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The accused, Robert Steele, right, and his lawyer, Richard Williams leaves the court after he was discharged on Friday. (iWN photo)
The accused, Robert Steele, right, and his lawyer, Richard Williams leaves the court after he was discharged on Friday. (iWN photo)

The case in which a U.S.-based Vincentian man was charged with possession of a round of ammunition at the Argyle International Airport fell in shambles on Friday, after testimony that left raised some embarrassing questions about policing in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The case also highlighted a challenge that security at AIA might face in proving a case against an accused person when x-ray images reveal an illegal item that a human being has difficulty finding in a suitcase.

The aviation security personnel can search the bag in the presence of the passengers, but the passenger is not allowed into the x-ray room.

In the case, in which Robert Steele, of Villa and the United States, was being tried on a charge that he had in his possession a round of 9 mm ammunition at AIA without a licence on Dec. 27, one of the witnesses, an aviation security officer, did not find on the bullet the initials he said they had placed there two days earlier, when the bullet was reportedly found in Steele’s suitcase.

Another witness, a police officer, said the bullet that was presented as evidence in court only had one letter of his initials, rather than the two he said he placed on it on Wednesday.

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One person with knowledge of the investigation suggested that the round had been touched so many times by so many persons that the ink had been inadvertently erased from the piece of tape that police had wrapped around the bullet when it was allegedly collected as evidence.

On Friday, day two of the trial, defence counsel Richard Williams wasted no time in making a no-case submission after the crown closed its case following the evidence of seven witnesses, including a weapons and ammunition expert.

Williams presented three grounds for his no-case submission, the first being that the prosecution had not presented any evidence that the defendant does not have a licence to hold ammunition in SVG.

The lawyer further argued that the prosecution had not proven that the round of ammunition presented to the court was the same one that was allegedly retrieved from the defendant’s suitcase.

He noted that Romario Woodley, an aviation security supervisor at AIA, who had allegedly retrieved the round of 9mm ammunition from Steele’s suitcase, had told the court that after retrieving the round, he handed it over to a plain clothes officer who then handed it over to his uniformed colleague.

Williams argued that this led to a break in the change of custody of the exhibit.

He further told the court that Woodley’s initials are not on the round of ammunition presented as evidence in court on Friday.

The lawyer further noted that Police Constable Ollivierre, who said that he had initialled the round of ammunition allegedly retrieved from Steele’s suitcase, couldn’t show the court his initials on the round presented as evidence.

Ollivierre also did not tell the court who had given him the round of ammunition, but only said it was handed over to him and he initialled it, Williams said.

The defence counsel said that these points were enough for a no-case submission to be upheld.

He, however, told the court that, for completion, after the bag was reportedly opened and the source of the suspicious image was not found during a physical search in Steele’s presence, the aviation security person took the opened bag to the x-ray machine and scanned it in the presence of five persons, but not Steele.

“M’Lady, you cannot take that bag from Mr. Steele’s possession, take it away from him, carry it into another room with five of you, two persons who are unrelated to this particular criminal matter, rescan that bag in his absence, bring that bag back to him, and all this time, M’Lady, this bag is opened. It would have even been bad had they sealed back that suitcase and taken it back and brought it back sealed. They went with the bag opened out of Mr. Steele’s presence. M’Lady, that is not proper.”

He said the only alternatives are to conduct another physical search of the bag in Steele’s presence or accompany the security officials to the scanning room.

“God knows, if Mr. Steele who was down here on his sojourn — I mean I am just thinking things on the ridiculous — he may have been friend with a lady of one of those officers in that room. They may have something against him. We don’t know,” Williams said.

Senior Prosecutor Adolphus Delplesche, who had led the Crown’s case commented that the defence counsel was pushing things “beyond the boundary”.

“Mr Steele may not know who he may have spoken to during his time in St. Vincent. He is not a bad looking fella,” Williams further said.

“Yo’ watching him?” Delplesche joked in his usual jovial manner, causing the court to break out in muffled laughter.

The lawyer continued: “So M’Lady, that breach of protocol alone in taking this opened bag away from Mr. Steele’s possession is sufficient enough to discharge Mr. Steele.”

He said that even from a more practical standpoint, “Carrying back one round of 9mm bullet to America? Mr. Steele lives in Georgia, a gun state. It’s like checking somebody coming from New York into St. Vincent for coke. That doh make no sense,” he said and asked that the case be dismissed.

Delplesche did not object to the no-case submission, but pointed out that section 41 of the Firearms Act says that the burden of proof that one is a holder of firearms licence lies with the defendant.

“Your Honour, when Romario Woodley can’t identify what he find, it’s public interest, I don’t see why I should object [to the no-case submission],” Delplesche said.

The Crown’s case was that Zel Charles, an aviation security supervisor at AIA, was looking at x-ray images of bags moving along a conveyor belt at AIA about 5:20 a.m. on Wednesday.

Charles, who has been an aviation security officer for 14 years, said she saw in the bag an image of what appeared to be a round of ammunition.

She therefore asked Romario Woodley, a junior aviation security officer who has been in the post for nine months, to pull the bag from the conveyor belt and record the information from the baggage tag in the flagged-bags logbook, in keeping with the standard practice.

The aviation security supervisor told the court that the name on the bag was “Robert Steele”, scheduled to travel on LIAT 304.

She said she called the LIAT agent, in keeping with the protocols, and asked the agent to contact Steele.

Charles said that about the same time, Richard Burke, also an aviation security supervisor, came into the room and they reviewed the image together.

A police officer approached Steele, who was sitting in the departure area and took him to the check baggage room, where a physical search of the bag did not turn up the suspicious images.

The bag was taken to the x-ray room and was scanned in the presence of five persons, but Steele was not allowed to go into the room because the airport’s policy prohibits passengers from entering that room.

The second scan also revealed the image, and since the bag was scanned open, an aviation security official was better able to pinpoint the location of the object and found a round of 9mm ammunition inside Steele’s bag in the pocket of a pair of white jeans.

Steele denied knowledge of the round of ammunition.

5 replies on “Accused freed as airport ammo case ends in shambles”

  1. There are so many gaping holes in the policemen and security personnel testimonies that left resonable doubt in a reasonable person’should mind that accuquital was a fait accompli. Obviously the testimonies of the security staff was not cogent to the extent that even a rookie lawyer would have secured an accuquital. The security staff needs to take the laws of evidence 101 as a part of their training and their own development. This is further evidence of shoddy police work.

  2. This was a very simple case to investigate. There must be a police post at the airport and a police officer on duty at all times. All instances of a possible crime must be first reported to the police, who would then take lead in ensuring the crime Scene ( which is the man’s luggage) is secured, all evidence preserve and to initiate an investigation.

    The Steps in this investigation should be as follows:

    1) Upon identification of the ammunition on the X-RAY, the Police, the airline agent and the owner of the luggage should be summoned

    2) The on duty Police Officer should move to preserve the bag without touching it in its current location. He should simultaneously contact his Scenes of Crime Officer (SOCO)/counterpart to forensically process the bag

    3) The on duty Police Officer should ask the suspect whether the bag belongs to him and whether he packed it himself. Any response given should be noted in the Officers pocket book

    4) The Scenes of Crime Officer should photograph the bag and each its tag in the presence of the suspect

    5) The on duty police officer should then search the bag in the presence of the suspect

    6) Once the ammunition is identified. The Scenes of Crime Officer should then photograph the ammunition within the bag in its current location.

    7) Samples of the supects clothing should be taken from the bag and exhibited in a separate evidence bag to be forensically process for DNA

    8) The Suspect should be asked if the ammunition belongs to him and then cautioned immediately. All response should be noted in the on duty Officers pocket book

    9) After photographing the ammunition the Scenes of Crime Officer should swab it for DNA. The swabbing should be exhibited in a separate bag

    10) The ammunition should be recovered, placed in a exhibit bag, signed and dated by the Scenes of Crime Officer. The suspect should be invited to sign. The Officer must make a note in his pocket book if the suspect refuses to sign.

    11) The suspect should then be formally arrested

    12) The suspect should be taken into custody along with the evidence where a caution statement or an interview should is recorded from him

    13) A sample of his DNA should be obtained. This should be stored separately from the contents of tha bag

    14) Statements should be obtained from the security Officer who discovered the ammunition on the X Ray machine, the airline agent, the Scenes of Crime Officer and any other relevant persons.

    The following evidence should be exhibited

    A) The suspects bag or a photograph the bag- Exhibited by the SOCO

    B) The ammunition-Exhibited by the SOCO

    C) A still image of the X-Ray showing the ammunition- Exhibited by the X-Ray Operator

    D) All other photographs taken showing the bag before it was searched, baggage tags specifically with the suspects name, the ammunition inside the bag etc- Exhited by the SOCO

    E) Either the ammunition or the swabbing from the ammunition, and the mans clothing should be sent to the forensic laboratory to be compared with the mans DNA-Exhibited by the SOCO.

    Finally, the investigating officer should formally charge and caution accused. The Officer should subsequently prepare his statement and brief facts.

    This is a very simple investigation. However, often times the only investigative training these Officers have is that which is taught during their initial training. Why did the police officer or security officer wrote on the ammunition? This is a very antiquated practice. The ammunition should have been placed in an evidence bag He has diminished every opportunity for DNA evidence. This means elimination samples have to be taken from every person who touches the ammunition.

    Pertinent evidence can be obtained by comparing the DNA of the suspect with the ammunition. While there is a possibility that no DNA might be on the ammunition, the presence of DNA on that item can be very incriminating. The defense may attempt to refute this by indicating that the DNA deposits comes from the suspect clothing but it is up to the magistrate to believe this.

    Training is the hallmark of good policing. We must ensure our officers receive the best training. It might me necessary to have a set of written protocols in place or a memorandum of understanding between the police, airline agent, airport authority, immigration, customs and the security as it relates how these matters should be addressed. All is not loss.

  3. Training Observer? What training? It seems like the only training most of these bufoons get is in how to lick boots and carry news to politicians

  4. Rafael Stefania says:

    God help us. I Always thought that airport personal working for the Custons were police officers. This case seems like a joke. What is going to happen when a serious offence takes place?

  5. Myself and my partner travelled via AIA back to the UK in October – we arrived at the airport early to check in our luggage and relax at the airport bar but we were only there for a few minutes before myself, then my partner were called to the LIAT desk as we needed to be present for a ‘random’ bag check. This took an astonishing 30 minutes each during which time we were led all around the maze of passages at the back of the airport (5 mins), made to stand outside the search area for our turn (20 minutes) with no seating and then back to the airport departure area (5 mins) to rush for our flight.

    Having a new international airport, your authorities are lucky enough to have the option of simply adopting the best practices from other countries but instead have chosen an out-of-date and clearly inefficient system. I have been searched in several other countries and it has never taken more than 5 mins of my time – either a quick search to double check something seen on an x-ray (Spain) or a sticker is simply placed on my bag confirming it was spot searched while being processed (USA) so why does a Vincentian search take 30 mins? Clearly things are not working when I see an old lady also made to stand for 20 minutes at the back of the airport waiting for a bag search and ignored when she complains of feeling tired, my partner saying in frustration she never wants to visit St.Vincent again because of being messed around by the airport authorities, and now a guy found with a bullet in his jeans (probably his and he innocently forgot it in his jeans before travelling to St.Vincent?) let off simply because of poor evidence handling by the same staff.

    Before something serious occurs or your country gets more tourists, maybe it may help if you got some former staff from other international airports (from both within and outside the Caribbean) to come in, take a look at how you’re doing things and give you guys some advice? Or if that’s too expensive, send a few of your staff to some of the big airports in the world (JFK, Miami, Toronto Pearson, Heathrow, Dubai) to be mentored and learn lessons from their staff?

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