• By Joyce McClure

Covid-triggered travel ban derails Yap murder case proceedings

Rachelle Bergeron-Hammerling

Colonia, Yap — Travel restrictions in the Federated States of Micronesia have hampered court proceedings for the suspects in the murder of Yap’s prosecutor last year.

The murder of acting Attorney General Rachelle Bergeron-Hammerling on Oct. 14, 2019 shocked the small island and reverberated around the world.

Two suspects, Anthony Rutun Teteeth and Francis Choay Buchun, were arrested after an investigation that included the Yap State Police, FSM National Police and the FBI.

They are facing murder charges before the state court, and separately, illegal weapons charges before the national court.

Since then their cases have been moving through the court system but the onset of the pandemic and the closing of FSM’s borders has slowed the process nearly to a stop.

The defense attorneys, the state and federal prosecutors and the FSM Supreme Court judge are all based in Pohnpei and Chuuk with no swift way to get to Yap.

Pretrial hearings in both courts were held in the months leading up to President David Panuelo’s public health emergency declaration that closed the borders to travel through Guam when Covid-19 hit that island.

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The FSM national government charged the two men with illegal weapons and ammunition possession.

During a hearing in December 2019, the attorneys told the court that evidentiary reports that were being processed in the United States were expected to arrive in March 2020. Additional status hearings, plea hearings and trial dates were set based on that estimation, but had to be abandoned when the borders closed.

On Oct. 19, 2020, a status conference for Buchun was held via Zoom in the FSM Supreme Court room with Associate Justice Larry Wentworth presiding. The defense attorney indicated that a plea of not guilty would be entered. In the FSM, a bench trial immediately follows not guilty pleas.

Discussion centered on next steps and how to bring the attorneys and Wentworth to Yap. It was suggested that Caroline Island Air, the nations’ domestic air carrier, might be a solution but the planes were grounded awaiting the hiring and arrival of a pilot.

Then, on Oct. 26, Panuelo informed the FSM Congress that CIA had brought in the new pilot from Kiribati, “for a total of two pilots altogether, which is the number required to fly the 19-seater Y-12 aircraft presently located in Weno.”

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Based on the government’s timeline, the two pilots were scheduled to leave for Chuuk on Oct. 27 via patrol boat.

“After carrying out routine preventive maintenance and flight testing, Caroline Islands Air will be able to perform domestic transportation duties once again, complete with a sustainable and transparent schedule,” Panuelo said.

The next date for pretrial hearings in FSM Supreme Court was set for Dec. 3.

The state of Yap levied 19 counts against both of the defendants that include murder, conspiracy to commit murder, manslaughter, assault with a dangerous weapon and obstruction of justice, among others.

The latest status hearings were held in Yap State Supreme Court on Oct. 29 and 30 for the two defendants.

Associate Justice Jonathan Tun presided over Buchun’s hearing on Oct. 29, and Chief Justice Cyprian Manmaw presided over Teteeth’s hearing the following day.

Since the attorneys assigned to the state’s case are also based in the other states, the defense and state were temporarily represented during the hearing by a local public defender and a Yap State Assistant Attorney General.

Again the issue of how to proceed was the main topic of conversation. The defense counsel told Justice Manmaw that it was rumored that CIA would begin flying in late December or early January.

The justice responded that the court does not operate on rumors. Since the president’s announcement had been made only two days before, the court had evidently not yet heard that CIA would begin operating intra-state services as soon as the planes were ready.

Justice Manmaw stated that the court’s concern is that the case and defendants are in Yap while everyone else is in Pohnpei.

He acknowledged that the defendant has the right to choose his counsel, but if there is no progress, the court may have to take other measures to move it along faster, indicating that the court may need to assign local counsel to the case. He noted that, despite the pandemic, the defendant’s rights must be protected.

The date for the next status hearing for Teteeth was set for Nov. 12. The date for Buchun’s next hearing was not decided in the courtroom, but a post-hearing conference was called by Associate Justice Tun in his chamber and a date may have been decided then.

Read related story

Defendant on Yap murder case gets 7 months for gun charges

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