Sailor caught with $48m of cocaine gets 25 years
The case of drug and gun smuggling sailor Janis Zegelis hit the headlines in his home country of Latvia, as well as in Bermuda.
According to journalist Agris Blumfelds, who has been reporting on the case for the Latvian independent television station LNT, the sailors grandfather once warned him about getting involved in such a crime.
Mr Blumfelds said he learned from the grandfather that Zegelis moved to Venezuela some years ago to deepen the ports by helping to dig sand out of them. He also worked there as a yacht captain, taking cargo from port to port to earn some extra money.
I guess thats the work (where) he got some contacts for a shipment that was not legal, suggested the journalist.
He explained that Zegelis comes from a small port town named Salacgriva where most residents are sailors and fishermen. The name Zegelis means sailor in Latvian.
There is not a lot of money and I guess if he (Zegelis) has three children it could be a way to get money for them, he said of the crime.
During the trial, the jury heard how Zegelis told Bermuda police he was to be paid $2 million for his role in taking the drugs from the Caribbean to Latvia, in Northern Europe.
Mr Blumfelds said: Yesterday I spoke to a policeman who deals with drug crimes. He said he doesnt believe what Zegelis says that he would earn $2 million. The police chief said it looked (more like) $10,000 to $20,000 and the $2 million is a lie, for what reasons I dont know.
According to him, the grandfather, who is named Arturs — the same name as Zegeliss yacht and one of his sons — has not seen his grandson in a long time.
Once when he visited him, he told Janis to stay out of the drug business. The grandfather was a sailor and knew the things going on in the sea and told him not to do stupid things, he reported.
Mr Blumfelds said the importation of drugs into Latvia is an increasing problem, and people have been bringing them in on planes in pellets in their stomachs. One, who was a well known sportsman, recently died.
Comments on public forums since the conclusion of the Zegelis case featured complaints about how much it will cost Bermudas taxpayers to keep him in Westgate for the duration of his sentence.
Asked what would have happened to Zegelis if he had been dealt with for drug importation in his home country, the journalist replied that he could have got a ten-year sentence.
The prison is a really crappy place, but if you have got money you can be a well treated guy in prison, he said.
Zegelis was given a 25-year sentence yesterday, although the judge suggested it might be possible that he is deported after one third of the sentence.
Latvian sailor Janis Zegelis has been jailed for 25 years for importing $48 million worth of cocaine, a gun and 192 bullets into Bermuda on his yacht.
Meting out the sentence yesterday, Puisne Judge Carlisle Greaves said: This is a case of historical enormity.
He noted that no one has ever been convicted and sentenced in Bermuda for such a large amount of drugs.
The longest previous sentence was 18 years, and the judge said Zegelis must be given a larger penalty than that.
Drug traffickers must know with certainty that when they use this country as any cog in the wheel of dealing, punishment shall be certain and be severe. This is the manner in which they shall be deterred, he said.
Zegelis, 29, was found guilty by the unanimous verdicts of a jury last Thursday. The trial heard he has sons aged ten and seven and a two-year-old daughter.
Urging the judge to be lenient, he said yesterday: I am a family man, a father of three. All my life Im taking care of all of them, especially my two sons who I raised five years by myself. The only thing I want as soon as possible is to be with them and support them.
During his nine-day trial, the jury heard Zegelis, a charter boat skipper, was sailing his 38-foot sloop, the Arturs, from Trinidad to Latvia with the drugs on board.
However, damage to his boat during a tropical storm forced him to stop in Bermuda for repairs.
Prosecutors say he was smuggling the drugs to raise money for his family, who were struggling financially in his impoverished home country in Northern Europe.
E-mails showed he discussed the contraband with his mother, and she urged him not to dump the items overboard despite the damage to his yacht.
Zegelis told the jury he was the victim of a plot by a Russian man who hired him to deliver the boat.
He said the man hid the drugs and gun below decks and he did not discover them until three days into his voyage last July.
He further claimed that he was too scared to dump the drugs or tell the authorities what happened because the Russian — who he refused to name — threatened to kill him and his family.
The jury rejected the arguments of defence lawyer Mark Pettingill that Zegelis had the legal defence of acting under threat or duress.
However, prosecutors and the judge accepted there was no evidence that the Latvian intended the contraband to get onto the streets of Bermuda.
He was moored in St Georges with it on his boat for 11 days before the vessel was raided and he was arrested on August 1 2011.
Director of Public Prosecutions Rory Field suggested yesterday that Zegelis should serve 29 to 35 years behind bars.
He said he took a calculated risk in smuggling the drugs, and should not attract sympathy just because he was unlucky enough to get caught.
Drug importation crimes, he said are all too prevalent in society internationally and a serious message must be sent via a severe sentence, especially due to the death and destruction cocaine causes.
Defence lawyer Mark Pettingill argued, however: Its not for us to bring down the Sword of Damocles on a foreign national who has no intention of doing anything in Bermuda.
While the prosecutor cautioned that the sentence must have a deterrent effect, Mr Pettingill argued that other drug runners will not be encouraged by the case to use Bermuda as a way station as were not in the geographical location to do that. Were not the Bahamas.
He also appealed for mercy on the basis that Zegelis is a young man with young children. Mr Pettingill pointed out the defendant will have a tough time in prison since English is not his first language and he wont have a chance to see his family.
The judge said the time Zegelis has spent in custody since his arrest will be taken into account and that he took his age and family situation into consideration in deciding the sentence.
Noting that the authorities may not wish to pay for Zegelis to stay in Westgate any longer than necessary, he suggested he may end up being paroled and deported after just a third of his sentence.
However, the parole board has refused in other cases to grant parole to foreign prisoners.
The judge also ordered that the yacht should be forfeited to the courts under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
Acting Superintendent Sean Field-Lament, of the Bermuda Police Service, welcomed the ruling and sentencing, saying he hoped it would send a strong message and act as a deterrent.
He added: We would also like to acknowledge the hard work of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions that diligently brought this matter to a conclusion.