A former informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been found guilty for his role in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy that ended in a bloody gunfight with federal agents on St. John in 2019.
Jurors deliberated for less than four hours Wednesday before finding Samuel Pena Columna guilty on all five counts, including one drug charge and four firearm crimes. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 19. Pena is facing the possibility of serving life in prison.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Robert Molloy presided over the trial on St. Thomas, which began Sept. 12, and was delayed for two days because of Tropical Storm Fiona.
After hearing closing arguments from the prosecution and defense Wednesday, jurors found Pena guilty of conspiring with four others, including two gunmen who ended up in a shootout with federal agents staking out a beach trail in Haulover Bay known to be used for smuggling.
“They made a lot of money, and they were going to make even more money on Sept. 25, 2019, but they were stopped by federal agents,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Payne told jurors.
Prosecutors charged Pena with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine, aiding and abetting possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, and two counts of assault on a federal officer.
Payne explained that while Pena did not wield a gun on the night of the shootout, “as a co-conspirator he is liable for all the other actions of his co-conspirators.”
He said Pena picked up duffel bags containing $1 million on St. Thomas and returned to St. John where he picked up four other men — two armed gunmen and two others who planned to exchange the money for 100 kilos of cocaine that was going to be dropped off by a boat at Haulover Bay.
One of the men was armed with a pistol while the other had an “AR-style” firearm, which Payne held up and showed to the jury.
The weapon was not only to protect the $1 million, Payne said, it was also to be traded as part of the drug transaction.
Payne said two of Pena’s co-conspirators testified that they’d made similar drug deals with Pena before, but that night didn’t go according to plan.
“It broke bad. It broke real bad,” Payne said.
When the shootout began, an agent stationed near the road commanded Pena to stop the vehicle, but he “took off. He fled the scene,” Payne said.
Pena drove off with the two other men — who remain at large and were referred to at trial only by the nicknames Pena used for them, “Flaco” and “Jota” — and they got away with the $1 million.
Meanwhile, a federal agent was shot twice, and Payne showed the jury photographs of the agent’s gunshot wounds to the shoulder and leg.
Another suspect, Rammer Andres Guerrero-Morales, was injured during the shootout and arrested. Pena was arrested the day after the incident, and a third suspect, Guerrero-Morales’ cousin, Joan Morales Nolasco, was subsequently extradited from the Dominican Republic and charged in September 2021.
When Pena’s trial began, defense attorney Michael Sheesley said that Pena had been providing valuable information to federal agents about drug traffickers before the shootout, and he is on trial “because an agent got hurt and the government got upset,” and decided to “throw him to the wolves.”
Payne recalled that statement, and said Pena “wasn’t thrown to the wolves, he was running with them.”
Sheesley focused his closing arguments on Pena’s history as an informant for the DEA, for which he was paid a total of $66,200 over 28 months before the shootout. Pena’s tips led to the prosecution of at least six cocaine traffickers, and the seizure of more than 55 kilograms of cocaine.
Pena approached a federal agent in May 2017 and said he had information on suspicious activity that he’d seen as a truck driver on the north shore of St. John, and he entered an agreement with the DEA to provide information about drug trafficking.
As a U.S. citizen born in the Dominican Republic, Pena was able to ingratiate himself with people federal agents couldn’t get close to, and the DEA “knew what he was doing,” and authorized his activities, Sheesley said.
“Part and parcel of the work that he did with the DEA was to engage drug dealers. He had to convince drug dealers that he was one of them,” Sheesley said.
He said that prosecutors “want you to believe that Sammy was so crafty,” that “he had the entire U.S. government fooled. That Sammy was a double agent,” and was smuggling drugs while simultaneously working as an informant.
“That’s simply not believable,” Sheesley said.
He also worked to cast doubt on the testimony of the gunmen, including Nolasco, also known as “El Menor.”
Federal agents testified that they saw two muzzle flashes coming from both suspects’ weapons, but Nolasco denied firing his gun, Sheesley said.
The gunmen also “told different stories,” about if they’d passed notes in jail, discussing whether to pin the blame for the drug deal on Pena during their testimony.
Sheesley said Nolasco testified truthfully that he didn’t know Pena was a government informant, and Pena didn’t tell Nolasco because he had every intention of continuing to provide information on Nolasco to the DEA.
Sheesley said Pena was scared for his life after the shootout, and did not contact agents right away out of fear.
But Pena had “a reasonable belief” that his actions were authorized that night, and Sheesley said he never entered into a conspiracy.
When it came time for the prosecution’s response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Meredith Edwards agreed that agents can instruct confidential sources to engage in controlled illegal activities — such as purchasing drugs as part of a sting operation — but Pena was never used as an “operational” source.
“They can’t authorize what they don’t even know,” Edwards said.
Pena provided information only, Edwards said, and agents believed Pena when he said the information was coming from passive, legal means, like overhearing conversation in a bar.
His limitations as a confidential source were made clear, and “you don’t get to pick and choose when you might break the law, and when you tell the DEA,” Edwards said.