Virgin Islands Daily News, virginislandsdailynews.com
BYLINE: DANIEL SHEA, Daily News Staff
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St. Croix, Virgin Islands
ST. CROIX — Everything that happens in the V.I. Police Department’s new state-of-the-art evidence room on St. Croix is captured by surveillance cameras.
Except when the cameras are turned off.
Everyone who enters the evidence room must pass through fail-safe ID and security procedures.
Except when the procedures fail.
Every gun in the evidence room is securely locked up.
Except when it’s not.
Late on the night of July 25, a 28-year-old female police employee bypassed the elaborate security system and a short time later was found there, shot dead with a gun that was in police custody as evidence in a crime.
The Police Department calls the death a suicide.
The family calls it questionable, at best.
The death of Shakira Gautier occurred less than a week after V.I. Police officials gave the governor and media a tour of its new evidence facility, specifically pointing out redundant security measures — such as areas accessible only by fingerprint ID and areas requiring different codes from two employees to gain entry — installed to bring it into compliance with the recommendations of a federal report released in 2009 that was highly critical of the department’s evidence-handling procedures.
Police quickly ruled Gautier’s death a suicide and told The Daily News that videotapes would be reviewed to confirm the ruling.
Now, however, police say that the video surveillance system was not in operation and that Gautier easily bypassed the redundant security measures.
The victim’s family say the story they have been told “doesn’t fit.”
V.I. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. said that the police investigation confirms that Gautier committed suicide in the newly built evidence rooms on St. Croix, where, according to Francis, Gautier used one of the guns that had been taken in as evidence and shot herself in the mouth.
“There is no other angle at this point, except suicide,” Francis said. “The report we received from the medical examiner ruled it a suicide.”
While suicide is the official cause of Gautier’s death, puzzling details have emerged: Not only were the surveillance cameras in the facility not working, Gautier was not on duty, as police originally stated.
Gautier’s father, George Gautier, said he does not believe his daughter committed suicide — or that she was depressed, as police have portrayed her.
He described his daughter — the only daughter in a family with five sons — as a caring and happy girl.
“Shakira was a sweet person,” he said. “She was the dreamer of the house.”
After graduating from Central High School in 1999, Gautier attended two Florida colleges and studied private investigation — always dreaming of joining the Police Department, her father said.
But then, while she was in the U.S. Navy, an explosion permanently injured her right knee, causing her to walk with a limp, her father said.
Gautier, who lived on her own, had been at her parents’ house the day she died — the same as she was every Sunday, her father said.
“She was happy,” George Gautier said. “I didn’t see no changes.”
Her uncle, Amin Guzman, said she was constantly surrounded by a large, loving family.
“My niece had too much going for her for her to end her life,” Guzman said. “She had too much — just familywise alone.”
In initial statements, police indicated that Gautier was working in the evidence room that Sunday night with a forensic technician.
George Gautier said the last person that he knows of who spoke with his daughter that day was her uncle, whom she told, “I’m to work,” around 8:30 p.m.
She was not supposed to be working, however. She never worked on Sundays, her father said.
“It was obviously after hours for her,” Francis said. “She came in sometime after 11 o’clock. She was able to get into that area at that time and said she was coming in to work.”
The forensic officer on duty had not been informed that Gautier was supposed to be working but still granted her co-worker access — to an area to which Gautier had been denied, Francis said.
It was the area where weapons are stored and the area where Gautier shot herself.
Francis said there could be litigation filed when the investigation is concluded, though he did not elaborate, he said, because the matter is ongoing.
He would not give the forensic technician’s name and said she has been on leave since the incident and is receiving psychological treatment.
The room where the shooting occurred is a vault, Francis said. Only people with certain security clearances can enter.
Gautier had been denied access for a reason: She had been determined to be mentally unstable and suffering from bouts of depression — a condition for which she was seeing Dr. Denise Marshall, the V.I. Police Department’s Behavioral Services Director, Francis said.
In fact, Francis said, Gautier’s depression had gotten so bad that she was told to take a 30-day leave. She returned to work three weeks before to her death.
George Gautier said the mental health diagnosis came after a car accident earlier in the year. She had been on medication for her knee and had a car accident — her car rolled — he said.
She was determined to be a danger to herself and restricted from the area of the evidence room that housed the firearms, Francis said.
“That information was circulated to personnel, and they should have known that that area was restricted,” Francis said.
But on the night of July 25, Gautier did get into the room where firearms are stored — although she was not able to get in with her own credentials. She had to use the forensic technician’s information, Francis said.
“While the forensic officer was putting away equipment, she was able to access that room,” Francis said.
And, although police said the entire evidence area is covered by video footage, Gautier’s death took place on a day that none of the video cameras were turned on, Francis said.
“There is video footage everywhere in there,” V.I. Police spokeswoman Melody Rames originally had said of the evidence room when asked whether the shooting had been captured on tape.
However, Francis said later that the cameras had been turned off as a preventative precaution after after WAPA power surges had “fried” two of the cameras.
“Everything was down,” Francis said.
George Gautier does not buy it. The video cameras not working, the use of a confiscated weapon — “It doesn’t fit, it just doesn’t fit,” he said.
George Gautier questioned the storage practices in the evidence rooms, saying it would have been too hard for his daughter to get the gun and the ammunition without drawing attention.
The firearm that was used — George Gautier was told it was a .38 caliber — had recently been collected and test-fired, Francis said. The gun and corresponding ammunition, like all firearm evidence, were together.
“The firearms are kept unloaded,” Francis said. “The bullets and the guns were kept in the same evidence box.”
Gautier would have had all she needed in the box to commit suicide. And while her father believes that there would have been more superficial evidence on her face if she had shot herself in the mouth as police have said, a medical examiner disagrees.
George Gautier was able to see his daughter after the shooting and said she looked “calm” like “she was asleep.”
“Something’s got to show, but nothing there was showing,” he said. There was just a small stream of dried blood caked on the corner of her mouth, he said
Dr. Mark Shuman, an associate medical examiner in Miami-Dade County, Fla., said that a .38-caliber wound would not necessarily cause much exterior damage.
“When talking about what you would see on the outside, then you might not see a whole lot,” he said.
“Intra-oral gunshot wounds are almost always suicide,” he said.
“Are they always? No.”
But he said he would look for broken teeth and bruised and cut lips in the event of it being a homicide — things that George Gautier did not see.
The death still is under investigation, and the department is bringing in an independent crime scene reconstructionist to put together a comprehensive report, Francis said.
Three reconstructionists are being considered and the funding has not been approved yet, Francis said.
It should be approved soon, he said.
While protocol may have to be more strictly enforced, Francis found no fault in the departmental procedure.
“I think we do have adequate protocol in place,” he said. “It’s a matter of determining how and when it is used. Gautier was restricted from that area. She was receiving therapy. She was on leave for 30 days.”
There are no plans to separate the firearms and their ammunition — “that’s not done anywhere else in the country,” Francis said — and the camera system will be back up and functioning properly.
George Gautier said he does not plan to give up in his search for all the information about what happened to his daughter.
“I’m not going to quit,” he said. “I’m going to go all the way.”
Gauter is not the first death of a police employee in a V.I. police facility and not the first whose shooting leaves unanswered questions and an unconviced family.
In 2007, 28-year-old Police Officer Dwayne Isaac was shot dead while on the job with his .40-caliber Glock service weapon. He had just returned to his desk at St. John’s Jurgen Command Station near the end of his early-morning shift.
Isaac had been on the job for only 14 months and had no history of mental health problems, Francis said at the time, when he was then the assistant commissioner.
Isaac’s father does not believe his son committed suicide, he has told The Daily News and, like George Guatier, he still seeks answers and details.
— Contact Daniel Shea at 774-8772 ext. 457 or e-mail
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