The trial of a [British] Virgin Islands man caught by a Customs patrol boat after a high-speed chase in Coral Bay, St John, [US] Virgin Islands (USVI) yielded two guilty verdicts. But the defendant in the case, Buney H. Chinnery, was cleared of the more serious charge of trying to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States.
Chinnery and six others were taken into custody on the night of October 31, 2022, by Federal agents who were on board a Customs patrol boat that chased and stopped the vessel Chinnery was operating.
According to St Thomas Source, the trial began with jury selection on February 21, 2023, and lasted two-and-a-half days. Customs Officer Eric Viergutz gave a detailed account of the October 31 incident. Some of the passengers who made the trip from Tortola with Chinnery testified as well, including a Haitian immigrant who identified himself and Chinney from photos taken by the arresting officers.
Officer Viergutz said the vessel was seen operating after dark without navigation lights. A digital recording taken by the patrol officers showing their attempts to order the vessel they spotted to stop was played in court.
Those attempts included patrol officers turning on the flashing blue lights mounted on their boat.
Viergutz said the boat captain turned his face away from the console of his boat and made eye contact with one of the officers. Then he moved his hand towards the throttle and took a sharp turn away from the patrol boat.
Haitian man tried to enter USVI from Tortola
Under questioning by authorities following the initial arrest, two of the passengers were identified as Haitian nationals, two were identified as hailing from the Dominican Republic, and one was identified as a Venezuelan national. Three of the passengers identified Chinnery as the vessel’s captain and the one who transported them from Tortola to the United States.
At the time he was apprehended, court records said the defendant had more than $1,600 in U.S. currency.
One of the passengers who testified at trial described the journey that led to his trip from Tortola to the United States, with Chinnery driving the vessel. Witness Willy Joseph said he left his home in Haiti and made his way to the neighboring Dominican Republic, where he stayed for a while. In late October, he boarded a flight from the Dominican Republic to Tortola. Two days later, he boarded an empty van that made several stops, picking up passengers. The van came to a stop near a shoreline area, and the passengers got out.
Then, Joseph said, they met a man who led them to a motorboat. The witness identified that man as Chinnery after being shown a series of photos displayed to the jury.
Chief District Court Judge Robert Molloy turned the case over for deliberation on Friday, February 24, 2023. Jurors convicted Chinnery of failure to heave to, a maritime offense that makes it a crime to disobey a lawful order to stop a vessel.
He was also found guilty of making a false statement to a representative of the US government. One witness appearing at trial said Chinnery misspelled his name when asked to identify himself. The witness also told the court the defendant claimed to be from St John and was helping stranded boaters at the time they were captured.
Chief District Court Judge Robert Molloy
turned the case involving Buney H. Chinnery over for deliberation on
Friday, February 24, 2023, and jurors delivered their verdict later that
Not guilty of human smuggling
But in the Friday verdict, jurors found the defendant not guilty of attempting to bring illegal immigrants into the United States on three separate counts.
The maximum penalty for making false statements is five years in prison. Chinnery also faces the possibility of paying a fine and serving up to five years in prison for failing to heave to when he is sentenced.