About 40 officers and agents from several law enforcement agencies arrested 11 people on St. Croix Thursday, including one identified as a Territorial Court marshal, as part of what police called a cross-country conspiracy to ship marijuana from Texas into the U.S. Virgin Islands.
St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell announced Thursday that the investigation also resulted in six people being arrested last week in Texas, according to a statement issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Texas.
Agents from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, the U.S. Postal Service investigation unit and the Drug Enforcement Agency joined 25 V.I. police officers, led by Howell, in making the raids on 12 locations.
The 11 arrested Thursday were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana. They are Michelle Gaskin Encarnacion, Lucien Williams, Elizabeth Felix, Sylvester Augustin, Jairzhino Marten, Aisha Nayoki Williams, Clarence Alfonso Williams, Kerena Prentice (also known as Kerena Prentis,) Tessa Lewis, Vernon Frank Sutton Jr. and Kareem Ambrose.
The 29-year-old Augustin was the suspect identified as a court marshal.
Thursday’s arrests were preceded by the arrest April 3 in Dallas of six suspects believed to have shipped Mexican-grown marijuana to St. Croix. Those suspects, all from Texas, are Neil Rick Rene, Sylvia Francisca Granville, Carl Gayheart Schou, Eddie House Jr., Tanisha Jernae Williams and Laura Louise Ryan-Rene.
The arrests were the culmination of a two-year investigation, according to Randall C. Till, postal inspector in charge of the Fort Worth Division.
Still dressed in his olive-drab field uniform, his sidearm strapped to his side, Howell announced the raid outside the Almeric L. Christian Federal Building in Christiansted, beside the statue of Lady Justice holding her scales.
Howell said all 11 suspects were arrested without incident or injury. Howell and Tim Williams of the DEA said drugs were allegedly found on the premises, but neither thought any weapons had been found.
According to the complaints filed, Neil Rick Rene was allegedly the primary participant of a drug-trafficking organization that sent parcels containing large quantities of marijuana from Arlington, Texas, to Frederiksted and Christiansted.
Since November 2009, more than 120 Express Mail parcels were sent from at least five different post office stations in Arlington to at least six different addresses in St. Croix, according to the press release. The average weight of the parcels was about 12 pounds, for a total known weight of more than 1,400 pounds.
According to the complaint, mail in the opposite direction, from St. Croix to Texas, carried the profits. Since November 2009 at least 110 Express Mail parcels containing payments, mostly in the form of money orders, were sent from the territory to Texas, the statement said.
Most of those payments were from $1,500 to $2,900 per transaction, police said.
The total amount of proceeds documented from April 27, 2010, to Thursday was alleged to be $385,055.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Texas said the investigation began in December 2009, when Postal Inspector D. Smiddy was contacted by Officer K. Lowell of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service.
Lowell is a canine handler working with Ace, a four-year-old dog trained as a narcotics detection canine.
According to the complaint, Lowell and Ace were working in the American Airlines Cargo Facility in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport when the dog displayed his "alert behavior" towards two parcels addressed to two different addresses on St. Croix. The information was cataloged but the parcels were not detained.
The investigation then led agents to track mailings to and from the Texas addresses and corresponding addresses in the Virgin Islands.
The investigation included obtaining search warrants to determine the contents of the packages being mailed. Those packages were then allowed to continue to their destination so as not to alert the suspects that they were being watched.
The investigation also included a jailhouse interview last summer with a woman who allegedly admitted to authorities she had mailed and received packages for Rene.
The complaint also says that the evidence includes surveillance video from the U.S. Postal Service showing the packages being mailed and received by the people under investigation, who have now been arrested.
Howell and Postal Inspector Amanda McMurrey declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, nor would they talk about any property seizures that might be related to the raid. The complaint links Rene to a Texas auto service, and many of the packages appear to have originated from that business address.
Howell did say, in response to a question about Augustin’s work as a court marshal, "There is no connecting link between the alleged criminal activity and the legitimate place of employment of the suspects."