Prosecution demands 7 years against smuggling taxi driver

POSTED: 04/14/11 12:08 PM

Cerberus human smuggling trial: attorneys ask acquittal for three defendants

St. Maarten – Prosecutor mr. M.L. P. Ridderbeks demanded 7 years imprisonment against Erold Montgomery B., a 64-year-old cab driver the prosecution considers the local mastermind of a human smuggling ring involved in helping illegals getting via St. Maarten to Unites States territory in the Virgin Islands. Against Griffith Owner J., the captain of the Braveheart that transported ten Cubans from St. Lucia and Dominica via St. Maarten towards St. John’s, Ridderbeks demanded a 30 month prison sentence. Paul C., a 61-year-old friend of the cab driver who was not in court yesterday, faces an 18 month sentence. The prosecution also wants to confiscate Erold B.’s impounded taxi. The attorneys for the two defendants, mr. J.G. Bloem and mr. Z.J. Bary pleaded acquittal for their clients for lack of convincing evidence.

Judge mr. M. Keppels will pronounce her verdict on April 19.

The trial of the cab driver and his friend and the captain of the Braveheart was the last chapter in the Cerberus-investigation. Earlier, five other suspects went to court, and they are facing sentences from 30 months to 10 years. The highest sentence involves defendants who were involved in a transport on December 5 of last year that ended in a tragedy. The vessel transporting 33 Haitians, the Jesus La, sank near Tortola and eight people drowned.

The trial against two defendants who were in court in March ended without a verdict because the judge ordered the investigation reopened. Whether the two will ever come to court again is doubtful, because they were released from prison shortly after the trial due to a shortage of cells. They have since been deported.

Cab driver Erold B. and his co-defendants were not involved in the fatal December transport; they stood accused of one transport on August 14, one on November 14, and of several other attempts to smuggle illegals from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala, and Cuba to the US or British virgin Islands.

Under questioning by Judge Keppels, captain Griffith J. freely admitted that he had transported ten Cubans from St. Lucia and Dominica to St. Maarten on November 14 of last year. “I got a charter from a lady in St. Lucia,” he said. Since J. planned to go to St. Maarten anyway to do some shopping he accepted the charter.

Cab driver Erold B. admitted that he was contacted to deliver the Cubans to a hotel in Maho, but he denied that money had been discussed.

The case file contains many phone taps, and Judge Keppels and prosecutor Ridderbeks questioned B. extensively about their content. But the cab driver, confronted with rather damaging evidence, maintained mostly that he did not remember the calls, or he flat-out denied that he had said certain things.

At a certain moment Ridderbeks asked Bolan what he meant in a phone conversation with co-suspect Bolo (fisherman Louis B.) when he’d said “Is the big thing gone?” Investigators had concluded that this was a reference to the Coast Guard vessel. But Erold B. answered: “Bolo has a big wife.” To which Ridderbeks responded, “Then why did you say next, the motor is fucked up?”

Ridderbeks said that Erold B., the driver of the now impounded Taxi 80 is one of the main players in the local human smuggling market. “He is not an ordinary cab driver. A better cover for human smuggling is hard to find. For years there have been suspicions that he is involved in smuggling people from one island to the next. This investigation confirms those suspicions.”

The charges against B. and captain J. are involvement in a transport on August 14, involving 95 illegals on two separate boats, the smuggling of ten /Cubans on November 14, and several attempts to smuggle people from St. Maarten to a destination elsewhere between July 1 and November 14 of last year. Both defendants are also accused of membership of a criminal organization.

The prosecutor said that one of the Cubans told investigators that she paid the Cuban lady in St. Lucia $3,000 for a so-called boarding-letter, a document that allows Cuban nationals to leave their country legally. In St. Lucia she had to pay $6,000 for a boat trip to the Virgin Islands, and after that attempt failed, she had to pay another $3,500 for a second attempt to reach American territory.

The prosecutor said that investigators learned from phone taps that Erold B. wanted a higher price for the Cubans – $2,500 instead of his standard fee of $1,500 – because, as he said in a phone conversation, “like Chinese they are hot. They immediately ask for asylum when they arrive in the Virgin Islands.”

Defense attorney mr. Z.J. Bary, asked the court to acquit her client Paul C., a 62-year-old who was vacationing at Erold B. when the transport in November went down. She accused the prosecution of tunnel vision and of inconsistencies in the evidence. “There is no proof that he did anything for financial gain,” Bary said.

For her client Griffith J. she also asked acquittal. “Maybe he was guilty of being naïve. He reported to the authorities in St. Lucia that he was leaving with the people, and he arrived in Bobby’s Marina in broad daylight. I ask the court to give him the benefit of the doubt; he is a first offender.”

mr. Bloem also asked the court to acquit his client, saying that apart from the phone taps there is no other evidence. He pointed out that it would have been illogical for Erold B. to let a boat depart from the Simpson Bay Lagoon near the Montessori school in Cole Bay (with a transport in July that failed because the boat encountered engine trouble) because that way the boat would have to pass the main office of the Coast Guard.

Bloem said that there is no proof his client organized the transport of the ten Cubans in November. At most, he said, he is an accomplice for transporting them on the island from the boat in the direction of Maho.

Bloem also dismissed the charge that B. is a member of a criminal organization. “There is no structural bond, no chain of command. The prosecution failed to show that there is consistency in the organization. These are loose types of relations, unstructured and without a clear chain of command. That is not enough to qualify it as a criminal organization.”

 

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