Roberto Tapia, above, served as DPNR’s head of enforcement for more than a year.
Department of Planning and Natural Resources Director of Environmental Enforcement was arrested by federal agents on Friday evening, May 17, at the Red Hook ferry dock after returning from St. John with seven kilograms of cocaine in his possession.
Roberto Tapia, a former V.I. Police Department officer and DPNR’s chief law enforcement officer, faces charges of conspiracy to posses with intent to distribute cocaine and use of a firearm in drug trafficking.
Tapia was arrested around 8:30 p.m. on May 17 wearing a DPNR uniform and carrying his department-issued handgun, while toting seven kilograms of cocaine, with a potential street value of $1 million, in his backpack.
Federal agents also arrested two co-conspirators on Saturday, May 18. Stephen Torres and Eddie Lopez-Lopez, both fishermen from Puerto Rico, face charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.
All three men appeared before District Court Judge Magistrate Ruth Miller last week, who set conditions for their release. While Tapia had not posted bail of as press time last week, Miller set his bail at $250,000 and ordered him to home confinement at his mother’s Estate Fortuna residence, according to a report in the V.I. Daily News.
Tapia was described as being “jovial,” smiling, chuckling and waving to supporters during his court appearance, according to the V.I. Daily News report.
Torres and Lopez-Lopez will be allowed to return to Puerto Rico after posting $50,000 bail each. Miller ordered the two to home confinement and mandated that they be accompanied by a third party whenever they leave their homes, according to the V.I. Daily News report.
Details of Tapia’s drug trafficking activities, including using DPNR vehicles and vessels, and his high-profile arrest emerged last week, painting a picture of bold disregard for the law and his office.
Federal agents allege that Tapia used his DPNR vessel to pick up cash from Torres and Lopez-Lopez in open waters off St. Thomas, according to a report in the V.I. Daily News.
The cash may have been used to purchase the seven kilograms of cocaine which Tapia was carrying when he was nabbed the evening of May 17 in Red Hook, after returning from St. John, according to the V.I. Daily News report.
But federal agents had been monitoring Tapia all day. Authorities seized a 29-foot DPNR vessel and a private vessel which reportedly belongs to the two co-conspirators, according to a report on the online news forum St. Thomas Source.
Federal agents reportedly were informed that Tapia planned to meet with Puerto Rican fishermen on May 17 “to pick up a large amount of money in association with the purchase of multiple grams of cocaine,” according to a report in the V.I. Daily News.
While being watched by federal agents, Tapia reportedly boarded his DPNR boat at the department’s dock in Krum Bay, St. Thomas, and rendezvoused with a red vessel with twin engines about three miles offshore, according to the report.
At around 11 a.m., federal agents saw Tapia, who had not been carrying any bags, obtain a black and green backpack from the red boat, according to the report in the V.I. Daily News.
Back on land, Tapia put the backpack in his DPNR vehicle and later took it with him when he boarded the 7 p.m. ferry to St. John, according to the report.
The backpack, which did not look full when Tapia left Red Hook, was visibly full when he returned from St. John on the 8 p.m. ferry, according to the V.I. Daily News story.
Agents arrested the DPNR official on the Red Hook ferry dock and confiscated the seven kilograms of cocaine from the backpack, along with Tapia’s firearm, according to the report.
Tapia reportedly told officials that he planned to give the backpack to the men on the red fishing vessel on Saturday, May 18, near Sail Rock, according to the report in the V.I. Daily News.
Federal agents alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Marine Unit officers, who boarded the red vessel on May 18 and arrested Torres and Lopez-Lopez.
Information on how long Tapia allegedly had been running drugs was not included in court documents, which state that he conspired to distribute cocaine before from an unknown date,” according to the report.
Tapia, who had served as director of environmental enforcement since 2012, was suspended without pay and ordered to surrender all government-owned equipment, according to a report on the St. Thomas Source.
The arrest of Tapia, who reported directly to DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes, drew the ire of other high-ranking government officials.
V.I. Police Department Commissioner Designee Rodney Querrard pledged the department’s full support in a prepared statement issued by government house.
“It is always a sad day when anyone in law enforcement is either suspected of or charged with violating the laws they are sworn to uphold,” Querrard said in the statement. “However, it is our duty to see that such allegations are investigated and where proven are prosecuted. I can assure the public that ours is a policy of zero tolerance for any violations of law by those in our law enforcement divisions — zero tolerance.”
On Wednesday, May 22, Governor John deJongh appointed an acting director and acting deputy director of DPNR’s Division of Environmental Enforcement.
Howard Forbes of St. Croix was appointed as Acting Director of the division while Jessica Parris was appointed acting Director of Environmental Enforcement.
“Forbes, an Environmental Enforcement Officer with 24 years of experience, is the most senior officer in the department,” deJongh said. “He will oversee the day to day operations of the division.”
Parris will be responsible for providing support and assistance to the acting director as regards day to day operations in the St. Thomas/St. John District, deJongh explained.
“Deputy Director Parris is familiar with the duties and responsibilities required for this position in light of her seniority as an Environmental Enforcement Officer over the past seven years and her being the most senior officer in the district,” said the governor. “Prior to her position as an Environmental Enforcement Officer, she served as the Boating Safety Education Coordinator for three years.”
The appointment of leadership is a step in the right direction for DPNR, deJongh added.
“I was pleased to accept the recommendations of [DPNR] Commissioner Barnes and finalize the appointment of temporary leadership so that the work of this important division can move forward without interruption,” he said.
“I thank both Acting Director Forbes and Acting Assistant Director Parris for their willingness to serve in these positions.”