Jervis Wise, attorney with the Law Offices of Bjorn Brunvand, here in Clearwater, obtained a not guilty verdict this week for a Honduran client charged in Tampa’s federal court with possession with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute the same. Federal law enforcement interdicted a fishing vessel off Honduras last fall and seized more than two tons of cocaine. Wise’s client, Edgar Roberto Thaiton-Arriola, and the other crew members from the boat were charged.
Fortunately for Wise’s client, he was acquitted and no sentencing is ultimately necessary.
Mr. Thaiton-Arriola is a 43-year-old father of four from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. In November, 2011, Edgar visited family near La Ceiba, a coastal city in Honduras. During the visit, his sister’s significant other told him about a job he could obtain working on lobster fishing boat during an approximately three-month fishing trip. He accepted the job and set out with a 17-person crew.
When the fishing boat, the “MR. GEO” left port, the ship was outfitted for lobster fishing. Edgar had no indication that the boat may later become in involved in drug activity. In addition to the 17-person crew, the owner of the boat was on board when it left port.
Change of Plans
About a day later, the ship anchored off a remote coastal area of Honduras. While the ship was anchored, a “go-fast” boat pulled alongside and loaded several barrels of gasoline on board. One or more of the crewmen on the go-fast boat were armed. The owner of the MR. GEO then left on that go-fast boat and told the crew of the GEO that nobody could leave.
Edgar and the other crewmen were very concerned and suspicious, but felt that they were stuck on the ship with no way out.
After receiving the gasoline, the MR. GEO fished for lobster for a few days. Federal prosecutors in Tampa would later argue that the ship did not actually fish, but rather, received a large quantity of lobster from another boat and that any lobster fishing was a ruse to disguise the boat’s drug activity.
After approximately three days, the GEO left the fishing grounds and refueled a go-fast boat that was suspected of smuggling cocaine from Colombia up the Caribbean coast at the direction of the captain. Shortly thereafter, the captain was called to go rescue another go-fast boat that was in distress. That boat was sinking and was loaded with nearly 2 tons of cocaine. The crew of the GEO reluctantly took the crew of the go-fast boat (three men) on board, but would not take the cocaine on. The captain of the GEO eventually ordered the crew to take on the cocaine and the GEO crew complied, under duress.
The following morning, a Navy ship that was carrying some Coast Guard personnel working with Operation Panama Express interdicted the GEO. Shortly before the interdiction, Navy aircraft observed the GEO throwing the cocaine bales and gasoline barrels overboard. The Navy ship recovered the bales in the waters surrounding the GEO.
The 20 individuals on board the GEO were held on the high seas for approximately four weeks until they were brought to port in Tampa to faces charges.
Three of the GEO crewmen were juveniles and were sent back to Honduras based on their age. The remaining 17 people were indicted for possession with intent to distribute more than 5 kilograms of cocaine while on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the US and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute the same.
Three members of the go-fast crew pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with the US Attorney’s office in the prosecution of the GEO crew. On the first day of trial, the captain of the GEO also pled guilty. The remaining 13 individuals – all crew members of the GEO – proceeded to trial.
The Government’s theory at trial was that all of the crew knew that the GEO would be involved in drug activity. The defendants, on the hand, asserted that they boarded the GEO without knowledge of the intent to participate in drug activity. Once the refueling operations began, the crew was stuck at sea and had been coerced by veiled threats to follow the captain’s orders.
At trial, the government presented various coast guard and DEA witnesses as well as two of the members of the go-fast crew. The go-fast crew attempted to implicate the GEO crew and alleged that the whole crew had knowledge of the conspiracy and willfully participated in it all along the way.
The defense disputed that position and was able to bring out many inconsistencies in the testimony of the go-fast crewmen. The jury was also made aware that the go-fast crewmen were facing 10 years to life imprisonment and had entered into plea agreements to attempt to provide substantial assistance to the Government in hopes of receiving breaks on their sentences. The jury also heard evidence of the very violent nature of the drug trafficking business, particularly in Honduras. That evidence was elicited to show the jury the duress that the crew was under when they realized that they were caught up in a high-level drug conspiracy.
Not Guilty Verdict
After only three hours of deliberations, the jury ultimately returned not guilty verdicts on both counts as to all 13 of the defendants. Had they been convicted, the defendants would have faced 10 year mandatory minimum sentences with potential sentences of up to life in prison.