Two men have pleaded guilty to cocaine charges in V.I. District Court, U.S. Attorney Delia Smith announced Wednesday.
The men — one from the British Virgin Islands and the other from Ecuador — were both charged in separate incidents with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine while onboard a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, according to the Justice Department press release.
Shannon John, 37, of Tortola, and Eliecer Pineda Torres, 52, of Ecuador, pleaded guilty before Magistrate Judge Emile Henderson III, Smith said.
According to court documents, John was apprehended on Jan. 9 when Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine agents detected a vessel with bales of suspected cocaine in plain view on the deck. The 32-foot Manta low-profile vessel with twin 300 horsepower outboard engines was located approximately 19 nautical miles northeast of St. Croix in international waters in an area known by law enforcement for drug trafficking.
The vessel was dead in the water and displayed no indicia of nationality, flag or registration, and was determined to be a vessel without nationality, thus subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, according to the court documents. Onboard, agents discovered four occupants later identified as Shannon John, Sean John, Emmanuel Tolentino-Lebron and Augusto Rodriguez-Molina, along with 21 bales wrapped in plastic and encased in rope, the documents stated.
Drug Enforcement Administration laboratory analysis later confirmed that the bales recovered from the vessel contained approximately 567 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride, according to court documents. Defendants Sean John and Tolentino-Lebron pleaded guilty on Dec. 7 to the conspiracy charge, said Smith.
Pineda Torres was apprehended on Nov. 15, 2021, after the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton spotted a 52-foot low-profile vessel approximately 77 nautical miles north of the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, according to the Justice Department release.
The unnamed vessel, outfitted with three outboard engines, had no flag flown or registration number. Onboard were individuals later identified as Pineda Torres, Luis Rodriguez, Carlos Benitez Estupinan, and Anthony Cuero Garcia, according to the Justice Department.
None of the occupants claimed to be master or nationality of the vessel, thereby making it subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. During an inspection, Coast Guard crew members found approximately 43 bales of suspected cocaine, according to court documents. A Drug Enforcement Administration laboratory analysis later concluded that the suspected substance tested positive for cocaine hydrochloride, with a weight of about 1,298 kilograms.
Rodriguez, of Columbia, and Benitez Estupinan and Cuero Garcia of Ecuador, also pleaded guilty to cocaine conspiracy, according to the Justice Department.
At sentencing all of the defendants face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life, plus deportation. A federal District Court judge will determine their sentence after considering the U.S. sentencing guidelines and other factors, the Justice Department said.