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VIPD Brass Testify That Officers Operated Outside the System

Testifying in federal District Court Wednesday, top V.I. Police Department brass described how evidence and property should be handled in legitimate law enforcement operations, further alienating two VIPD officers on trial for police corruption, who they say failed to follow the rules.

Chief Rodney Querrard, former VIPD Commissioner James McCall and former Deputy Chief Melvin Venzen testified for the prosecution Wednesday in the retrial of one of VIPD’s top cops —- Capt. Enrique Saldana —- and his two codefendants, Sgt. George Greene and St. Croix resident Louis Roldan.

The three are accused of extorting $5,000 from suspected drug dealer Richard Motta in exchange for returning property they confiscated from Motta’s vehicle and for not turning a kilo of counterfeit drugs over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

In December the trio were tried on the same local and federal charges, ranging from extortion to money laundering. A hung jury, however, forced Chief Judge Curtis Gomez to declare a mistrial.

Second Chance
On Wednesday, day three of the retrial, Querrard and Venzen testified that by their knowledge of the police manual and standard operating procedures, and through their combined 50 years in the VIPD, Saldana and Greene strayed far from the rules and from the VIPD manual, which Querrard described as “the Bible.”

Querrard said he was never told that Saldana and Greene had neither reported nor turned in as evidence a kilo of fake drugs they found in Motta’s car on Dec. 4, 2008, in Paul M. Pearson Gardens housing community. Nor, Querrard said, had they told him that they solicited and accepted $5,000 cash from Motta on Dec. 23 to make the drugs go away.

Saldana and Greene have claimed they destroyed the phony drugs and later took the money in order to get closer to Motta, whom they say they suspected in a vague murder-for-hire scheme involving his employer, St. Thomas businesswoman Rosemary Sauter.

“It would have to be authorized by the commissioner through the chain of command,” Venzen said of the possibility of them legitimately accepting money from a suspect. Venzen said he knew of no such deal and approved no such undercover operation while he was deputy chief.

“I received nothing about that, sir,” Venzen told Roldan’s defense attorney, George Hodge, during cross-examination Wednesday. “The first I knew about it was when I read it in the paper,” he said.

Ways and Means
Querrard described the importance of standard procedures such as “bagging and tagging” all evidence and property, submitting real drugs and fake drugs into forensics, and keeping a strictly documented “chain of custody” of all evidence.

“Any employee of the Virgin Islands Police Department taking property into custody MUST INVENTORY such property on a ‘Record of Property Received’ form,” read an entry in the VIPD manual that Querrard and the jury were shown projected on a large courtroom screen Wednesday.

Querrard said that no fewer than six copies of that form—which Greene and Saldana failed to submit for either the fake cocaine or the cash—get spread out through the various layers of the VIDP system for checks and balances, “so that there are copies of copies of copies,” he said.

According to Querrard, he should also have been notified that Saldana and Greene were using a civilian, Louis Roldan, as a middleman. In order to accept Motta’s payoff or to use a civilian go-between, Querrard said he would have needed authorization from then-VIPD Commissioner James McCall.

Chain of Command
“It would require my approval,” McCall said of any such undercover operations in the department, to include “any monetary exchanges.”

McCall first took Motta and Sauter to the FBI on Dec. 22, 2008, when they came to him fearing they were being set up for extortion by two of his officers.

On Wednesday, McCall drew fire from defense attorneys for taking Motta and Sauter to the feds and for not taking care of their complaint in-house.

“What effort on that day did you make to make an inquiry among your own troops,” asked Greene’s attorney, Thurston McKelvin.

“I didn’t,” McCall said unapologetically before he was dismissed from the stand.

Mixed Messages
The feud between federal authorities and local police bubbled beneath the surface of questions asked by Saldana’s attorney, Darren John-Baptiste, but the judge never let him vent, containing the subject by sustaining numerous objections by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist to his line of questioning.

John-Baptiste did, however, manage to poke holes in the rules that the VIPD brass and several testifying officers said were broken by Saldana and Greene.

Digging through the VIPD manual and investigations bureau SOP, or standard operating procedures, John-Baptiste found special instructions for unit commanders that would fit Saldana—VIPD’s chief of detectives and head of a special intelligence unit at the time.

"A commander," John-Baptiste read from the supplemental SOP, “exercises considerable independent judgment,” and “develops special plans for investigating certain crimes….”

“He has the discretion to attack crime as he sees fit on a case-by-case basis, isn’t that right?” John-Baptiste asked Querrard.

“Case by case,” Querrard said, provoking John-Baptiste’s brief smile.

“Your testimony was that Capt. Saldana had no authority to act outside standard operating procedures, right?” John-Baptiste asked Venzen, highlighting what he made out to be inherently mixed signals from the system—demanding strict adherence to the rules yet allowing leaders discretion in the field.

“That’s right,” said Venzen.

Paper Trail
On Wednesday John-Baptiste introduced into evidence a letter to Venzen and Querrard, written on Dec. 16, 2008, in which Saldana briefly outlined recent operations of his intelligence unit.

In it, Saldana mentioned confiscating the counterfeit drugs and identified Motta as a suspect. He said that “this investigation will continue because we know it is leading to trouble on down the road.”

Querrard dismissed the letter as stuffing for personnel files, not an official record of an active undercover operation or investigation.

“It was a commendation letter acknowledging the people working under him,” he said.

Venzen said the same incidents described in a similar report sent to him on the same day should have immediately set in motion a chain of events including a call to 911, issuance of a crime report, documentation from forensics officers and official submission of all evidence to the property and forensics rooms —- not to mention detailed reporting to him so that he could pass the information up the chain.

Nothing, he said, would give Saldana authority to act outside the system.

“The highest-ranking officer has the responsibility to make sure it (evidence) is documented and reported,” said VIPD Cpl. Maria Colon, who ran the department’s central 911 dispatch at the time of the alleged wrongdoing.

Colon’s early testimony began the pile heaped on Saldana Wednesday after Greene and Roldan had borne the brunt of accusations during the first two days of the retrial.

As the prosecution whittles down its witness list, though, defense attorneys will soon have a chance to tell their side of the story, possibly as early as Thursday when the trial resumes for day four.

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