(MENAFN - Caribbean News Now) GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (CNS) – Two Venezuelan men appeared in court Tuesday, charged with money laundering in connection with more than US$6 million worth of gold which passed through the Cayman Islands in what appears to be a complex international smuggling case.
Last May Daniel Aguailar Feriozzi (25) and Fransisco de Ventura Herrera (26) were said to have been passengers on a private jet that became the subject of a now widening criminal investigation after US$135,000 in cash, found hidden under the floor panelling on the aircraft. The pilot and co-pilot were charged with smuggling.
Following a month of inquiries involving the RCIPS Financial Crimes Unit and Customs and Border Control, which now crosses international borders from Venezuela to Switzerland via the UK, where the gold is currently being held by the authorities, the men were charged Monday.
The crown said the men had given contradictory statements from the beginning. Their claims of where the gold came from, when and where it was loaded on the plane, who owns it and how they came to be involved have all been inconsistent. Although the gold, which passed through Cayman on two separate occasions, was declared to customs, the details given have now been called into question.
Documents handed to investigators by a company based here that checked the quality of the gold and packaged it ahead of its trip to Switzerland reveal a complex web of suspicious sales that went through a number of offshore jurisdictions and financial centres, from the Dutch Antilles to Panama, where the gold was bought and sold without profit.
Prosecutors did not publicly identify the company but said one of its representatives met Feriozzi and Herrera at the general terminal after the plane landed. However, the firm was identified by the men's defence attorneys, who said it was Byzantium, a precious metals brokerage based in George Town.
Phones seized from the suspects indicated to the authorities that the information the men gave had not only been inconsistent and conflicting but also suggested that they are involved or know more than they are saying about a criminal conspiracy. Herrera is also accused of attempting to flush credit cards down the toilet at one of the hotels where the men were staying before they were charged in the developing case.
The inquiry, which the crown said is ongoing, appears to involve a number of other Venezuelan and Colombian players, who are said to own the plane and to have directed the movement of the gold, which arrived in Cayman after the jet, which began its journey in Venezuela, had stayed overnight in the Dominican Republic.
The acting director of public prosecutions, Patrick Moran, who outlined the case to Magistrate Valdis Foldats, claimed that the behaviour of Feriozzi and Herrera, which has included attempts to manipulate the investigation, their failure to cooperate beyond giving written statements to police, the veracity of which has been called into question, as well as their attempts to disguise the origins and ownership of the gold indicate that it is very likely to be the proceeds of crime which the suspects were attempting to launder.
The crown objected to the release of the suspects, as Moran said the men were intelligent and resourceful with access to private planes and other financial resources. Neither of them has any ties at all to Cayman and if they were bailed, they would find a way to flee, regardless of the conditions, he said.
However, the defence attorneys said the court should not be distracted by the unusual elements of the case put forward by the crown and to consider the bail application on its merit, as no evidence of a crime has been presented.
Before being charged the men had been on bail for a month and had surrendered to police regularly, as requested the lawyers said; also noting that they had submitted a cash deposit to the RCIPS. The mother of one of the men has arrived on island and the mother of the second is believed to be on her way to support her son.
The attorneys argued that prosecutors do not have a strong case and there is no evidence that the gold is the proceeds of a crime, as no details of any illegal activity has been presented. They said the men had merely been involved in the legal trading and transfer of gold, which was declared to the authorities.
The men had complied with the authorities by voluntarily attending and supplying the police with prepared statements based on the questions they had asked, the lawyers contended, adding that they were not, as the crown suggested, of great means and in fact their families would now support them until the case is resolved. Neither of the men has any previous convictions, and the attorneys said that conditions could be set, including electronic tags.
Given all of the circumstances, the magistrate explained that while there were concerns about their potential failure to surrender, weighed against a number of other factors he decided on balance they could be bailed once they lodged $10,000 cash each with the court and found a suitable place to stay, away from the coast, where they could be tagged.
Republished with permission of Cayman News Service