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Focus turns on passport worker in forgery trial

Digital trails and deleted messages unravel passport forgery conspiracy

The testimony of one witness has been delayed as the state prosecution looks to wrap up its case in a passport scam trial that took nearly six years to be heard. Acting Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Shannon Gittens told the court yesterday that one of its witnesses, a police officer from Barbados, who was to testify Thursday, was unwell and would be on sick leave until February 12.

In the meantime, while the court waits to know whether her testimony could be given before then, the prosecution moved to question who should have been its final witness – Sergeant V. Chattam, an officer of the Serious Crimes Unit in Antigua and Barbuda.

Chattam’s testimony was largely focused on Shakeema Charles, a former worker of the Antigua and Barbuda Passport Office who is accused of assisting others to forge bio pages of the country’s passport. 

In her statement to the court, Chattam said the images of bio pages matching those officers in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) found in the possession of Geraldo James were retrieved from Charles’ mobile phone. 

According to court records, James, the nephew of suspended Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Ray John, was found with five bio pages in his possession at the Argyle International Airport on April 6, 2018. 

SVG police said they confiscated a male Iraqi passport bio page, a female Sudanese bio page, a male Pakistani bio page, three Antiguan and Barbudan male bio pages, along with one female bio page, another which had a photograph of a male but was incorrectly labelled as female, and one with both male and female pictures and unrecognisable print.

The pages were later identified as fraudulent leading to a charge of conspiracy to forge Antigua and Barbuda passports against John and Charles. Charles, who has a child with John was additionally charged with larceny and receiving in relation to the investigation. 

Transcripts of three interviews with Charles were read out in court on Thursday, revealing the contents of digital forensic examinations and search warrants on the homes of John, Charles and Lonzel Jones – the duo’s alleged accomplice in St. Vincent.

Officer Chattam said she found a “brown lady’s handbag” in the living room of Charles’ dwelling which contained items to include a black BLU mobile phone. An examination of that phone’s call data records revealed deleted Whatsapp messages between Charles and John seemingly speaking about the pages. 

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Whatsapp Conversations between John and Charles

On March 20, 2018 Charles sent a message to John indicating that something was different. “No it’s not the same. May have to see the actual things,” the message stated.

Expert witness, Detective Constable Kemar Burke of the Digital Evidence and Cybercrime Unit of the Barbados Police Service was the one who examined Charles’ and John’s phones and in an earlier hearing also shared its contents with the court.

He said in one of the messages Charles told John that “something” looks “wrong” and “off”. John responded, stating that it was printed on the wrong paper. Charles then mentioned she couldn’t see the signature.

John then said he compared “it” to his passport and later called her an “expert” on the matter. Charles requested him to pass by with “the things” to further their discussion. 

During that hearing, 10 images were shown to the court, one of which was Charles’ passport bio page which Burke said was taken with her phone’s camera. The other nine were deleted images including images of the five bio pages. 

Officer Chattam said the police also obtained and examined a 64 gigabyte flash drive and a Samsung Galaxy phone belonging to Jones during a search of his Green Hill home in 2018 as well as a BLU mobile phone belonging to John’s nephew. 

The Cellebrite (digital intelligence platform) report of Jones’ phone pulled up several audio clips dated March 28, 2018 and April 3, 2018. None of these were explored in court Thursday.

Instead, Chattam told the court that investigators compiled all the reports and others including the phone of his live-in partner Leslyann Yearwood which they retrieved during a search of John’s property; a device belonging to one Hanesworth Alrington; and a video interview of John’s mother Yvonne Nikki who was initially charged in the matter. 

According to the sergeant, she also took a statement from Ezra Lampkin who it was revealed earlier in the trial was sent thousands of dollars by John. John in his police statement had told the court that the money was to go towards his home repairs in St. Vincent.

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Statements were also taken from passport office workers and the Permanent Secretary within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where Charles worked since 1999.

At the time of the incident she had the title of a “hospitality officer” and oversaw the print, lamination and quality assurance of passports.  A job she had done for over a decade. As part of her job she was responsible for inserting bio page information like the photo, gender and place of birth of an individual. 

The trial continues this morning when officer Chattam is expected to read an extensive transcript of an interview police conducted with ASP John.

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