A gang affiliation in the death of Melissa Barratt?

Saturday May 11, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A man accused of killing a Brattleboro woman in the summer of 2011 might be affiliated with gangs operating out of the Holyoke and Springfield, Mass., area, according to documents filed in a related case.

In early December of 2012, a grand jury returned a one-count indictment against Pamela Zygmont, who is the mother of a child of Frank Caraballo, for conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs. Caraballo stands accused of killing Melissa Barratt on July, 29, 2011, and leaving her body on East West Road in Dummerston.

According to documents filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Pamela Zygmont, 28, of Southampton, Mass., "knowingly and willfully conspired with others, including Frank Caraballo, to distribute cocaine and cocaine base, Schedule II controlled substances, and heroin ..."

In early January, Zygmont pleaded not guilty in federal court in Rutland. She was released on personal recognizance.

Since then, attorneys representing Zygmont and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont have been filing briefs with the U.S. District Court in Rutland. One of the documents filed by Zygmont’s attorneys asks the court to force the U.S. Attorney’s Office to force disclosure of the names of three witnesses being kept confidential at this time.

"The defense is entitled to know of the existence of any benefits, in whatever form, that may have been provided to any such individuals as a reward or inducement to them to provide information," wrote Zygmont’s attorney, John Mabie, of Corum Mabie Cook Prodan Angell & Secrest in Brattleboro, in a document filed on April 16. "Such information bears directly on the question of the credibility of these individuals and is absolutely essential to the defense of this case."

In addition to the names of the three witnesses, Mabie is asking the court to force the U.S. Attorney’s Office to disclose any records related to payments made or promises for immunity, leniency or preferential treatment in return for information.

Mabie is also asking for all information regarding prior testimony in this or any other proceedings in which the any of the three undisclosed subjects have acted as a witness and/or informant.

But in documents filed April 30 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office opposing Mabie’s request, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Perella wrote such disclosure could put the witnesses in danger.

"One witness to Frank Caraballo’s drug dealing has been killed," wrote Perella, who had no comment when contacted by the Reformer on May 9. "There are co-conspirators who have not been indicted and there is a concern that members of the conspiracy are affiliated with gangs in the Holyoke/Springfield, Massachusetts, area."

According to documents filed in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division, prior to Barratt’s death, Caraballo accused Barratt of stealing drugs from him. A friend of Barratt’s told police she and Barratt were held at gunpoint while Caraballo awaited instructions from a woman he referred to as "the boss" as to whether he was going to kill them. Following a phone call, Caraballo forced Barratt at gunpoint into a vehicle that was driven by Joshua Makhanda-Lopez.

Though court documents filed in the past four months indicate Caraballo was speaking to Zygmont that same day, they don’t directly implicate her in any involvement in Barratt’s death. Neither the defense nor the prosecution will comment on who they believe is "the boss."

State charges against Caraballo were dropped after the federal government took over the case. He has been indicted on four counts related to Barratt’s death -- one for being a felon in possession of firearms, one for using a Desert Eagle .357 in furtherance of a conspiracy to distribute 280 grams or more of crack cocaine, a third for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and a fourth for killing Barratt. During a hearing in Rutland in February, Caraballo’s defense attorneys confirmed that no alleged murder weapon had been recovered by law enforcement agencies.

Caraballo is currently serving 16 years in prison after he pleaded guilty in September 2012 to distributing crack cocaine.

In recent months, the Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force has made a number of high-profile arrests involving members of La Familia, which has been involved in drug dealing for the past 40 years from its home turf in a neighborhood in Holyoke.

Local law enforcement is also dealing with the Latin Kings, which has been in open conflict with La Familia over the distribution of drugs in the region. The conflict has resulted in shoot-outs, homicides and the intimidation of witnesses who could help bring an end to the struggle.

"These drug dealers, or thugs, make the streets of our city unsafe," Holyoke Police Chief James Neiswanger told the media after the arrests. "They really are a cancer to our society that should be cut out and sent to prison for a very, very long time."

Whether Zygmont, Caraballo or Joshua Makhanda-Lopez, who is accused of being with Caraballo when he allegedly killed Barratt, were members of La Familia or the Latin Kings, has not been disclosed.

"While (Zygmont) herself may not pose a direct risk to witnesses," wrote Perella, "the government is concerned that others associated with Mr. Caraballo do."

As in the Zygmont prosecution, noted Perella, the names of the three witnesses have not been disclosed in the Caraballo case, also to protect them from possible harm.

In the April 30 filing, Perella asked the court to deny Mabie’s "extensive laundry list ... of materials to impeach government witnesses at trial, including informant files and any agreements between the government and its witnesses."

According to precedent, noted Perella, disclosure of the names of witnesses who might face danger is not required until an actual trial is commenced. In addition, he noted, materials related to the witnesses doesn’t have to be shared until 14 days prior to the start of jury selection, according to court rules.

Mabie is also asking the court to suppress statements Zygmont made during an interrogation by Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul van de Graaf and Vermont State Police Det. Sgt. Frank LaBombard in a holding cell at the U.S. Marshall’s Office in Rutland.

"When the request was made to talk to her (Zygmont) did not fully understand who she was speaking with, thinking she was speaking to Frank Caraballo’s attorney," wrote Mabie, who contends Zygmont was not read her Miranda Warning and did not have a defense attorney present during the interrogation.

"It is clear that Ms. Zygmont’s statements were not properly or constitutionally obtained," wrote Mabie. "She was in custody, was not free to leave, was not clear to whom she was speaking, was not with either of her two Massachusetts attorneys, was questioned about a drug sale in Massachusetts, was a likely target of criminal prosecution, did not sign a waiver, and was otherwise coerced, tricked or misled into making incriminating statements."

In his response to the motion to suppress Zygmont’s statements, Van de Graaf wrote that her rights were not violated because she was not subject to "custodial interrogation."

"Zygmont was free to terminate the interview and return to her cell at any time and there were no coercive pressures beyond being a prisoner on unrelated charges," wrote Van de Graaf.

In addition, the claim that Zygmont was confused about who she was talking with "makes no sense," he wrote. Van de Graaf noted that both he and LaBombard identified themselves and "Any factual claim to the contrary should be found incredible."

A hearing to discuss the merits of the disclosure and suppression requests is scheduled for May 28.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette. reformer.


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