FREDERIKSTED — Does knowing a high-placed person in government lead to different outcomes when it comes to bail and pre-trial release conditions in the territory?
The old saying goes: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
Certainly, that true-ism was never more true than in the U.S. Virgin Islands — especially in dealings with the Superior Court — which is stacked with political cronies by the governor.
The latest case in point … Jelani James, son of a former V.I. Public Works commissioner.
Despite being arrested for a home invasion incident on Thursday, Jelani James’ family connections allowed him to be released immediately to the custody of his father, Gustav James — the former Public Works Commissioner under former Governor Kenneth E. Mapp.
This is a long-standing policy of special treatment afforded to people connected to law enforcement in the U.S. Virgin Islands — either to the Virgin Islands Police Department, the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands — or the chief executive himself … whoever it is at the time.
When former VIPD public information officer Toby Derima’s son Toby Derima II was arrested on an illegal gun charge in November 2020, the Superior Court held a private Zoom session of the court — which allowed junior to be released to custody of his father — bypassing a public hearing — or any time waiting in prison.
Despite the fact that Toby Derima II was facing 20 years in prison if convicted of the gun charge, “Bail for Mr. Derima was not set and waived by Honorable Magistrate Ernest Earl Morris Jr.,” and Derima “was not remanded to the Bureau of Corrections,” according to the probable cause fact sheet filed by police.
The Virgin Islands Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Denise George, by contrast, takes abuse of power allegations seriously
For instance, when Virgin Islands Department of Justice enforcement officer Yahya K. Daniel, 42, was arrested on a domestic violence charge for a brutal beating of a woman in January 2020, he was immediately placed on unpaid leave.
Daniel, the VIDOJ officer living in Estate St. John on St. Croix, used to party at the Nauti Bar in Gallows Bay with Governor Kenneth Mapp’s bodyguards.
But the man charged with simple assault & battery two years ago was known to threaten violence to people he didn’t like when he was inebriated in public, eyewitnesses recalled for the Virgin Islands Free Press.
As reporters for the V.I. Free Press tried to cobble together facts about the Jelani James case, VIPD Communications Director Glen Dratte refused to release public information about where the suspect had pursued his alleged home invasion.
Dratte, the former VIPD public information officer under former Governor Kenneth Mapp, works full-time as a disc jockey for WJKC-Isle 95, full-time as the Communications Director for the VIPD and full-time for the Virgin Islands Consortium as its advertising manager.
The fact that suspect Jelani James was the son of former Public Works Commissioner Gustav James was disclosed to the V.I. Consortium, but not to the V.I. Freep. Dratte again this morning refused to disclose Jelani James’ place of residence on St. Croix.
Meanwhile, Gregory Bennerson Jr., former Governor Kenneth Mapp’s Chief of Executive Security, was involved in a two-car accident in September 2018 “but did alert the proper authorities afterwards,” according to the Virgin Islands Think Tank on Facebook.
The accident occurred on St. Croix after midnight when Bennerson’s unmarked black government vehicle smashed into the back of a private citizen’s vehicle, the Think Tank alleged.
“Victim reports after being rear-ended by Bennerson, he left scene of accident in his damaged unmarked government vehicle to avoid being spotted by passerby’s and parked damaged government vehicle distance away from crash site.” the Facebook group said. “Victim reports Officer Bennerson Jr. later returned to crash site and offered no assistance to victims.”
When Gregory Rafael Naar, a special assistant to former Governor Kenneth Mapp called Mapp’s bodyguards for help after beating and choking a woman in September 2018, and the governor’s bodyguards arrived to the woman’s home before police, according to a sworn police affidavit filed with the Superior Court.
The unnamed woman told police that Naar came to her house after work and she asked him to speak away from children that were present in the home at the time, so they went into the bedroom to talk privately. The woman said she smelled alcohol on Naar and he laid down on the bed, according to the affidavit.
She asked him to the leave the home but he refused until she packed his belongings, so she started putting his clothing in a suitcase. The woman said Naar threw a shoe at her head, which struck a closet door that hit her in the left side of the face, according to the affidavit.
She backed away from the closet and asked, “Greg, what the hell is wrong with you?” at which point he pushed her into the bedroom door “and used his right hand to punch her with a closed fist under her right eye and then she fell to the ground,” according to the affidavit.
The woman said Naar punched her three more times and a relative of the woman’s who was also in the home at the time heard the altercation and started knocking on the closed door, according to the affidavit.
At that point, Naar put his hands around the woman’s throat to prevent her from calling for help, according to the affidavit.
She yelled at Naar to get off her and was able to get away as the relative opened the door and children in the home entered the room to see what was going on, according to the affidavit.
In front of the witnesses, the woman told Naar to pack his things and leave. Instead, she told police, Naar pushed her onto the bed and put his hands around her neck, squeezing and choking her as she struggled to get away, according to the affidavit.
The woman’s relative had to pull on Naar’s legs before he would release his grip and let her go, and the children started crying in hysterics, according to the affidavit.
The woman and her relatives left Naar in the home, at which point he called Mapp’s bodyguards, according to the affidavit.
The woman said she heard Naar on the phone saying “I need your help, something just happened,” according to the affidavit.
Mapp’s bodyguards arrived at the woman’s home before Virgin Islands Police officers, and at no point did Naar call 911 or summon help for the injured woman, according to the affidavit.
The woman called 911 for help and told responding officers she was scared for her life, according to the affidavit.