to a nearby grocery store to call for help. Police obtained a search warrant for his home, where blood was found in two rooms, the affidavit said.
Since then, the case has hit some delays, mostly because at the time he was accused of murdering his wife, Saldana was also dealing in V.I. District Court with parole issues stemming for a 2011 case in which he was found guilty of extortion and conspiracy. Saldana was still on supervisory release during the time of his 2014 arrest and could have been sent back to jail, but was, in March 2015, instead released into the care of third party custodian – with additional conditions set by the court – after posting bail.
Two years later, attorneys on both sides of the case attempted to fill in the details between where Saldana’s statements left off and the 2015 bail hearing. According to the prosecution, the time in between was filled with “lie after lie after lie,” in which Saldana tried to pitch “story after story” to investigators in an attempt to “cover up the murder of his wife.”
“But the truth, the truth has a way of rising to the surface, even in the darkest and murkiest of waters,” Assistant Attorney General Nadja Harrigan said during opening arguments Monday.
Harrigan argued that Magras-Saldana had moved on with her life during the time her husband was off-island – both sides were not allowed to talk about Saldana’s previous case and jail time on the mainland – and had been at J’ouvert when he decided afterward to show up at her house. Harrigan said that Magras-Saldana’s neighbors heard the two arguing and later joined her, her nephew and sister at Magras-Saldana’s home.
Fights kept breaking out and, in the end, Saldana allegedly lost his temper after his estranged wife “denied him sex,” Harrigan said.
“That’s when he lost it,” she said. Harrigan added that Saldana then drugged his wife so “she couldn’t fight back” and that medical experts would testify during the trial that Saldana allegedly administered a “lethal dose” of a toxic drug before killing her.
Harrigan said that in his initial statements, Saldana said his wife had stopped breathing during the outing at the beach, but testimony from medical experts would show that she had allegedly been “dead for hours” before Saldana brought her body to Schneider Regional Medical Center.
On the stand Monday, witnesses said that Saldana called 911 at least three times before bringing Magras-Saldana’s body to the hospital in his own car. During one of those times, an off-duty officer, Cpl. Bernard Burke, caught the transmission.
During Monday’s trial, Burke testified that he met Saldana at the hospital and helped him move the body from Saldana’s jeep.
“I had a hard time lifting her,” Burke, a 26-year veteran officer, said on the stand. “To me, I was lifting dead weight.” Saldana’s attorney Samuel Joseph, however, said that the police involved in the case were dealing “with biases,” and that from the time initial 911 call came in to the 2015 bail hearing, they pointed the finger at Saldana.
“This is a case that pulls and tugs at your very heartstrings,” Joseph said. “And I’m not naïve to the general perception. Based on the allegations, people will think what they think, but that’s all they are. Allegations. When a person passes, there is a feeling of blame that goes around, people start to blame everyone, even God. Look at the officers involved in this case, for example, and the things they have done, and the things they might not have done because of their feelings, and because they were easily pushed by people that have the same position.”
Joseph said Burke, for example, was a classic case. While on the stand, Burke said he was on at the gym on May 2 when Saldana’s call came in, and was driving back in his police vehicle when he caught a transmission, saying that a male needed help getting back to the hospital. The 911 dispatcher at the time said the caller was in the area of Food Center.
Burke ended up escorting Saldana back to the hospital from Fort Mylner but had to wait seven to 10 minutes for Saldana to get there. Once they got to the hospital, Burke said Saldana spoke to his wife, saying that she would be able to get help, and that Saldana was “hysterically” crying and sobbing.
“I observed the lady lying on the floor, between the back seat and the front seat, on the floor,” Burke said. “He was holding her hands, trying to get her out of the car and we were trying to pull her out.”
A nurse came out with a wheelchair to assist and Burke said that after hearing what other members of the staff said about Magras-Saldana’s condition, he asked investigators to come to the hospital.
Under cross examination, however, defense attorneys said there was no transcript of the call Burke made back to 911 while he waited for Saldana at Fort Mylner and that, in later statements made to Police detective Jose Allen, Burke said the time it took for Saldana to get to him was more like two minutes instead of seven to 10.
At the hospital, Saldana appeared in a rush to get his wife to the hospital, Burke added.
“So when you saw him, it appeared to you that he was trying to get her help?” attorneys asked Burke.
“That is correct,” Burke said. Attorneys said that Burke described Magras-Saldana’s body as “still flexible,” and was wet and sandy, as if the couple had come from the beach, as Saldana had described.
“That is correct,” Burke said. Burke added under cross examination that Magras-Saldana’s body was still warm and that he was able to help get her out of the car and into the vehicle. Burke was the first person to see Magras-Saldana at the hospital, and observed bruises under her chin, but Burke said Monday that he only radioed for police to come to the hospital after hearing what other members of the hospital’s staff were saying about her condition.
Defense attorneys also pointed out that Burke never filled out reports relating to his involvement in the case.
“No, I wasn’t ordered to fill out any,” Burke said.
V.I. Superior Court Judge Michael Dunston, who is presiding over the trial, said Monday that he anticipates hearings will run throughout the week. The trial continues Tuesday at 9 a.m.