A slippery tale of ICE, drugs, courts, and frustration

Police said they found nine packages of cocaine ready for distribution hidden in the tennis ball. — Photo by Steve Myrick

The arrest of Adalberto Pires earlier this month was the first step on a path through the justice system on Martha’s Vineyard that illustrates a series of complex and confusing interactions among police, the courts, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Oak Bluffs police arrested Mr. Pires earlier this month on a charge of driving without a valid driver’s license. Mr. Pires, 38, is a native of Brazil who admits he is not a legal resident of Martha’s Vineyard, according to court documents.

Police reports and court documents trace a trail of arrests and releases that started with a traffic stop and ended with Mr. Pires walking out of the courthouse on $200 bail, despite being charged with a serious drug crime.

The investigation wound through a maze of search warrants, an impounded vehicle, a K-9 drug search, and drugs packaged and hidden inside a tennis ball. It finally led to a storage unit packed with expensive equipment, which police describe as “just bizarre.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force has had Mr. Pires under investigation since 2009. According to police, informants told investigators that the Brazilian was dealing cocaine and prescription pills. Mr. Pires denies that he uses or sells illegal drugs.

The investigation and prosecution of drug offenders comes at a substantial cost, in terms of police and court resources. There is also a cost in terms of the public health care accorded drug users.

Another cost could be the cynicism of the public about their government, law enforcement, and the courts, and doubts that the government can protect its citizens from people who commit serious crimes.

The public is not alone. The chain of events involving Mr. Pires’s arrest and eventual release here on Martha’s Vineyard has frustrated police officers and left some wondering whether their efforts to arrest offenders and prevent drug abuse result in any progress at all.

“He’s not supposed to be in this country,” said task force investigator Mike Snowden of the Edgartown Police Department. “He’s been out of jail 48 hours, and we arrest him again with nine grams of cocaine in the back of his truck. There’s no place for people like that in our community.”

Route to arrest

On the afternoon of February 8, Oak Bluffs police officer Chris Wiggin was on routine patrol when he got a call from Detective Nick Currelli, a member of the drug task force who investigates drug crimes.

Det. Currelli told Officer Wiggin he saw Mr. Pires driving down County Road in a red Toyota pickup truck and knew from his previous investigations that Mr. Pires did not have a valid driver’s license. Officer Wiggin pulled his cruiser over near the Oak Bluffs Fire Department, and after a short wait, observed Mr. Pires drive by. He pursued the truck, activated his emergency flashers, and stopped Mr. Pires.

“Pires presented me with a Washington state license,” Officer Wiggin wrote in his report. “Pires stated that he had been living and working on the Island for at least nine months, working intermittently for various landscape companies and held a local gym membership and post office box.”

Det. Currelli arrived as Officer Wiggin ran a record check, which confirmed that Mr. Pires had no status as a driver or resident in Massachusetts. It also revealed that in December of 2010, he was charged in Edgartown District Court with breaking and entering, and trespassing.

The court dismissed the case as part of a plea agreement. The court ordered Mr. Pires to pay $140 restitution, $100 in court costs, and complete eight hours of community service.

That previous court record made police suspect there were holes in the story Mr. Pires told them.

“This suggested to me that Pires has been living here even longer than the nine months that he admitted to,” Officer Wiggin wrote.

He arrested Mr. Pires and took him to the Dukes County Jail for booking.

Booking procedure

At the jail, sheriff’s department personnel booked Mr. Pires according to standard procedure. They took his fingerprints, and those prints were checked against a federal database. The check revealed that ICE was looking for Mr. Pires. A detainee order from the regional ICE office in Manchester, New Hampshire, was in effect. The order requires the sheriff’s department to notify ICE, and hold Mr. Pires in custody for up to 48 hours.

The detainee order notes that Mr. Pires was under investigation “to determine whether this person is subject to removal from the United States.” It includes case numbers from the FBI and ICE.

The order also notes, “Subject admitted that he was an overstay B-2.”

The U.S. government issues a B-2 visa, commonly known as a tourist visa, to foreign-born visitors who come to the United States for pleasure, tourism, or medical treatment.

Local authorities were under the impression that ICE would take custody of Mr. Pires, and proceed with deportation from the United States. But ICE did not.

On February 9, after spending the night in jail, Mr. Pires was arraigned in Edgartown District Court on the charge of driving without a license.

A copy of the ICE detainee order is in the court file, and it is noted on the cover of the file.

The court set bail as personal recognizance, but Mr. Pires remained in custody on the detainee order, and court officers took him back to jail.

Later that day, according to Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack, ICE lifted that detainee order without explanation.

“They did have a detainee order on him. They withdrew it,” Sheriff McCormack said. “When we didn’t have the authority to hold him, we had to let him go.”

Mr. Pires walked out of jail on his own recognizance, which means that the court accepts his word that he will return to court as required.

Retraced route

Two days later, Mr. Pires was behind the wheel of the red truck, driving in Oak Bluffs, according to police reports.

On February 11, Edgartown police officer Mike Snowden, also an investigator for the drug task force, got a call from the Oak Bluffs police officer Jeff LaBell.

Officer LaBell told him he spotted Mr. Pires enter the driveway of a home on Mashacket Way, off the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road in Oak Bluffs.

According to the police report, Officer Snowden set up surveillance to watch the home and the vehicle, and spotted Mr. Pires walk out about 45 minutes later.

“Pires then began looking up and down Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road as if he were conducting counter surveillance,” Officer Snowden wrote in his report. “After a brief minute of looking around for police, Pires began to walk back toward the driveway. As Pires reached his vehicle I observed him open the driver’s side door, then step back, toss a small hand size object into the back bed of the pick-up truck.”

Mr. Pires then drove toward Edgartown, where Officer Snowden activated his emergency lights. Mr. Pires turned onto Ninth Street and pulled into a driveway. Officer LaBell and Edgartown police officer Joel DeRoche arrived a few moments later.

“As I approached the vehicle, Pires informed me that his license was no good and that he had been arrested a few days ago,” Officer Snowden wrote. “I then asked him why he was driving if he knew he did not have a license. He stated it was the only way to get around. He then informed me that he was going back to Brazil in a few days.”

Police arrested Mr. Pires again, and took him to the jail for booking.

The ball bounces

In his report, Officer Snowden noted that during an inventory of the truck, he observed a number of items, including a tennis ball, a coke can, and a ladder. Police towed the vehicle to a secure yard.

Police questioned residents of the Ninth Street home where Mr. Pires pulled over, but the homeowner said neither he, nor his tenants, had ever seen him. Some time later, police got a call from an informant, who told them Mr. Pires was there to sell cocaine, according to the report.

Based in part on that information, police got a search warrant authorizing them to look for drugs in the seized vehicle. Late that evening, Officer Trudel brought K-9 Buster, a dog trained to detect narcotics by smell, to sniff around the outside of the vehicle.

“K-9 Buster showed signs of detection in the seam of the bed of the truck and the cab,” according to the report. “Later on in the search Buster was placed into the bed of the truck. Buster again showed signs of detection in the bed adjacent to the passenger compartment. After a process of elimination Buster downed and gave a final response to the tennis ball.”

K-9 trainers use the term “downed” to describe how a dog signals that he has detected narcotics. The dog is trained to sit or crouch down when he smells the drugs, touching his nose to the object emitting the odor.

Inside the slit tennis ball, police found nine glassine baggies of a white powder which they later determined to be cocaine, according to the police report. Edgartown police applied for a criminal complaint charging Mr. Pires with possession of cocaine, with intent to distribute.

Second booking

Mr. Pires was booked into jail on the second arrest, as usual. A fingerprint check revealed a detainee order in effect, and it is noted on the pre-arraignment booking form.

Mr. Pires was transported from the jail to the court for arraignment on February 14, after spending the holiday weekend in custody.

Sheriff McCormack, after a thorough review of the booking procedure, said he is sure the detainee order was sent to court, along with the rest of the paperwork.

But court officials say there was no detainee order in the file. The court file for the second arraignment does not contain a copy of the detainee order.

When he was arraigned on the drug charge on February 14, no one in the court system was aware of the detainee order in effect. The court set bail for Mr. Pires at $200, and he walked out of court after paying the bond.

ICE scrambles

Mr. Pires was back in court for a routine pre-trial hearing on February 21.

By this time, according to police and court officials, ICE was scrambling to issue a new detainee order, to require that Mr. Pires remain in custody.

Following conversations with police and court officials, ICE issued a new detainee order, asking that Mr. Pires be held. But it was too late.

“Immigration called us, and they did issue a new detainer,” district court clerk-magistrate Liza Williamson said. “But he had already left the courthouse by the time they faxed it to us.”

A detainee order does not give local police any authority to go out and arrest Mr. Pires. It only authorizes law enforcement or the court to hold him once he is in custody.

Mr. Pires remains free on $200 bail, due back in court March 1.

Asked for comment on the sequence of events, Washington based ICE public affairs officer Ross Feinstein provided the following account in an email to The Times.

“This individual was originally encountered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in January 2011. A notice to appear before an immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review was issued, and he was released.

“On Feb. 8, 2012, he was arrested on local charges and ICE lodged a detainer. Upon local review, the detainer was dropped due to the fact that the subject was currently in removal proceedings, was arrested for a minor offence, and was not subject to mandatory detention by law.

“On Feb 11. 2012, he was once again arrested and ICE lodged a detainer. Upon local review, officers determined that due to the new charges, ICE would detain the individual. That detainer remained; however, he was released from court without notifying ICE of his release.”

Strange storage

Mr. Pires said he voluntarily gave permission for police to search his home, and he says they found no drugs. They did find paperwork showing that he leased a storage unit at Sun Self Storage in Vineyard Haven.

Police got a search warrant to look for drugs or cash in that unit.

“When we opened the storage unit, it was chock full of stuff,” Oak Bluffs Lt. Tim Williamson said.

Police found no cash or drugs, but they found something else that raised suspicion. Packed in sturdy crates ready for shipment were several used clothes dryers. They were stuffed with expensive tools.

“The way he had them packaged piqued our curiosity,” Lt. Williamson said. “He gutted out clothes dryers, secured them inside the dryers, and used blankets and cloth to pad it.”

Lt. Williamson said the dryer doors were sealed shut with metal screws.

Among the items packed inside the dryers were eight commercial paint sprayers, ranging in value from approximately $500 to $12,000, according to police.

“It appears that he was getting ready to ship all this stuff back to Brazil,” Lt. Williamson said.

According to police, when questioned later, Mr. Pires said he bought the tools on E-bay, and planned to sell the commercial paint sprayers at a substantial profit in Brazil. He told police he intended to ship the items into that country secretly, to avoid a hefty import tax.

Police checked lists of stolen property from across the country and called manufacturers. They could find no evidence any of the items were stolen.

While they continue to check the seized evidence, police say the tools and other equipment will likely be returned to Mr. Pires.