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Probable cause found in drug case involving an airport firefighter

Pago Pago Intl Airport sign

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Despite strong opposition from the defense during the preliminary examination (PX) for Derek Sappa this week, District Court Judge Elvis P. Patea found probable cause to bind the case over to High Court, where Sappa is expected to enter a ‘not guilty’ plea this morning at arraignment.

Sappa, an employee of the Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighter (ARFF) Unit at the Pago Pago International Airport, is out on a $15,000 surety bond. He is charged with one count of unlawful possession of methamphetamine with  intent to distribute; and one count of unlawful possession of methamphetamine - both felonies, punishable by imprisonment of up to 20 years, a fine up to $20,000 or both for each count.

During Wednesday’s PX, the government’s lone witness, Det. Levi Tafaovale testified that the drugs found in a safe inside the ARFF Chief’s room were not for personal use. According to him, on the morning of Jan. 24th, armed detectives executed several warrants — for residences, properties, and persons — for 4 individuals of Aua village. The search included the defendant’s workplace.

According to Tafaovale, no drugs were found on Sappa, his vehicle, or his home in Aua. They also searched Sappa’s work station at the ARFF building and no drugs were found. The ARFF Chief’s room was the only place where drugs were discovered.

When asked to explain how the search was conducted and where Sappa was, Tafaovale said it was around 6:30a.m when detectives executed the search warrant for Sappa, whose vehicle was pulled over near the Nuuuli intersection to the airport. The vehicle was impounded and taken to the Fagatogo DPS headquarters, driven by a senior detective with Sappa riding in the passenger seat.

“Once the vehicle was secured at the DPS central station, Sappa was escorted to his home in Aua and a search of his residence was immediately carried out, as prescribed by the  warrant,” Tafaovale explained. The search netted several empty baggies and a gun cleaning kit with several .22 caliber bullets, but no drugs were found.

The search then moved to the ARFF building in Tafuna where two rooms were searched: Sappa’s and the Chief’s. According to Tafaovale, inside Sappa’s room, police found a small container with empty cut-up straws and several baggies. Again, no drugs were found.

During the search, Sappa allegedly requested to speak with a DPS captain in private. The request was granted and the search was halted. Sappa informed the captain that he had drugs and cash in a small safe inside the Chief’s room. According to Tafaovale’s testimony, the ARFF Chief was not in his office during the search, which netted a small safe. When asked for the key, Sappa said it was in his black bag in his vehicle that was at police headquarters in Fagatogo.

The safe was then transported to Fagatogo.

According to Tafaovale, a search of Sappa’s vehicle came up empty. Police only found a wallet containing his ID, and cash, which were later released to his wife. Also found was a black bag with several keys and other personal items.

The witness said that it was at this time that Sappa began feeling unwell, he complained of shortness of breath. EMS was notified and Sappa was transported to the LBJ for treatment, accompanied by his wife.

When Sappa and his wife later walked into the police headquarters and met with investigators for an interview, Sappa was asked for the key to the safe and he replied that he only has a key to his room, and the safe was not his.

When asked how the safe was opened, Tafaovale said detectives used the key that was found in Sappa’s black bag, and the safe contained a large quantity of a white crystalline substance (which later tested positive for meth) and about $1,000 cash. Also found was a small digital scale (typically used to weigh meth for sale) and .22 caliber ammunition.

“Did the suspect say anything about the drugs, cash, and paraphernalia allegedly discovered in the safe?” Prosecutor Laura Garvey asked the witness. Tafaovale replied, “No, after warning him of his constitutional rights, Sappa chose to remain silent and refused to make a statement.”

Garvey asked the witness whether the drugs allegedly found in the safe were for personal use. Tafaovale said no.

Under cross examination, defense attorney Bob Stuart asked Tafaovale if detectives found any drugs at Sappa’s residence, in his vehicle, or place of employment. Tafaovale said no. “Can I say that the illegal drugs were allegedly found inside a small safe inside the ARFF Chief’s room?” Stuart asked. Tafaovale replied, “That is correct, counsel.”

“If that is the case, why was my client placed under temporary custody if there were no drugs found in his possession and even his properties,” Stuart asked. Tafaovale said it was for Sappa’s own safety and the safety of the cops involved in the search.

“Was the ARFF Chief’s room locked when detectives arrived at the building?” Stuart asked. Tafaovale said, yes. “So, how did you open the room? Did you break it?” Stuart asked. Tafaovale replied with a smile on his face, “Probably.”

“You said that drugs allegedly found were inconsistent for personal use. So, how much drugs is consistent with personal use?” Stuart followed-up. Tafaovale answered, “One or two cut-up straws.”

Stuart asked Tafaovale what weight (of drugs) is consistent with personal use. Tafaovale said he doesn’t know because he did not weigh the drugs that were found in the safe.

In re-direct, Garvey asked Tafaovale who told detectives that there were drugs in the small safe inside the ARFF Chief’s room. Tafaovale said, it was Sappa who told a police captain that he had drugs and cash in a small safe inside the Chief’s room.

When asked about the weight of the drugs found, Tafaovale said, it was about ‘one ounce’ and ‘it was not for personal use’.

In closing, Garvey asked the court to bind the case over to High Court. She said detectives found drugs, paraphernalia, and a huge amount of cash inside the ARFF Chief’s room during the search; the drugs were for distribution; and it was Sappa who told police that the drugs were his.

Defense attorney Stuart argued that no drugs were found on Sappa, neither were any drugs found on his property during the search. “Detectives searched my client and his properties three times and no drugs were found.”

According to Stuart, the drugs were allegedly found by detectives in a small safe inside the ARFF Chief’s room, not his client’s room.

In the end, Patea said the court is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to bind the case against the defendant over to High Court for further proceedings.