BELMOPAN, Wed. Oct. 23, 2019– On July 16, 2016, the shocking discovery of a head in a black plastic bucket that was identified to be that of Dangriga pastor Llewellyn Lucas gripped the nation’s attention. Belmopan police moved rapidly and charged Guyanese national, William “Danny” Mason, and four other men who were said to be Mason’s employees, with a string of offences, including murder and kidnapping.
The murder trial of the era began in early March and suffered major setbacks and delays after Mason’s attorneys, Herbert Panton and Rachael Montejo, suddenly walked away from the case and Mason hired a new attorney from his native Guyana.
Today, Wednesday, October 23, the trial moved into the defense phase, during which the five attorneys representing Mason and his co-accused, Ashton Vanegas, Keiron Fernandez, Terrence Fernandez, and Ernest Castillo, will make closing arguments. After the defense has completed their closing statements, Supreme Court justice Antoinette Moore, sitting without a jury, will summarize the evidence and determine the innocence or guilt of the men accused of what some call the crime of the century.
Yesterday, Tuesday, just before the prosecution closed its case, the court recalled one of its key witnesses, Scenes of Crime technician Barry Montejo, who assisted the court with explanations about over 150 photographs he had taken relating to the murder investigation. Among Montejo’s photographs were scenes of a burnt pit from which he collected some specimens of bones that were sent for examination at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital morgue.
The closing arguments began with the Guyanese attorney, Dexter Todd, who is representing William Mason, referred to as Accused Number Five on the murder indictment. Mason hired Todd in late March after the trial had started and the court had already heard the testimonies of several of the prosecution’s key witnesses.
Despite not being involved at the beginning of the case, Todd, when he was asked yesterday by a reporter if he was ready with his closing argument, he said he was. “Well, I was prepared from the beginning of this trial, when I came on,” Todd said. “We could have closed at that stage. I am excited to be back. I’m excited to wrap this up. I believe there is nothing that is going to drop out of the sky. What will be said in court is basically what had transpired in court. And that is basically what we’ll be bringing to the judge that we wish that she pays attention to,” he went on to state.
This morning, Todd began his address on a dramatic note, telling the court that the entire crime was a set-up and that some persons were “attempting to frame.” Todd did not continue the sentence.
He went on to say that he would go back to the opening statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions when she set out to explain that she would prove to the court that Pastor Lucas was lured to the house of the fifth defendant, and he was killed, and his head placed in a bag and then in a bucket, which then was placed in the pan of a pickup.
“The DPP said she would call 37 witnesses to satisfy the court that the five accused men caused harm to Lucas, and that the harm was unlawful,” Todd said.
Todd said the defense team (six lawyers) repeatedly asked themselves what the Crown was setting out to do. “The Crown did not present any evidence to satisfy a court of competent jurisdiction that the 5th defendant is guilty of murder,” he said.
“The Crown remains unsure where the alleged murder took place,” Todd submitted, as he drew the court’s attention to the lead police investigator and the scenes of crime technician. “Those two witnesses could have properly assisted the court to determine whether the court has jurisdiction to hear this matter.
They could not determine where the alleged murder took place,” he declared.
“Madam DPP said she would prove that the victim was killed and his head severed. There is no evidence that the deceased died before his head was cut off,” Todd said. “There is no such evidence.”
Todd submitted that no evidence existed that the DNA of Pastor Lucas was found on the Outback Ranch.
Pointing to the witness, David Dodd, who was allegedly kidnapped at Mason’s ranch and later released, Todd said the witness Dodd did not ever state that he saw the deceased at the ranch.
Todd asked the court to take judicial notice that the state had failed to produce any witness, expert or otherwise, that could provide testimony to indicate that the pit (at Mason’s ranch) had any human body and how long it took to burn.
“There is no evidence, scientifically or otherwise, to prove that the Outback Ranch was the scene of the crime,” Todd told the court.
Todd said the case for the Crown attempted repeatedly to show that the deceased was kidnapped, but the video evidence does not show Lucas being restrained.
“There is no evidence of the cause of death from the pathologist’s report,” Todd told the court. “The state has presented a case of pure assumptions. The circumstantial evidence goes into too many directions. There is no evidence of the 5th defendant’s involvement in this murder,” he said.
Todd told the court that there are a number of things that the investigators should have considered, among them a threatening message that Lucas had gotten by phone and which he sent to two persons, one of them being Mason.
Todd told the court that there was no evidence connecting the bag and the bucket in which Pastor Lucas’ head was found to Mason’s Outback Ranch. He went on to point out that investigators could have tested for matching soil samples or other things that could have tied the bag to the ranch. “Investigators never tested the bag and bucket for fingerprints to see who had handled them, and if they did, they did not present any evidence of that to the court,” Todd said.
“It would be unsafe to convict the 5th defendant,” Todd told the court.
Director of Public Prosecutions, Cheryl-Lynn Vidal, addressed the court next in its afternoon session.
DPP Vidal submitted that the prosecution’s case is based on circumstantial evidence and that the five accused men all had a hand in the murder of the deceased. “One strand might not be enough, but multiple strands can give enough strength,” she told the court.
With the joint venture premise stated, DPP Vidal proceeded to list the evidence that she presented during the more than six-month trial.
“On July 14, 2016 Mason texted Lucas about money that he [Lucas] was owed. The following morning Mason again texted Lucas to inquire from him when he would come for the money. Lucas told Mason that he was on his way,” stated DPP Vidal.
“When Lucas went to Mason’s Intelco Hill house, he was accompanied by American David Dodd and Pastor Lucas called Mason, using Dodd’s cell phone, to tell him that he had arrived at his house,” DPP Vidal further said.
The DPP submitted that Mason had a meeting with his staff, which included the four men who are also accused of the murder.
According to the prosecution, Mason went upstairs and he called Terrence Fernandez, one of his co-accused. He was heard on the video surveillance telling Fernandez that Lucas arrived with other persons. Lucas then went upstairs to meet with Mason; his companions waited in the vehicle they had arrived in.
Lucas’ companions were later invited to go into the residence, but instead of going into the residence, they were led into a separate room, where they were held hostage, said Vidal.
Mason then met with Terrence Fernandez and Ashton Vanegas, and he was seen on surveillance video handing Terrence Fernandez a firearm.
After their meeting had ended, Lucas was escorted back down the stairs. Terrence Fernandez walked in front of him and Vanegas walked behind him. Vanegas then pulled out what appeared to be a machete.
While that was happening, Dodd and Pastor Lucas’ other companions were taken captive, and they were restrained using duct-tape. The three men —Lucas, Dodd, and the third victim —were then thrown into the back of a black vehicle, the DPP said.
The DPP said that Mason oversaw the entire kidnapping, and then he and his workers jumped into the vehicle and drove out with the men as their captives.
The men were bound and blindfolded while they were taken to Mason’s Outback Ranch. Mason spoke to Dodd and then he released him unharmed.
Then, according to the DPP, Lucas was killed and his head cut off and put in a black sack, then the sack was placed in a bucket and put into Mason’s truck.
The rest of Lucas’ body was then burnt in the fire pit that was on the ranch, as Mason and his workers got in the truck and headed to Sancho’s Bar in Belmopan, where police found the head in Mason’s truck, the DPP said.
The DPP, in her presentation, also used the surveillance footage that police had gotten from Mason’s ranch.
In the footage, which took up a lot of the DPP’s afternoon presentation, Pastor Lucas is seen on the ranch as he is being escorted by two of Mason’s employees. Mason is also seen on the surveillance video giving instructions to some of the men.
The DPP’s submission also covered the DNA evidence that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation provided in testimony via video link.
The results of tests on both of the Fernandez brothers’ clothing were positive for the DNA of Pastor Lucas. Castillo’s clothing as well also tested positive for Lucas’ DNA sample. This information was reported in a previous coverage of this case when the DNA evidence was presented in the Belize City Supreme Court.
The DPP will continue with her submission when the court resumes tomorrow, Thursday.
Following the hearing, Mason’s attorney, Todd, spoke to reporters outside the courtroom.
Todd explained that the evidence as it was presented in this case fell short of a number of things. “… I have closed my arguments at looking holistically at the evidence,” he said. “How the judge treats the evidence is totally and completely up to the judge in relation to it. I am of the view that the investigation was not thorough. It lacked the type of completeness to bring conclusively what really transpired. This is a case entirely on circumstantial evidence, and I think in dealing with circumstantial evidence there ought to have been more coming from the investigation itself, which would have lent to a clearer picture of what actually transpired. So basically that was what I presented to the court, and I pointed out to the court what were some of the shortcomings, and let’s see if the court will agree in relation to that. As I said, it’s totally up to the court at the end of the day,” he said.
Todd was asked to respond to the suggestion that he downplayed the evidence against his client.
He replied, “Well, I didn’t really downplay the evidence against my client. I have submitted that there is no evidence against my client and the court is to either to agree or disagree as to whether there is evidence or not. I believe it was not a disputed fact that the deceased was at the home of my client; I’ve never disagreed with that; my client never disagreed with that. As opposed to whether there was any plan or plot or intention to kill the deceased is where I am waiting for the evidence, and those are the issues that I brought before the court and the court is going to review that evidence and see whether they agree or disagree.”
On Tuesday, the last pieces of the prosecution’s evidence were entered into the record of the trial when Scenes of Crime technician Barry Montejo was recalled to the witness stand to explain to the court some of the images that he shot during the investigation phase.
Attorney Baja Shoman, who is representing Ernest Castillo, and attorney Bryan Neal, who is defending Keron Fernandez, were both of the view that the crime scene photographs could assist them in the defense of their clients.
The DPP also weighed in about the benefits of the crime scenes photographs to her case.
After the issues of the crime scene photographs were ventilated to Justice Moore by the attorneys, she agreed to recall Montejo back to the witness stand.
In assisting the court to go over his 162 crime scene photographs, Montejo explained what the images on some of the photographs were. Montejo also explained to the court that on two separate days, on 16 and 17 July, he collected bones from a burn pit that was on Mason’s ranch.
Attorney Norman Rodriguez, who is defending Ashton Vanegas, asked Montejo if, when he entered the ranch, he did so by using a gate, and if there was a fence separating the ranch. Montejo replied that he entered by a gate, but he does not know if the fence runs along the entire ranch.
Rodriguez also asked Montejo if the burn pit was located on the Outback Ranch. Montejo replied that he did not know if the burn pit was on the Outback Ranch.
Keron Fernandez is being represented by attorney Illana Swift. Mason’s attorney, Todd, is being assisted by Belizean attorney Michelle Trapp. The other attorneys on the case are all court- appointed.
Justice Moore is hoping that by Monday, the case could be concluded, then the only portion of the trial that will be left is her delivery of her ruling on the innocence or guilt of all the accused, in the dramatic murder trial.