Two mothers testified Monday in federal court how they and their young children underwent a terrifying ordeal after a woman supposedly selling chocolate tricked them into opening their apartment doors so gunmen could enter to rob them.
The husbands of the two Far Rockaway women had been mistaken for drug dealers who kept large quantities of cash and drugs at home, federal prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz said at the opening of the government's case against former Hempstead Village police officer Brian Jones.
Jones is on trial in federal court in Central Islip for, prosecutors say, being the key figure and one of the two gunmen in the botched 2008 attempted robbery. He is charged with conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce and brandishing a firearm in a violent robbery.
Jones, who was released from prison in February after serving five months for dealing in oxycodone and other controlled substances, is "a cop but also a robber," Treinis Gatz said, referring to the 2008 incident. Jones was still on the force at the time.
"After finding nothing . . . the cop fled the building, leaving in his wake two traumatized families utterly stripped of their sense of safety and security," Treinis Gatz said.
Claudia Palacios testified the two gunmen handcuffed her and her husband, while her 5-year-old daughter and 17-month-son "were crying and screaming." The intruders said "tell them to shut up" and we were "praying that nothing would happen to them," Palacios said.
The three ransacked their apartment for 20 minutes, demanding, "Where is it? Where is it?" before leaving empty-handed.
One gunman then went to another nearby apartment.
Patricia Chacon testified that a gunman attempted unsuccessfully to handcuff her, but she was able to grab her two children, a 5-year-old girl, and a 3-year-old boy, dash into a bedroom, lock the door and call 911. That robber fled after ransacking her apartment.
"Thankfully, God gave me the strength to do that for my children," she said.
Treinis Gatz said that Jones orchestrated the robbery because he was short of money after being suspended without pay from the village police force after he bashed in windows of a car belonging to another man. His sometimes girlfriend was sitting in the car.
Ironically, Treinis Gatz said, the person who mistakenly identified the women's apartment building as the home of a big time drug dealer was the man whose car was damaged. And the supposed chocolate seller was the girlfriend, who used sweets her own daughter was supposed to sell for a school project, the prosecutor said.
Jones' attorney, Brian Davis of Garden City, said in his opening that the government witnesses against his client all had "motivations to lie" to get good deals for their own crimes or to remain in the country legally.
The prosecutor's opening statement should be looked at as "the preview of a movie," Davis said, adding, "Did you ever see a preview that shows the bad parts of a movie?"