The seven people nabbed for drug trafficking on St. John last weekend had been under surveillance for almost a year, according the FBI, whose operation culminated in a dramatic early morning sting operation at sea.
The six men and one woman, who face a total of 47 counts of conspiracy and drug trafficking, appeared in District Court on St. Thomas this week for detention hearings to determine whether they will stay in jail or be released to home confinement while awaiting trial.
Two of the suspects, Jerome Potter and Earl Skelton, were arrested around 4 a.m. on May 6, after attempting to pick up what they thought was a large shipment of cocaine dropped by plane in the ocean just south of St. John. The drop was a setup involving fake drugs, arranged with the help of confidential informants aiding the FBI.
The other five suspects—Mason Ferguson, Sr., Mason Ferguson Jr., Terence Martin, Robert Shinners and Marisol Ferguson—were arrested later the same day. All the suspects except Martin and Skelton are residents of St. John.
On Tuesday, Shinners and Marisol Ferguson were granted bail by Judge Ruth Miller in separate hearings. The fate of the other five defendants was left undecided Wednesday after a daylong hearing. In the meantime, they are being held without bail in the custody of the Bureau of Corrections.
During Wednesday’s hearing, FBI special agent Michael Day testified as to the details of the 11-month-long operation that netted the suspects, which was conducted in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Day’s team conducted visual surveillance, carried out undercover drug buys using confidential informants and recorded dozens of phone calls after obtaining wiretap warrants.
Sixteen specific phone calls and transactions were cited in the indictment, stretching from June 18, 2010 through April 26, 2011. Miller did not allow Day to give details of what was discussed in the wiretaps or drug transactions, but he said that the information gleaned from them led authorities to conclude that the seven worked together to procure and sell drugs, including crack cocaine, powder cocaine and marijuana.
Day said the FBI’s evidence showed Skelton, a resident of the British Virgin Islands, and Potter were the main suppliers of the drugs, while Ferguson Sr., Ferguson Jr., (Ferguson Sr.’s son) and Marisol Ferguson (Ferguson Sr.’s wife) were primarily involved in selling the contraband. Martin’s role appeared to be as a fill-in supplier who provided drugs to Ferguson Sr. when Potter was not available. Originally from St. Croix, Martin currently lives on St. Thomas and goes by the alias "Cruzan." Shinners, the co-owner of Low Key Watersports, frequently bought cocaine from Ferguson Sr., according to police.
Further evidence of the conspiracy was confirmed during the sting on May 6, which the FBI planned as a capstone to the whole operation.
In the setup to the sting, the FBI asked its confidential informant to approach Ferguson Sr. with a deal to buy 300 kilograms of cocaine from a supposed Venezuelan dealer. The deal would give a 10 percent cut of the proceeds to the "boat man" who picked up the delivery, $5,000 per kilogram to the Venezuelan, and the rest going to the other suspects involved.
Day said that Ferguson then approached Potter, who owned a boat, to see if he would pick up the drugs at sea. Potter allegedly agreed, and recruited Skelton to accompany him. The informant then gave the two men the coordinates of the drop point 10 miles south of St. John, where they went to wait around 4 o’clock Friday morning. Agents conducting surveillance witnessed the suspects arriving at the drop site.
Meanwhile, the FBI loaded up a small plane with reams of paper disguised as bricks of cocaine, wrapped in trash bags and burlap sacks and attached to a buoy. However, the plane first had trouble taking off, and then subsequently dropped the drugs at the wrong coordinates. Potter and Skelton never actually picked up the shipment.
Despite this mishap, agents moved in to arrest Skelton and Potter anyway. Day said that the pair attempted to flee, but were quickly taken into custody. An empty handgun holster was found on Potter, and a knife was found in Skelton’s possession. No GPS device was found, nor was any fishing equipment.
Day said the lack of fishing equipment was telling because several of the suspects claim to be fisherman by trade, but the prosecution maintains that they in fact make their living through drug sales.
Later the same day search warrants were executed on Ferguson Sr.’s house, on Potter’s house, and on Potter’s nightclub in Cruz Bay, Finest Spot.
At Ferguson’s house, agents found a one-kilogram brick of cocaine with markings on the packaging which matched those of a brick sold by him during a transaction on April 26. Also found were 19 half-ounce bags of cocaine in the bathtub; 100 jewel-size bags of marijuana in Ferguson Jr.’s backpack; and two handguns under Ferguson Jr.’s bed.
Nothing was found in Potter’s nightclub, and a safe was found in his house, but so far its contents have not been examined.
After Day finished his testimony Wednesday, four of the five defendants’ attorneys argued that their clients should be granted bail using family property as collateral, and be released to third-party custodians pending the outcome of the case. The exception was Skelton, who does not have family or friends in the territory.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kim Lindquist used the FBI evidence to argue that the defendants were a danger to the community and a flight risk, and therefore should not be released on bail.
"Property collateral is not enough," Lindquist said. "Faced with the prospect of years in jail, they will choose liberty over property. They will flee and try to recoup whatever property is lost by going elsewhere to make money doing what they are good at, which is dealing drugs."
Lindquist added that it was hard to believe that third-party custodians, which would be family members in the case of four of the defendants, could control the activities of the suspects while they were out on bail.
"The ability of custodians to control behavior is a fiction and a farce," he said. "It is just implausible vouching."
David Cattie, Potter’s attorney, said that assuming his client would flee was "sheer and unadulterated speculation." He noted that his client has three children that he would not be willing to just up and leave behind. Several of the other suspects have children as well.
Judge Miller will likely rule in the next day or two on whether the defendants will be freed on bail or will remain in custody.