Colonia, Yap— One of the two defendants in the murder of Yap’s former acting Attorney General Rachelle Bergeron-Hammerling has been sentenced to seven months in jail for unrelated arms charges.
Francis Choay Buchun received a slap on the wrist from the FSM Supreme Court despite the prosecution’s recommendation for a maximum of 10 years behind bars. Public Defender Timoci Romanu, who represented Buchun, counter-proposed a three-year jail term for his client.
The sentencing, held on Sept. 16, was for a case of illegal possession of a 9MM pistol and 50 rounds of ammunition and carrying a firearm, a crime committed on June 26, 2019. This case was unrelated to the Bergeron-Hammerling murder.
Buchun is facing a separate murder case in the Yap State Supreme Court, along with Anthony Teteeth, for the killing of Bergeron-Hammerling on Oct. 14, 2019.
For the weapons charges, FSM Supreme Court Associate Justice Larry Wentworth presided over Buchun’s sentencing from Pohnpei via Zoom video conferencing with participants calling in from Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap due to the travel ban. The sentencing was originally set for April 24, 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Buchun was charged for violation of the FSM Weapons Control Act. He was initially charged with six counts but the judge dismissed two duplicate counts, thus leaving four before the court: 1) possession of a firearm, 3) possession of ammunition, 5) carrying a firearm, and 6) possession of a 9MM pistol. The defendant was found guilty of all four charges.
In his affidavit of Kasner Alden, police captain in charge of the Criminal Investigation Section with the FSM National Police, states that upon his arrival in Yap on Aug. 25, 2019, the investigation began with Captain John Runpong, officer in charge of the FSM National Police in Yap State. They met with three witnesses, all of whom were Yap State Police detectives.
At the time of his arrest, Buchun was free pending other cases in the court. A call was received by one of the witnesses on June 26, 2019 that the “suspect was going around Colonia and other places without his custodian” and was “violating his court order from the state supreme court.”
The witness said he spotted Buchun’s vehicle pulled in at the ESA store parking lot, where he got out of his car and went inside and two minutes later returned to his car and left.
The witness returned to his office and called another detective and they left together to apprehend Buchun “on their official pickup,” driving on the north side of the lagoon in by the post office where they spotted Buchun’s vehicle in the parking lot.
Upon approaching the vehicle, they saw that he was alone. When he was asked where his custodian was, the officer arrested him for violating his pretrial release conditions, which, the officer noted, Buchun knew since he was a former police officer.
Buchun then asked the officer to “do him a favor” and not search his car since he had a firearm inside his car and the officer “should take it and hide it somewhere.”
The patrol unit arrived and transported Buchun to the station. His vehicle was impounded.
During the vehicle inspection at the station, the detectives discovered a duffel bag on the back seat that contained a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol with no magazine clip, and 50 rounds of hollow point ammunition still in the box.
During an interview with the FSM National Police in Yap on Sept. 2, 2019, Buchun said the firearm and ammunition belonged to his father, a former Chief of Police in Yap.
Upon his father’s death, Buchun said he went to clean out his father’s house where he found the pistol and bullets in a locker. He also said he was not certain if they had belonged to his father or to the government.
Buchun confessed that he did not notify the police about his finding despite being “fully aware that he possessed [an] illegal firearm and ammunition.”
He also said he knew it was illegal for anyone other than a member of the Yap State Police to possess a firearm.
At the first hearing on Feb. 20, 2020, Buchun further explained to the court that, upon finding the pistol and bullets, he decided, as the oldest son, to keep them even though he knew it was against the law.
But he changed his mind and put them in the car to take to his legal counsel after calling her and telling her he had something important to tell her. He intended, he said, to ask what he should do. His intention was to surrender them but, with another case pending, he was afraid to walk into the police station alone.
He was on his way to meet with her, he said, when he was apprehended at the post office.
Despite the age and condition of the gun and the ammunition and the lack of a magazine clip, the defendant’s expressed “sentimentality” for them, and Buchun’s statement that he was to meet with his attorney to determine how to handle the matter, the defense's motion to dismiss the charge of possession of a 9MM pistol, was denied.
The court has dismissed two counts for duplication and reserved judgement on the other five counts and a date was set for the plea hearing in April. If the plea was not guilty, a bench trial would be held immediately. However, the coronavirus-triggered travel ban prevented the attorneys and judge from traveling to Yap.
At the sentencing hearing, the government’s prosecuting attorney recommended a sentence of 10 years maximum and $100,000 fine for counts 1, 3 and 6, and one year maximum plus $5,000 fine for count 5 five with the sentences served concurrently.
He also recommended that the defendant not be allowed to leave Yap without the court’s approval, his passport be held, and argued that the defendant is a danger to the safety and security to society at large.
Romanu asked for a sentence of three years maximum for all counts with time served dating to the defendant’s arrest in October 2019. He argued that the defendant has a wife and young children who have been exiled from their home and village and are now living in a small house outside their community. He also argued that the defendant had no prior history of arrest.
When asked by the judge if he wanted to make a statement in his own defense, Buchun expressed his remorse and asked for the court’s mercy. He said his wife and two young children have been exiled from their home, are living outside their community and are struggling.
He said they have debts to the company that prepared the small container where they are living. He also said he has a “medical condition,” and had spoken with someone who has agreed to help him find employment.
Kutty included in his rebuttal the defendant’s prior record for arson and other pending cases. He also noted that no witnesses, including family members, had come forward in support of the defendant and his assertions about his family’s “deteriorating” circumstances. Nor had the defendant produced a certificate verifying a medical condition.
Judge Wentworth then said his decision had not changed and ruled for a sentence of seven months with time served beginning April 24, 2020, the date of the original sentencing that was postponed due to the pandemic. He added that there would be no probation in consideration of the other cases against Buchun.
In the affidavit, Aldens said he was tasked to investigate a weapon control violation in Yap as reported by the Yap State Attorney General’s office. He cited an initial report from Bergeron related to "a serious case" involving a minor and the offender was found with a gun and ammunition "while under his pretrial condition”
The FSM Supreme Court has before it cases against both Buchun and Anthony Rutun Teteeth for weapons and ammunition possession in the Bergeron-Hammerling case.
Buchun and Teteeth are also up on 19 counts filed with the Yap State Supreme Court, including conspiracy to commit murder, murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, aggravated assault, assault with a dangerous weapon, obstruction of justice and others.
The court dates for those state criminal complaints are scheduled in Yap State Supreme Court for Oct. 29 and 30, 2020, one year after the incident took place. The FSM Supreme Court has not yet scheduled their hearing in that case