The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been asked by the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) to assist them in accessing vital information for their investigation into the deaths of Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris, the prime suspects in the murder of law clerk Andrea Bharatt.
The TTPS called in the FBI to access information stored in an Apple iPhone that belonged to one of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) officers now under investigation.
Balcon and Morris were suspects in the murder of 23-year-old Bharatt who was kidnapped on January 29 and her body found six days later dumped off a precipice in the Heights of Aripo.
Morris was held by SORT officers on January 31, and his family alleged he was beaten in their presence before being taken away. He died the following day at the Arima Hospital. Balcon, who was also held by SORT a few hours after Morris, died eight days later on February 8 at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex after being admitted with massive head injuries. Two autopsies conducted on Morris revealed that he died from blunt force trauma, while the autopsy on Balcon revealed that he died from multiple force trauma.
Senior investigators familiar with the case had revealed to Guardian Media in a previous story that Balcon and Morris were both kept in custody for a total of 13 hours, most of which were spent at SORT headquarters and a SORT training area known as the “kill house,” located in Wallerfield. The men were taken there with other suspects who were later released.
The deaths of both Balcon and Morris triggered an internal police probe with a special task force headed by ASP Williams assigned to investigate the matter, while the Police Complaints Authority (PCA) began its own probe in mid-February as well. Guardian Media was the first to report exclusively about the task force which was hand-picked to probe the deaths of the two men.
Within weeks of forming this elite task force to probe the men’s deaths, several warrants were executed and the cellphones of at least 26 SORT officers were seized in the month of April. Some of the cellphones were later returned while others were kept. Two cellphones, however, piqued the interest of investigators.
Joel Balcon, the main suspect in the murder of Andrea Bharatt.
Phones locked and reported stolen
The factory settings on one of the cellphones, an Android, had been wiped before investigators could have extracted the data on it, Guardian Media was told. The SORT officer had reported that phone stolen to Bmobile. However, sources revealed they were “somewhat successful in retrieving some of the data from that phone.”
But retrieving the data from the Apple iPhone proved more problematic.
Insiders familiar with the case said after a warrant was issued to seize the iPhone and Android phone the SORT officer reported both phones stolen within hours.
Sources said the officer then notified Apple and the iPhone was immediately locked, making it impossible for investigators to gain access to the contents on the phone which also seemed to have been encrypted.
Within hours of seizing the iPhone, investigators reached out to the FBI indicating that the phone formed a key part of a major investigation and that they needed access to it.
The task force sent correspondence asking for help since the phone contained key information that could assist them with the investigation into the last hours of Balcon and Morris.
The FBI with the assistance of its legal department filed the request with Apple on behalf of the TTPS.
“Correspondence was then sent from Apple to the FBI and then the FBI to the TTPS granting them certain access or providing data for the said device which included videos, voice notes, text messages, WhatsApp messages etc. The TTPS then sent their official request via soft copy to the FBI which was then relayed to Apple via the FBI legal channel. Certain iCloud data and other material were sent back to the TTPS through the FBI,” a source familiar with the investigation indicated.
Instructions were then issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, sources said, to retrieve hard copy information from Apple to show what was sent to the TTPS. “This is useful for court purposes and evidential value and chain of custody,” explained an inside source.
Chain of custody is especially crucial in criminal cases and is essentially defined as: “A process that tracks the movement of evidence through its collection, safeguarding and analysis life cycle by documenting each person who handled the evidence, the date/time it was collected or transferred, and the purpose of the transfer.”
Why is this data critical?
The data retrieved from this particular iPhone, sources confirmed, implicated several senior police officers who knew what took place with the suspects while in the “care and custody of SORT officers.”
Sources familiar with the case indicated that the suspects were taken to the “kill house,” an area where SORT officers trained and they were interrogated and allegedly beaten. What investigators also uncovered was that a SORT officer at the location where the suspects were being held facilitated a three-way phone call between one of the suspect’s father, another senior police officer and himself. The suspect was then allowed to speak to his father on the phone where he immediately made allegations of being beaten.
“The other senior officer on the line during that conversation never took any positive steps to address the allegation being made by the suspect,” a source revealed.
Sources revealed that information gathered from the iPhone showed video footage captured of the alleged beatings and there was data showing communication with other senior police officers.
As the task force continues its investigation they have also discovered that information in several diaries had been rewritten and erroneous information placed in particular reports recorded.
Sources said that the offences of joint enterprise murder are possibly being looked at as well as charges of assault and misbehaviour in public office.
DETAILS OF AUTOPSIES
Balcon and Morris were allegedly beaten to death according to their autopsies.
Two post mortems were done on Morris’ body—one by the State and the other privately by relatives—revealed he died from blunt force trauma.
The first autopsy done at the Forensic Science Centre revealed that Morris suffered brain fractures, several broken ribs, bleeding from internal organs, burnt marks to the back (allegedly from a taser), contusion to the right eye, bleeding to the brain as well as damage to his shoulders and legs.
Balcon, who police labelled as the mastermind in the kidnapping and murder of Bharatt, was known to the police as a sexual, drug, firearms, robbery and larceny offender. He was in an unconscious state until he died eight days after he was detained by police.
Balcon had been picked up mere hours after Morris and was later hospitalised at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex after suffering massive head injuries. He was also paralysed.
A post mortem on Balcon’s body at the Forensic Science Centre in St James by pathologist Dr Eastlyn McDonald-Burris revealed that he died due to multiple trauma to the body.
The injuries he sustained could have been due to a beating he allegedly sustained while trying to escape police custody.
SORT HEAD CHARGED
The only SORT officer to be charged to date is the former head of the unit Mark Hernandez.
Hernandez was charged by officers of the Professional Standards Bureau(PSB) for misbehaviour in public office. Hernandez was charged in relation to an investigation into the treatment of the suspects held for the abduction and murder of Bharatt.
He was granted bail in the sum of $300,000 by a Justice of the Peace on April 20 and his matter was later adjourned to be heard in the Sangre Grande Magistrate’s Court on June 1. The matter was again adjourned and remains before the courts. Hernandez upon his release from the Maloney Police Station denied any wrongdoing in relation to the surviving suspect and the two others that died.
ONE CHARGED FOR BHARATT’S MURDER
Two weeks after Bharatt was killed 24-year-old Negus George was charged with her murder. George answered the charge virtually before an Arima Magistrate on February 11, 2021.
His girlfriend, Giselle Hobson, was charged by police with receiving stolen property. Both appeared on the same day and the matter was later adjourned to March 10. The matter was called again and it was adjourned.