By Aaron Humes Freelance Reporter
Twenty-two-year Belize Police Department veteran Corporal Gino Peck, 42, will learn his fate on Friday morning, January 31, when Chief Magistrate Ann-Marie Smith will deliver sentence on convictions for two counts of keeping ammunition without a license and one count of keeping prohibited ammunition.
Corporal Peck was convicted at the close of a six-month trial on Monday of this week, and since then the Police Department’s senior command has faced pressure from its rank and file to support the former Special Branch member, who is well-liked and respected by his peers.
On January 21, 2012, officers of the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU) raided the Curassow Street residence of Corporal Peck and his wife of nine years, Loretta, and found a veritable arsenal of firearms and ammunition.
Peck eventually faced charges for twenty-two unlicensed 12-gauge cartridges; five unlicensed .38 rounds and one prohibited .45 caliber bullet.
Charges initially brought against Loretta Peck were dropped, and her husband went alone to trial in 2013 after a new courtbook was prepared. (The original raft of charges was withdrawn from both amid suggestions that the Department would handle the matter as one of internal discipline).
From the very beginning, junior and some senior officers in Belize City’s Eastern Division were reluctant to help the GSU put away one of their own, and there were reports this week of a “go-slow” protest by disgruntled officers, fuelled by repeated text messages.
It prompted the Police Department to issue an unprecedented message of support for the officer, a comfort to his family as they prepare to face a verdict which could put him away for years.
Peck could spend at least eight years in prison, as the mandatory minimum for unlicensed ammunition and prohibited ammunition is five and three years, respectively.
At the trial, Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal led the prosecution, arguing that Corporal Peck could not claim special exemption under Section 33 of the Firearms Act, Chapter 143 of the Laws of Belize, which allows an officer to “[keep] or [carry] or [use] any firearms or ammunitions in the performance of his duties,” or engaged in target practice or going to and from such duties.
Peck, represented by Senior Counsel Simeon Sampson, never denied possession of the ammunition, but said he kept the ammunition in his home for operational purposes as a police officer.
In an unsworn statement, he explained that the .45 calibre round was recovered in 1997 during a raid on a known gang area. The cartridges and .38 calibre ammunition, he added, were leftovers from a prior operation, and from his original service weapon before a switch to 9mm pistols by the Department.
Sergeant Randy Sanchez told the court that officers were allowed to take home firearms and ammunition – even AK-47’s and M-16’s – so as to have them ready at a moment’s notice.
The DPP replied that both the .45 and .38 ammunition dated back to the 1990’s, literally gathering dust under Peck’s bed. Witnesses, ASP Andres Makin and Sgt. Jorge Villanueva, told the court that the ammunition found by the GSU at Peck’s home was not even a part of their inventory, and that from their knowledge, the Corporal had not been issued the ammunition. Sgt. Sanchez said he had often issued .45 ammunition to Peck but could not say if the particular round was one of those.
After reviewing all the evidence the Chief Magistrate found Peck guilty.
Show of support
The announcement of the verdict in the press sent shockwaves through the Department, and on Wednesday there were persistent reports of planned industrial action, which the Police Department is not allowed to enter into as an essential service.
The conviction came in the wake of decisions by senior Police officers to release tax supervisor Reynaldo Verde, who, after having been accused twice of attempted murder, had faced similar firearms and ammunition charges.
Verde, however, was released after he claimed that he was being framed.
Addressing the rumours of industrial action, Commissioner of Police Allen Whylie told reporters at the Police’s graduation ceremony for new recruits:
“I don’t know where it [the text] originated from; it could have been from members of the department or from anyone. But as a disciplined organization, we are not allowed to strike or to go slow. But of course, people have their rights and other ways of exercising them.
“So, I will be speaking to the various district commanders to ensure that they speak to their personnel and let them be aware of their legal rights, what they cannot do, and of course, let them know that the administration is supporting Corporal Peck. But as a law institution, we have got to have respect for the law.”
The Commissioner said he and the Department “feel” for Peck, a “brother in good standing” and a “very excellent and dedicated officer,” and affirmed that the Department would support him in his right to appeal, including paying his legal fees.
On Wednesday, the department issued a release, saying that the matter could have been dealt with internally; however, the department wasn’t given the opportunity to do so.
The release added that should Peck’s appeal prove successful, it would be up to the Commissioner to pursue internal disciplinary actions.
Mrs. Loretta Peck, speaking to the media this week, thanked the department. “It’s good to know that they are behind my husband 110 percent,” she said.
By Aaron Humes Freelance Reporter