Trio Facing Multiple Charges After Trying to Flee Special Op Unit

VIPD patrol car. (Linda Morland photo)
Three men arrested Saturday after fleeing a traffic stop near Market Square. (Source file photo by Linda Morland)

A near-deadly encounter between three suspects and cops on a stakeout was the subject of a preliminary hearing in Superior Court on Monday. The magistrate hearing the case set high cash bonds for each defendant, two of whom had already pleaded guilty to prior criminal offenses in 2022.

Details about the Saturday night incident were filed with the court by the arresting officer, a member of the Virgin Islands Police Department Special Operations Bureau. According to court documents, a special ops unit was conducting surveillance in the area of Long Bay. Based on information provided by another police unit, the surveillance team was watching for signs of illegal weapons and drug activity.

But shortly after authorities tried to encounter the suspects, they managed to turn the tables in the midst of an attempted traffic stop. The arresting officer said he narrowly escaped injury when a toppled street light missed him by inches.

Police Officer Roger Arroyo described the events of Feb. 11 when he and other members of the special ops unit were observing activities in the area of Long Bay. There, they spotted a vehicle with no license plates; the driver was suspected of possessing weapons and drugs.

The suspect, identified as Ja’Haile Clendinen, and two others sat down outside of a restaurant in a shopping center under observation. They shared drinks and smoked a substance taken from a jar, later testing positive for marijuana. The three men then left the area in the white vehicle. The special ops team decided to follow them.

Near the intersection of Rothschild Francis Market Square, Arroyo and others attempted a traffic stop. Pursuing officers flashed the blue lights on their vehicles.

That’s when Arroyo said the situation took an unexpected turn. “I exited my vehicle and began approaching the white 2008 Chevy Trailblazer with no tags. I walked up onto the sidewalk approaching the vehicle when the vehicle abruptly turned onto the sidewalk and came at me. I ran back to my police unit, and before I could get into my unit and opened the door,” the officer said.

By then, he said, the vehicle with Clendinen and the others were bearing down on him. But it struck a nearby lamppost instead; the glass globe of the lamp shattered near Arroyo’s feet.

A portion of the streetlamp got caught under the Trailblazer and dragged underneath as the suspects pulled away, but it stopped a distance later. Clendinen and one accomplice, later identified as Khalid Smith, left the car and ran away with officers in pursuit. Spectators shouted that the fleeing men had guns.

Police immediately surrounded the driver, Akwany Dore, and took him into custody one block south of 75 Corner. Arroyo and other special ops officers pursued Clendinen and Smith into Berne’s Ice Plant, about a block away. The weapons described by witnesses were recovered in the area and the two fleeing suspects were apprehended.

At a preliminary hearing held Monday, the three faced multiple charges, including attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, weapons possession, and possession of a firearm within 1000 feet of Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral School. An accessory found attached to the weapon was identified by police as a device used to convert a gun into an automatic weapon.

For that reason, Superior Court Magistrate Paula Norkaitis found probable cause for possession of a machine gun. The magistrate also noted that Clendinen and Smith pled guilty to separate felony offenses in 2022 and were still under probation.

If found guilty on the gun charges from Saturday’s incident as convicted felons, Clendinen and Smith faced mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years apiece. Nokadis set bail at $175,000 for them and $125,000 for Dore, the driver.

All three will have a chance to plead to the charges at arraignment hearings scheduled for March 3 at 10 a.m.