The two men arrested and charged with being co-conspirators in a drug trafficking enterprise allegedly involving Planning and Natural Resources official Roberto Tapia were each granted $50,000 bail during their detention hearings Wednesday in V.I. District Court.
Similar to Tapia’s detention hearing on Tuesday, much of the testimony offered by the government in the case against Stephen Torres and Eddie Lopez-Lopez came from FBI agent Jackson Purkey, who said that he had received information on May 17 that Tapia would be meeting two unknown Puerto Rican men at Sail Rock – located approximately three miles off the southwest coast of St. Thomas – and that the three would meet up again the next day to conclude a drug deal.
Federal agents set up surveillance to monitor the initial meeting and Purkey said a black and green backpack was passed between Torres and Lopez-Lopez and Tapia, which – according to the information Purkey had received – allegedly contained the money Tapia used to buy cocaine.
Responding to questions from Torres’ attorney Joseph DiRuzzo during cross-examination, Purkey said federal agents had received information about the group’s activities on May 16, 17 and 18, but objections from the prosecution prevented him from revealing his source. Purkey did say, however, that he was not personally there when the backpack changed hands, and that federal Customs and Border Protection agents were the ones doing the surveillance.
Asked where the agents were located, Purkey said they were monitoring the transaction in a plane overhead but, other than the information they had received, could not tell offhand if the bag contained money. Purkey later added that the plane contained equipment that could magnify the surveillance footage, but also said that agents did not search Tapia’s DPNR boat or the Puerto Ricans’ spider-type vessel before the initial meeting, so there was no way to confirm that the backpack wasn’t already on Tapia’s boat before the surveillance began.
Asked what happened next, Purkey said Tapia returned to St. Thomas, but said that the feds’ surveillance from that point on was sporadic and did not include the time it took Tapia to return to DPNR’s dock in Krum Bay, or the four to five hours in between Tapia’s arrival on the evening of May 17 to the Red Hook marine terminal, where he boarded a 7 p.m. ferry to St. John.
Tapia was allegedly holding the backpack when he returned, which was searched after he was arrested by federal agents and found to contain 7.72 kilograms of cocaine.
Torres and Lopez-Lopez were arrested the next day in the area of Sail Rock, according to Purkey, who testified that federal agents boarding their boat found mostly fishing gear and fish. Asked if the agents also found narcotics or weapons, Purkey said that the agents did not do an official search, just an inventory of what was on the vessel.
Purkey also said that Tapia had not made any statements linking Torres or Lopez-Lopez to the drugs, but that federal agents were operating on information they had received that the boat Tapia was supposed to meet on May 17 would come back the next day, to the same location. Torres and Lopez-Lopez were the men found on the boat when feds came to the scene at the designated time, Purkey said.
During cross-examination from Lopez-Lopez’s defense attorney Daniel Cavallos, Purkey said that the spider boat was docked in Vieques, but federal surveillance of Torres and Lopez-Lopez also did not include time when the two were on the island.
While DiRuzzo and Cavallos tried to make the case that their clients were simply fisherman, Purkey said he believed that was just a cover.
Torres’ sister Christine later took the stand and said that she would be willing to be her brother’s third-party custodian and would put up their grandmother’s house as collateral for bail. She also said she would be willing to move to St. Thomas until her brother’s trial was finished, since she works as a nurse and believed she could find work in the territory.
Lopez-Lopez lives in Puerto Rico with his son and girlfriend, who Cavallos said could serve as a third-party custodian because she works from home. Lopez-Lopez inherited a house, fishing equipment and scuba gear when his father passed away and Cavallos said that could be used as collateral for bail.
Making final arguments before District Court Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller, government attorney Kelly Lake said there was more than enough probable cause to detain the defendants prior to trial and that they were both a danger to the community and flight risks. Lake said both were members of a “fairly organized drug trafficking organization” and, because they have no ties to St. Thomas or the territory, there are “no guarantees” that they would make it back for the trial, she said.
DiRuzzo backed up the arguments he made during the hearing by saying that there was no wire, no constant surveillance, no record of what was in the backpack or what came out, while Cavallos said there was also evidence of an agreement or connection with Tapia.
But the judge ruled that there was probable cause to arraign the two men on the charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. Miller granted each $50,000 bail, saying that there was no evidence that the two had a history of violence or participated in any other crimes, and the court could find ways to ensure that they would not be a public safety threat.
Both will be monitored by a GPS device, cannot violate state or local laws, will be under home confinement and must go everywhere with their third-party custodians, and report to a probation officer in Puerto Rico, Miller said. They cannot own any weapons, make contact with any witnesses or change residences without permission from the court.
Lopez-Lopez will not be released until a landline – which is needed for the GPS monitoring – is installed in his home. DiRuzzo said the installation process is already under way.
Editor’s note: An earlir version of this story gave an incorrect amount for the bail for the two suspects, based on an earlier comment on what the judge was considering. The Source regrets the error.