Even as Police Commissioner Gary Griffith was telling listeners of i95.5 FM that he had no intention of returning an estimated $22 million in cash which had been seized in La Horquetta on Tuesday, the cash was being returned unbeknownst to him.
Just after 10 a.m. yesterday, Griffith was on the radio programme speaking on the operation on Tuesday morning, in which the cash was seized at a home along Kathleen Warner Drive, Phase I, La Horquetta.
Griffith was warning citizens about investing in similar programmes in the future.
However, yesterday morning, unbeknownst to him, the cash was returned to officials of the La Horquetta company—which calls itself a sou-sou group—from which the money had been seized on Tuesday morning.
The Express was told that after the money was counted, officers at the La Horquetta Police Station were approached by company officials and lawyers, and provided with receipts which purported to account for the money seized.
After the receipts were reviewed and compiled, the money was handed over.
Additionally, eight of the nine people who had been detained on Tuesday morning were released.
Up to last night, only one individual, a 46-year-old man who was said to have been attached to the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, was in custody.
He had been held with a firearm during Tuesday’s operation.
While he had produced a Firearm User’s Licence, he could not produce the registration for the gun or the ammunition he had in his possession.
Griffith was also unaware of this as while he was on air, he told citizens none of the nine detained persons had been released.
Suspicious to give
Because of this “faux pas” Griffith has launched a “widespread investigation” at the “highest level” to determine who decided to return the cash.
In a release issued yesterday afternoon by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS), Griffith said he had “since been made aware” that the cash had been handed back to the operator of the “Pyramid Scheme” yesterday morning without his knowledge and those of his deputy commissioners.
He said he found this action suspicious, that just over 12 hours after the money was seized and checked, a decision was made to give it back without the input of the Financial Intelligence Bureau (FIB).
“An investigation would determine if any criminal or disciplinary action is to be taken against any police officers,” the release noted.
Griffith said the money was handed back without a proper investigation to determine whether any of it was counterfeit.
“No proper investigation was done as to the source of these funds, or whether the person or persons involved had committed any criminal acts,” Griffith said.
The commissioner said external forensic personnel will be brought in to determine if any of the money was counterfeit.
Griffith added that he was aware there is a concern that a number of people invested their hard-earned money, hoping to cash in on this alleged pyramid scheme.
He gave the assurance that once these people can prove their money was legitimate, the TTPS will ensure their money is returned to them in the shortest possible time.
Cops acted like bullies
However, at the same time the release was issued, officers of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) returned to La Horquetta.
Searches were conducted at various homes in the community along Kathleen Warner Drive and surroundings. Searches were still ongoing last night, and police were tight-lipped on what they were searching for, or if anything illegal had been found.
The return of the officers was not met well by members of the community, who claimed on Tuesday the officers acted “like bullies” in the execution of their duties.
“When the police arrived the first time (on Tuesday), they came and acted like bullies. Their actions were not that of police officers. They were not of persons who are supposed to protect and serve the people of this country.
“They came masked up and all armed with automatic weapons. They come in and were pointing the weapons at everyone, right in their face, yelling and screaming at them. One of the security guards was forced to kneel down and they point the gun at his head. And when they got in, even after they got in, some people were assaulted by these officers.
“Now, tell me, these men and women were wearing masks and did not identify themselves, so who will these victims go forward to, even if they had to go to police complaints (Authority) or make a report for the injuries they sustained. And several of them have injuries to their face and chest.
“That was not the conduct of police. That was the conduct of bullies. And they take money they find, without reason or cause? That makes it worse, that is the conduct of bullies!” a man who gave his name as Russell said.
Other people said it was hypocritical of the police to seize money that had not been accounted for, with some persons pointing out the Police Service had not seized the funds of Deputy Commissioner of Police Irwin Hackshaw, or made statements that he would not be able to get back his money.
“How is this fair? In his own house (the Police Service), he has told the public that he had to suspend an officer (Hackshaw) for having money that cannot be accounted for. And in that case, there is a criminal investigation.
“Who made a report here? Nobody here made any reports to you. You (the police) came on your own. You told the public you came because people were gathering in numbers (of over five contrary to the Public Health Ordinance).
“But when your officers were here, they were telling people (at the company) that they come to search for guns. They allegedly pull out a warrant for guns. So what is the story?” one resident asked.
A screenshot which was said to originate from the sou-sou group was captured and shared on social media sites yesterday afternoon. In the message, the group said staff of the company had been detained without justifiable cause.
“Nothing illegal was found, and the TTPS proceeded to seize the cash. We...co-operated with the TTPS whilst they carried out their investigations. Thanks to a few diligent officers of the TTPS, the investigation was completed without further harm to our staff. The cash was properly accounted for, and as such, it was released along with the staff members...,” the group said.
The message went on to thank the staff who went through the ordeal, the company’s lawyers for their hard work, and the “few diligent officers of the TTPS who lived up to their oath to protect and serve”.