St. Thomas — Aundel Benoit , a 52-year-old national of Grenada, originally from Hope Vale, St George who operates Mangrove Restaurant & Bar in Westerhall, St David was sentenced last week in St Thomas following a DEA led $5 Million cocaine burst in April 2010.
In February, a federal jury found Benoit guilty of two counts of drug trafficking following a two-day trial in District Court in St. Thomas.
Jurors convicted the sailboat’s owner of possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance and importing a controlled substance.
However in what was described as a rare move, the jury acquitted Carlyle Williams – Benoit’s mate aboard the sailboat Laurel – of the same charges.
Williams a resident of Cherry Hill, St George was associated with Island Rentals Sewage & Waste Disposal Limited located in Westerhall, St David.
According to the evidence presented at trial, on April 10, 2010, the DEA St. Thomas Resident Office received information from Grenadian authorities regarding a sailing vessel named Laurel, that was traveling from Grenada toward the Virgin Islands.
The Grenadian authorities informed the DEA that they were surveilling the Laurel for suspected drug trafficking activities because it had previously been identified as a vessel used to transport narcotics.
The DEA St. Thomas Resident Office forwarded this information to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Evidence presented at trial further established that on April 12, 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Reef Shark interdicted the Laurel in international waters, south of Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.
On board the Laurel were Benoit and Williams. Coast Guard officers boarded the Laurel and attempted unsuccessfully to inspect the vessel.
Officers from a second Coast Guard Cutter, the Farallon, also attempted to inspect the vessel, but aborted the inspection when sea conditions became too dangerous.
The Laurel was then escorted to the Coast Guard Station in St. Thomas for further inspection.
On April 14, 2010, after two Customs and Border Patrol K-9s alerted for the presence of contraband in the stern area of the vessel, the Laurel was transported to Independence Boatyard where Customs and Border Patrol officials ex-rayed the vessel.
The ex-ray revealed brick-shaped objects in a compartment located beneath the hull of the Laurel.
Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection Officers then removed part of the rear hull of the vessel and discovered bricks of cocaine wrapped in black, red, yellow, gray and blue tape. A total of 250 kilograms of cocaine was stored in the hull of the vessel.
Benoit faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life in prison. He also faced a fine of up to US$10,000,000.
The U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Drug Enforcement Administration investigated the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Delia L. Smith prosecuted it.
In her closing arguments, Smith said the vessel was registered and flagged in the United States and that the investigation revealed that Benoit, who owned Laurel for 19 years, had been involved in “hundreds of sales”.