Jurors hearing the case of a man accused of aiding traffickers in a foiled drug deal and the assault of a federal officer found defendant Samuel Pena Columna guilty. The verdict was handed to Chief District Judge Robert Molloy late Wednesday afternoon at the end of a six-day trial.
Columna was convicted on all criminal charges filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including conspiracy to sell and/or distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine, possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and assaulting or resisting arrest by law enforcement officers.
Molloy thanked the jury for its service after they completed deliberations and returned a verdict. The judge ordered Columna — referred to during the trial as Pena — to return to court for sentencing on Jan. 19.
During the trial, jurors heard from federal and local law enforcers who made up part of a drug interdiction team that converged on the site of a suspected drug transaction on the East End of St. John on Sept. 25, 2019. One officer giving testimony said the stakeout at Haulover Bay led to an armed confrontation between law enforcement and men toting satchels of cash.
One federal agent and one drug dealer were wounded, leading to an investigation and arrests of Columna, Joan Morales Nolasco, and Rammer Guerrero-Morales. Nolasco and Guerrero-Morales pleaded guilty to the weapons charges and for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
Witnesses said the participants fled the scene in a car after the shooting. Agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration told the court about an interview conducted with Columna the day after the incident, where they discovered he was the driver of that vehicle.
Special Agent Brett Ashley told the court he served as the controlling investigator in the case and met with the defendant on Sept. 26, 2019, to ask him what he knew about the incident of the night before. At first, Columna said he only knew what he heard on the street. Later, he admitted being on the scene, driving some of the participants in the deal to the site, and seeing a long gun and a handgun in the vehicle.
“None of this was OK,” said DEA supervisor Evan Martinez. Martinez is currently stationed overseas for the drug enforcement agency, but at the time of the incident was serving on St. Thomas. Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Edwards, Martinez led the jury through a series of documents showing that Columna was a paid federal informant.
In closing arguments, defense attorney Michael Sheesley said it was plain that his client was working with authorities, but Columna was not in a position to report the Sept. 25 incident to his handlers, as was spelled out in his government agreement. He also pointed out that his client has no prior criminal record.
The maximum penalty for drug trafficking conspiracy is life in prison. The court commonly sets sentences based on federal guidelines that add several factors into a calculation that determines how much time Columna will serve behind bars.
Molloy ordered U.S. Marshals to take the defendant into custody at the end of the trial until the sentencing date arrives.