Thu. Jan 23rd, 2020

Greed and Meth

Nicanor Gates leaves court on the final day of his trial carrying a file, prior to the jury returning a sentence. (Colin Cortbus)

Nicanor Gates leaves court on the final day of his trial carrying a file, prior to the jury returning a sentence. (Colin Cortbus)

Nicanor Gates, a 58-year old Palauan man living in California was found guilty of criminal conspiracy to import Methamphetamine into the Republic of Palau after a three-day trial. The verdict comes after jurors at the Supreme Court in Koror were shown a video of Gates posting a drug-filled parcel to Palau at a California post office.

The jury verdict, which came as a surprise to many of those attending court, was read out by a clerk in a Supreme Court courtroom in Koror shortly after 6PM on Thursday, just as the sun began to set in the windswept skies outside.

Inside the court room another kind of sunset, an altogether more tragic one, was well underway; Palauan emigrant Nicanor Gates was a man in the midst of the sunshine years of his life, an example of a family man who turned the American Dream into a lived reality. As he testified himself, he long-ago graduated community college and was now earning over a hundred-thousand dollars a year working as an accomplished, experienced UPS-parcel delivery driver in the United States.  He was, as his defence counsel called him, a ‘faithful Palauan husband’, living with his wife and having raised an adopted daughter. The family resided in a six-hundred thousand dollar house in the San Franisco Bay-side town of San Leandro: A popular suburban community hard to describe as anything other than quaint and idyllic. Half of the value of the house, so Gates testified, had been paid off. He was a man taking his family obligations seriously, to the point of even helping a relative back in Palau with the cost of overseas medical treatment for prostrate illness.

And yet, on Thursday evening, the very same man, Nicanor Gates, was seated, stone-faced in a Koror courtroom as that one, life-changing word was read out. ‘Guilty’. Before even the last ray of sunlight had departed the red skies over Koror, a life had been changed forever. While sentencing will only take place next month, it is likely that, whatever punishment is ultimately imposed, nothing will ever be the same again for Gates.

The story of how a family man at heart of society was transformed into a convicted drug criminal began earlier this year, in an unremarkable California post office. CCTV video footage played to the jury at Gates’s trial shows the 58-year old man walk up to the counter, holding a parcel, a normal-looking USPS box, in his arms. That 58-year old man, Nicanor Gates is seen making friendly conversation with the clerk at the desk, as he sends the parcel on its fateful journey to Palau, and buys some postage stamps for himself, paying with his credit card. At his trial, he later testified that that postal service clerk was someone he often talked to before; they had, after all, similar lines of work.

Later, upon inspection at the post office in Koror, Palauan authorities would find over 160 grams of a suspicious crystalline substance, hidden in a red warm water bottle in the parcel. A drug expert from Guam testified at the trial how multiple scientific tests had identified that substance Methamphetamine hydrochloride, commonly known as Meth or Ice.

Ismael Aguon, Director of the Narcotics Enforcement Agency, told the court under oath that the street value of this dangerous illegal drug is between $1000 and $1200 per gram in Palau. The quantity of Meth in that parcel, Aguon testified, could have provided drug-takers over 1600 individual, ready-to-use doses, known as plates, if it had reached the streets.

Two other Palauan men, George Remeliik and Anguar-resident Julio Kazou, who is one of Gates’ in-laws,  will face trial later this year on drug charges in relation to collecting or conspiring to receive the parcel upon its arrival in Palau. Both, it is understood, maintain their innocence and have pled not guilty. The presumption of innocence fully applies to them.

Gates’ own legal saga began when he took a long-planned trip to Palau in this year to visit and take care of his unwell, elderly mother. He testified that to save money, he had bought the tickets, six-months in advance, choosing a route via Taipei in the Republic of China. As he was visiting a bank in Koror, the Narcotics Enforcement Agency caught up with him, interviewing him. Gates claimed in his testimony that when he had requested a lawyer, the NEA had told him they would arrest him and take him to jail where he could wait for one. Gates, who testified that he was afraid of Jail as it was a place he had never been to, finally agreed to provide a ‘voluntary’ statement to agents just as the handcuffs were being put on. Naturally, this statement was used to his detriment at trial.

At Gates’ trial, his legal counsel, former president Johnson Toribiong maintained that Gates was not guilty of any crime, but “guilty of stupidity” instead.  Earlier, Gates, at one point close to tears, had testified how his relative Julio Kazou had “betrayed” him, asking him to send some unspecified “stuff” via mail as a “favour”. “If I had known [what is inside the parcel], I would never have sent it”, Gates stated. “It really hurts”, Gates added with a desperate, broken voice, describing how sending the parcel had placed everything he had worked for at risk.  Gates claimed in the witness stand that he had been met, at Kazou’s request, outside of a post-office in California by an unidentified, t-shirt-wearing man called Peter, and a woman in jeans named Linda, both allegedly hailing from Texas but living a nomadic lifestyle. These two people, who appeared to Gates to have some Palauan ancestry, waited in a car for him to arrive, told him they were in a hurry, and gave him a parcel to post to Palau. Gates’ recounted how he had been, for an instant, hesitant to accept the parcel, which was addressed not to his relation Kazou but to a postbox under a different name in Koror.  Noticing Gates’ reluctance, these two individuals had offered him a hundred dollars in cash. Asked by public prosecutor Graham Leach during cross examination if that money had been enough to make him cast aside his suspicion and cause him to post the parcel,  Gates simply replied “that’s right”. “Of course, if someone offered you money, wouldn’t you take it”.

In a calm but forceful closing speech, defence counsel Toribiong empathised that while there was no dispute Gates had sent the drug-filled parcel, ‘sending a parcel is not a crime’, given that Gates had no knowledge of its content and no criminal intent, in his view. “He was conned, he was duped, he became the unknown participant… Maybe he was careless … but that does not make him guilty”, Toribiong said of his client. Evoking biblical justice, Toribiong urged jurors to recognise this and let the truth set Nicanor Gates free.

But even Toribiong’s rhetorical masterpiece, one of the finest speeches to be delivered at Koror courthouse in recent time, was not enough to convince the jurors to believe Gates’ version of the story.

In the end, they sided with the version of events convincingly told to the jury by Public Prosecutor Graham Leach from the Attorney General’s Office. Leach argued that Gates had in fact been a willing participant in a criminal conspiracy together with Julio Kazou to traffick methamphetamine. Leach argued that the CCTV footage from the Post Office in California had shown Gates signing a customs form and affirming that the parcel contained no harmful, dangerous or prohibited substances. Gates, did this, Leach alleged, as he knew that the parcel would otherwise be inspected immediately and the drugs found. The defendant, Leach noted persuasively, was in the business of delivering parcels for a living and knew full well the rules for sending parcels. He was also aware, Leach explained, of the risk of drug-traffickers trying to deceptively mail drugs in the post. The idea that Gates would cast aside this knowledge for a hundred dollars when he was earning over a hundred-thousand dollars a year defied common sense, Leach concluded.   Even if the defendant were given the benefit of doubt and taken at his word, accepting a hundred dollars in cash to post a parcel was not typical of a favour among relatives. Far-rather, in Leach’s view, it was a business transaction – a transaction in which the parcel was not even addressed to Kazou. The fact that Gates did not know George Remeliik, the third person to be charged in connection with the drug-filled parcel, also left Public Prosecutor Leach thoroughly unimpressed: “Drug dealers like it when one hand does not know the other”, as it insulates them in case of detection, Leach explained as he noted that the charge of criminal conspiracy does not require each and every conspirator involved to know each other. Testimony from Narcotics Enforcement Agency officers about phone records documenting calls between a telephone number associated with Gates in California and Kazou in Palau also buttressed the prosecution’s case. “What we know is that the defendant was responsible for this large quantity of Methamphetamine coming into the Republic”, Public Prosecutor Graham Leach concluded.

It was a testament to Gates’ role as a pillar of the local community that numerous relatives turned out to watch the trial, waiting patiently and unwaveringly together with Gates on benches outside the courtrooms as the jury deliberated their verdict. As Gates walked into the court to hear the judgement, they patted him on the back; One last gesture of optimistic hope perhaps, amidst the quiet, tense atmosphere that had set in.  After the verdict was pronounced, almost as soon as the six jurors had left the courtroom for good, defence counsel motioned for the jury verdict to be set aside by the judge. The judge merely replied that the would take that request “under advisement”, and proceeded to set a date in September for sentencing. Regardless of what the future holds for this case, for the moment, it remains an inescapable fact that Nicanor Gates has been found guilty by a jury of his peers.

It is not just Gates’ relatives that will have to come to terms with verdict in this case. Married family man Gates represents the epitome of what Palauan society considers to be a successful person; Someone, who has ‘made it’. Amidst Palau’s deepening Meth crisis, drug trafficking no longer takes place at the destitute, unruly fringes of society; those conveniently remote social spheres to which self-proclaimed upstanding moral citizens can shrug off even the hint of a connection. The drug conspirator is no longer that nefarious, distantly vague creature of the night. Drug criminal Nicanor Gates could be your loving father, your caring cousin, your much-liked co-worker.  Gates’ conviction is not just a verdict on one man, but on the supposedly moral, well-to-do core of society.

In the end, attorney Johnson Toribiong is absolutely right. Truth can set a man free. Greed and Avarice, though, can also do the exact opposite. Not just in the biblical parable of Matthew 19:24, but right here in Koror as well. Just ask convict Nicanor Gates. (Colin C. Cortbus/Reporting from the Supreme Court in Koror)