Lead Editor, Investigative Desk
With prayers, patience and determination as his weapon, Anderson Straker, now 47, was able to maintain his sanity over the last decade and a half as he fought tooth and nail to prove his innocence and gain his freedom —which will finally come on January 9, 2021.
Straker languished for nearly 15 years in a United States jail for a crime he said he never committed—the murder of Balram “Balo” Maharaj, said to be a US citizen and war veteran, whose remains were buried in two containers in the Santa Cruz forest in 2005. Maharaj, 62, was kidnapped at the Samaan Tree Bar in Aranguez, on April 6, 2005. His remains were recovered on January 8, 2006.
Straker’s arrest and incarceration was an elaborate “set-up”, he says.
“I was made a political scapegoat and I have been sitting in prison for something I didn’t do and with people I didn’t know.
“How far are they willing to go for political mileage, robbing Trinbagonians of their God-given birthrights and equal protection of the law home and abroad…The PNM Government sold me into modern-day slavery within a justice system to be tried, where the colour of my skin is my sin…”
Determined to fight for his freedom, Straker says, “For the past 15 years, I have been a citizen of nowhere! Prayers, love, and patience is my weapon.”
Straker, the son of calypsonian Winston “Gypsy” Peters, operated his own transportation business for years, was the co-ordinator of the Unemployment Relief Programme under the UNC and spent some time helping his father during his (Peters) UNC political campaign before he was arrested in 2005. For the next 15 years, he was forced to trade his civilian clothing for a jail coverall.
Torn apart from his four children—one just a newborn when he was arrested and the others ten and under—now all grown-up and between the ages 14-25, he spent countless nights writing letters to them or making telephone calls whenever he could to check up on them. He is all torn up about being robbed of the opportunity to nurture them during their formative years.
“It was very hard and painful that I could not talk to my mother and kids for years. Whenever I did call the conversation would be very short because the call cost me one US dollar per minute.”
Straker and six other Trinidadians were indicted in the US in 2006. Three years later a jury convicted Straker and Wayne Pierre, Zion Clarke, Ricardo De Four, Kevon Demerieux, Christopher Sealey, and Kevin Nixon on both counts of hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit hostage-taking.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia affirmed his conviction on September 1, 2015, and the supreme court denied his petition for certiorari (a court process to seek judicial review of a decision of a lower court or government agency) on February 20, 2016. During this period Straker was represented by attorney Steven Kiersh.
Faced with two life sentences, he tirelessly navigated the US court system and after filing a significant motion that was heard between 2018 and 2019, the judge ruled in Straker’s favour overturning the two life sentences.
Straker admitted it was a bitter fight and he was never prepared to back down from proving his innocence, even when approached by the US Government to serve a lesser sentence.
Straker, who is at the FCI Florence, a federal prison in Colorado, told of his ordeal in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Guardian during several phone conversations in the last three months.
With a new attorney—Matthew Peed—representing his interest, Straker filed a petition to vacate his conviction on June 16, 2016, and then four months later, in October, filed a supplemental motion to vacate his conviction with two additional claims and three supporting exhibits.
The game-changer was when Straker filed what is termed a “2255” in the United States. Through that petition, “A prisoner in custody under sentence of a court established by Act of Congress claiming the right to be released upon the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States…may move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate, set aside or correct the sentence.”
Straker was able to expose the alleged corrupt behaviour of FBI agents in the case, that he never gave a confession statement to the FBI or TTPS, the fact that Maharaj was never a US citizen when he died, the failure of his defence attorney to properly represent him, the fact that he was denied help from the T&T Consulate, an FBI agent’s alleged sexual relationship with the victim’s niece, that he had 12 witnesses who placed him far away from Aranguez the day the plan to kidnap Maharaj was hatched. The alleged behaviour of the state prosecutor who allowed one of the co-operating defendants to live at his home after completing his sentence and the culpability of the United States Government. These were compellingly laid out in public court documents exclusively obtained by the Sunday Guardian.
Straker gave a stunning account of what transpired during his trial, how he stood up to the American justice system, exposing the gaping holes of a system that deprived him of his freedom for years.
“I want to make it clear it did not come down to me spending time in jail for any lesser crime. I reversed the two life sentences and opened up a can of worms before the court which sooner or later would make the court look bad,” explained Straker.
“In the years in which I fought my case and sent a private investigator to Trinidad, the US Government started to make me offers, saying I can do 30 years and I refused their offer. They offered me 25 years, then 20 years, and I said no. I read a case law that came down to a case like mine, I put it to the lawyer to let the judge know and it came to an offer to serve up to 18 years, so the judge could not pass 18 years. The others who were charged with me also filed similar motions and got 15, 16, and 17 years, etc, in the end.
“I won my freedom outright but pride and shame didn’t let the judge free me outright. I never one day kept my mouth shut in court…without fear, and they hated it badly. I showed them no respect at all because I knew better and hated the position I was in,” he said.
The substantial hearing which lasted several months came before Judge John D Bates at the US District Court of the District of Columbia in 2018.
In addition to his new attorney Peed, Straker hired an investigator by the name of Trevor Hewick who travelled to Trinidad and did extensive inquiries that also proved crucial in his 2255 hearing.
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In his motion, Straker indicated that the “defendants maintained that co-operators fabricated the defendant’s purported involvement in Mr Maharaj’s kidnapping; that Jason Percival (co-operator) persuaded the other co-operators (those who entered agreements with the US Government) to adopt his version of the alleged crime…and that the defendants’ supposed confessions were procured through intimidation or influenced by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS).”
The investigating officer at the TTPS, then Sargeant Wendell Lucas, now head of the Financial Investigations Branch (FIB), also came under severe criticism by Straker for the way he handled the investigation.
Straker, who addressed the court before his sentencing in 2011, said, “I still would like to know how Sgt Lucas came about to charge 14 people in my country for Mr Maharaj murder after getting a death report from my country’s head pathologist saying that Mr Maharaj’s death was undetermined. The expert says he could not tell how the victim died after his examination.”
Straker, in his interview with the Sunday Guardian, said that adding insult to injury, “Can you believe that some of these co-defendants later recanted statements about knowing me?”
Nine grounds of relief raised eyebrows and among the compelling ones were:
1. Counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that any purported re-initiation of contact by Straker with the FBI lapsed in the 18 months between Straker’s alleged voicemail to FBI agent (Marvin) Freeman and the custodial interrogation by FBI agents Clauss and Cruz in which he allegedly confessed.
2. Counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and establish that the FBI reinitiated conversation about the investigation following Straker’s invocation of his right to counsel.
3. Counsel was ineffective for failing to obtain an expert to testify regarding the victim’s (Maharaj) citizenship.
4. Counsel was ineffective for failing to determine whether the US Government fulfilled its consular notification requirements.
The FBI agents’ behaviour
The shocking behaviour and methods used by the FBI agents came under heavy criticism in Straker’s 2255, as noted in his grounds for relief, when he was interviewed at the La Horquetta Police Station where he had been kept between January 6-9, 2006.
On January 9, Straker was interviewed by FBI agents Marvin Freeman, Clauss, and Cruz along with T&T police officer Wendell Lucas.
Straker refused to speak with the interrogators in the absence of his attorney Theodore Guerra, SC, (now deceased).
On July 29, 2007, while in the custody of the FBI and without his attorney being present, Straker was again questioned about his role in the crime.
“Before commencing the questioning, neither Straker nor his attorney had contacted either FBI agents Clauss or Cruz and indicated he wanted to discuss any matter related to hostage-taking of Balram Maharaj.”
According to the court document, the interrogation by agent Clauss was not audiotaped or videotaped. There was only a statement (termed FBI 302) that came out of a conversation which was not signed by Straker. That purported statement by Straker was the subject of a motion to suppress.
FBI agent Freeman had testified that he received a recorded telephone message from Straker suggesting that Straker wanted to speak with him. Freeman did not have any notes related to the message, the recording was not introduced into the statement of record, Freeman did not know when the call or calls were made and did not know the locations the calls came from.
Straker did not give a confession statement to the FBI or TTPS
Peed indicated that “Since the Government presented no documentary evidence whatsoever that the voicemail occurred, no phone records from the Royal Jail, no investigation notes, no emails to the investigating officers there was room in the record for the court to conclude that agent Freeman’s testimony about the voicemail was insufficient to carry the Government’s burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Despite this, Straker’s alleged confession was introduced at the trial despite his objection.
Peed argued that Straker’s defence for the 2009 trial and earlier appeals, “had a professional duty to investigate all available means of proving that the confession was either inadmissible or inauthentic.”
Straker’s defence ineffective
The court document stated that if Kiersh had argued that the purported initiation of a conversation with the FBI lapsed during the year and a half when Straker left his phone message for agent Freeman and there was an interrogation at which he allegedly confessed, Straker would have won his motion to suppress and the statement would not have been introduced in the trial.
Peed in the document said, “Straker’s confession was the chief evidence against him, as the rest of the Government’s case rested on the testimony of co-operating witnesses with strong reasons to implicate and harmonise their testimony. Without Straker’s FBI 302–which was less favourable than Leon Nurse (co-operating defendant)–there is a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have harboured reasonable doubts as to Straker’s agreement with the plan to kidnap Balram Maharaj, particularly since 12 jurors unanimously acquitted Straker’s co-defendant David Suchit.”
Peed felt that Straker had been prejudiced by the defence’s “ineffectiveness” and a new trial should be ordered.
Kiersh’s actions also come under deeper scrutiny in the second grounds for relief as the defence failed to investigate that the FBI reinitiated conversation about the investigation following Straker’s invocation of his right to an attorney. They said it was incumbent on Kiersh to investigate “all apparently substantial defences.”
Straker had notified Kiersh that Freeman had called his father (Peters) who did not want to get involved with Straker’s situation. Straker’s father put Freeman in touch with Straker’s mother, Denise Straker-Fortune. Freeman told Straker’s mother that he had just visited her son and he would not talk to him. He asked her to talk to him and he left two contact numbers.
So it was the FBI and not Straker that made contact. Kiersh, however, failed to investigate this when informed by Straker before the trial in 2009.
Maharaj’s US citizenship revoked after deserting US army
The basis of bringing Straker and the others to the United States to face charges in Maharaj’s death hinged on the fact that he was said to be a US citizen. But it turned out that Maharaj at the time of his death was not a US citizen. There was no justification for the case to be tried in the US.
Kiersh, it was pointed out, had failed to obtain an expert to testify on Maharaj’s citizenship.
The 2255 motion stated, “Maharaj’s status as a US citizen was both the basis for subject matter jurisdiction under the US laws and an essential element of the hostage-taking offence.”
In pre-trial investigations, Straker discovered evidence that Maharaj illegally procured his US citizenship.
Straker produced documents in court to show that Maharaj’s real name before was Alladin Barlow John, who had been deported from the US to T&T.
The 2255 document stated that before the trial: (i)Maharaj deserted the US military in 1967, seven months after he joined and during the time of war; (ii) Maharaj entered the US illegally by overstaying a transit visa and (iii) Maharaj obtained a permanent resident alien registration (“green card”) on August 15, 1986, through misrepresentation and concealment of material facts, including his probation for petty larceny, a crime of moral turpitude and prior commitment to a mental hospital; and (iiii) in his naturalization application Maharaj misrepresented that he had never been ordered deported, when in fact he had. Each of these, standing alone, is a basis for denying or revoking citizenship.”
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And as stated under the US constitution Section 1425-(“deserters are “permanently ineligible” from becoming US citizens).
The absence of the signed naturalization certificate, and the 1995 passport being struck off the record, an expert could have established that there is too much conflict to establish Maharaj’s citizenship.
According to the 2255 motion, “This could have established reasonable doubt in front of a jury. Therefore, an expert was important and counsel’s failure to obtain one was ineffective assistance which resulted in prejudice therefrom.”
Straker said if there was a rebuttal testimony from an expert witness it could have cast doubt on the Government’s CIS official case and the “outcome could have been different.”
In the court transcripts in August 2011 Straker addressed Judge Bates and the court and didn’t hold back when he stated, “It is not a joke or a game. It is the foundation upon which the US Government built their case, and it is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt to this day that Mr Maharaj is an American citizen. Not because someone is the holder of an American passport means they are an American citizen, when it got rules, laws, policies, and condition (sic) that must be followed in order to achieve it.”
Straker denied T&T
Kiersh was also criticised as the defence failed to determine whether the United States had notified the T&T Consulate about Straker’s arrest, indictment or detention for him to receive consular assistance.
Under the Vienna Convention article 36, the consulate must be informed promptly of a foreign national’s arrest and forward communication of any detained national to the consulate without delay and also inform the detained national of “his right” under article 36 without delay.
The consulate, according to the court documents, could have among other things help a defendant source critical resources for legal representation and case investigation and also help in obtaining evidence or witnesses critical to the defendant’s (Straker) case.
Straker said he notified Kiersh on numerous occasions that he needed to get in touch with an officer at the T&T Consulate, but no effort was made to inform them about his “arrest, indictment or detention.”
The US Government also came in for stinging criticism in Straker’s 2255 motion. “The Government’s denial of Consular assistance denied petitioner (Straker) a fair trial,” the document stated.
It was four years after his arrest that Straker said he was contacted by representatives of the T&T Consulate who had no idea of his “detention and incarceration.”
FBI agent’s sexual relationship with the victim’s niece
The 2255 motion stated, “Petitioner’s (Straker) consular would have assured that he received two lawyers as required in all death penalty cases. The consular would have been able to talk with Straker’s mother and father and obtained evidence that the FBI reinitiated conversation about the investigation following Straker’s invocation of his right to counsel.
The consular would have been able to provide evidence that Straker couldn’t reinitiate conversation with agent Freeman because “he was allegedly diagnosed with hepatitis and kept in quarantine from early January through February when Freeman claimed he tried to make contact.”
The consular may have been able to provide the funds for an expert to testify regarding Maharaj’s citizenship, as well.
The document stated, “Additionally, the consular may have been able to convince Straker that he should enter a plea of guilty and cooperate with the Government for a reduced sentence. Straker did not trust the American people or police. Especially when there is evidence that the FBI case agent was having a sexual relationship with Maharaj’s niece throughout the investigations, arrest, and federal indictment.”
Failure to introduce
Straker’s alibi witnesses
Another key issue the motion brought to light was the defence’s inability to investigate and call alibi witnesses regarding Straker’s whereabouts on April 6, 2005.
The Government’s leading cooperating witness Russell Joseph had told the court during the trial that Straker was present at a meeting of the conspirators at Mellow Moods bar when he arrived shortly after 4 pm.
What Straker’s lawyer Peed pointed out in court documents was that “it was crucial to Straker’s defence that any testimony placing him with the kidnappers on the day of Maharaj’s abduction be vigorously and thoroughly debunked, both for its own sake and to illustrate the unreliability of the FBI 302 documenting his confession.”
Straker dictated a list of 12 witnesses who interacted with him on April 6 in Mayaro to Kiersh’s investigator Dale Vaughan who copied it down by hand.
On May 17, 2008, Vaughan travelled to Mayaro to look for and interview these witnesses. According to the court document, he was accompanied to Mayaro by three investigators assigned to other defendants in the case.
Vaughan recalled finding four witnesses, but could not recall who they were and or what they had said. While Vaughan was doing that, the other three investigators spent the day on the beach and after some time had passed, he eventually joined them.
One of the witnesses on Straker’s list was a man called Tyrone “Tiger” Carter who rented an apartment from Straker with his common-law wife, Jamiyla Alexander. Straker collected rent from them on the sixth of every month.
Vaughan did not locate any of these witnesses before going to the beach.
However, Kiersh was able to interview them in November 2008, two weeks before the suppression hearing. In that interview, Carter confirmed that he cleaned up the yard with Straker on April 6 and that Alexander could confirm the same. It was also stated on the record that Straker’s daughter was home from school and saw her father coming and going in the morning and cleaning up the yard in the afternoon.
But the defence did not use Carter’s testimony or refer to it in his closing arguments and did not even speak to Alexander to find out if she had seen Straker on that day.
Alexander recalled that day was Good Friday and she and Straker spent the afternoon in the yard raking up leaves and bagging debris, which he then made trips to dump it.
Although it was not included in her affidavit, Alexander told the investigator Trevor Hewick, who was hired by Straker before the lengthy hearing of the 2255 motion, that she worked with Straker up to 2-2.30 pm at which point he left to do his fish run.
According to the motion, “Based on this testimony from Alexander alone, it would have been almost impossible for Joseph’s account of April 6, 2005, to be true. Even assuming that Straker left Mayaro precisely at 2 pm, it would have taken him at least 2.25 hours to travel to the Mellow Moods bar, making it extremely unlikely he could have arrived before Joseph.”
Joseph had told the court that he took a maxi taxi to the Mellow Moods bar from Upper Santa Cruz and arrived between 4.15 pm and 4.20 pm.
But Alexander’s testimony would have provided the jury with strong reasons to doubt Joseph’s testimony that Straker was at a planning meeting by 4.20 pm on the day of the kidnapping.
Other witnesses also gave statements to Hewick stating that after 2.30 pm Straker assisted a fisherman with gas for his boat and later met with a woman who needed help to get a lawyer to bail her son out of the Mayaro Police Station.
The court document stated that the failure to investigate and call known alibi witnesses “fundamentally prejudiced his (Straker’s) defence.”
Peed believed that Straker’s case was severely prejudiced.
He said in the documents that “the Government engaged in misconduct and withheld exculpatory evidence.”
Peed said, “the Government committed misconduct by misleading a defence witness to believe her testimony was not needed.
“Here the Government picked up and drove two defence witnesses to their rule 15 depositions in a limousine, asked those witnesses questions, told one witness after determining that her testimony would be helpful to the defence to wait in a room to be called and then drove them home without calling her (Alexander).
“The witness believed that the person questioning her and driving her around was the defendant’s lawyer, and wondered why she was not called. It was the prosecutor. This subterfuge, if this is what it was, severely prejudiced Straker since Alexander was a crucial witness.”
When Sunday Guardian spoke with Peed recently he said, “I really have no comment about the matter.”
With his freedom on the horizon, Straker is reflecting on his life and contemplating his next legal move as he awaits his return to T&T.
“My emotions now that I will be free is without hate nor bitterness towards no one but with a love deep and filled with passion and purpose to better serve my people and country on a whole different light…strength to see my country, mothers, daughters’ children and every household of all races be treated fairly in a society far worst and badly deteriorated in every aspect than the country I once knew 15 years ago.
“I embrace my freedom today with happiness no less than how I embraced the two corrupt life sentences given without fear or sadness, a boldness to the fact that I knew very well I was a political scapegoat.
“They never charged Anderson Straker for a crime, they charged Winston “Gypsy” Peters’ son for political mileage.”