Head of the Special Operations Response Team (SORT) Inspector Mark Hernandez has been charged with misbehaviour in public office in relation to an investigation into the treatment of the suspects held for the abduction and murder of Andrea Bharatt.
The charge against Hernandez was revealed by officers of the Professional Standards Bureau (PSB) around 2 pm, yesterday, as they appeared virtually in a habeas corpus application brought by his attorneys.
The charge was later confirmed by a statement issued by the Police Service.
During the brief hearing before High Court Judge Betsy-Ann Lambert-Peterson, the PSB officers indicated that they had received instructions to lay the charge from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
As attorney Yohann Niles, of the T&T Police Service (TTPS)’s Legal Unit, indicated that investigators only needed a short time to complete the paperwork needed to officially charge Hernandez, Lambert-Peterson gave them until 4.15 pm to complete the process or release him.
She also ordered the State to pay half of Hernandez’s legal costs for bringing the legal action, as she ruled that the action was reasonable in the circumstances of his protracted detention, since last Wednesday.
Hernandez was granted $300,000 bail by a Justice of the Peace and was allowed to leave the Maloney Police Station shortly before 6 pm.
He was ordered to make his first court appearance in the Sangre Grande Magistrate’s Court on June 1.
Hernandez breaks his silence
Speaking to reporters shortly after being released on bail, Hernandez denied any wrongdoing in relation to the surviving suspect and two others who died.
“It is very unfortunate what happened to the two guys and they did not die in police custody but died while seeking medical attention and they were brought to hospital by the officers,” Hernandez said.
He went on: “I can tell you the two persons (Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris) who died, died with a lot of secrets.”
“We wanted them alive so they could be brought before a competent authority to answer for their crimes,” he added.
Hernandez maintained that he and his colleagues were affected personally by Bharatt’s case.
“I want to tell you it is never a good thing when citizens die. I can tell you that investigation was painful,” he said.
“We felt pain for Andrea Bharatt. Our mission was to search and rescue her,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez also expressed confidence that he would be exonerated by the criminal justice system.
“The officers of the SORT feel pain and are saddened by the events but the investigation must go on and I am confident that the truth will be revealed and justice will be preserved,” Hernandez said.
He also expressed hope that the unit, established by Police Commissioner Gary Griffith, would not be tainted by him being charged.
“As I am charged and lead the unit, I would like to tell T&T that they are in safe hands with the officers of the SORT,” he said.
Hernandez’s lawyer Gerald Ramdeen also expressed confidence in his client’s case.
“It is really a sad day for the people of T&T for an officer like Mr Hernandez to be put through the agony and torment of being incarcerated for in excess of 140 hours for an investigation to take place,” Ramdeen said.
“I am confident that Mr Hernandez would be proven innocent and one hopes his reputation would be restored,” Ramdeen added.
Court orders release of WPC
The development in the case came hours after High Court Judge Jacqueline Wilson ordered the release of WPC Laura Gadar, who was detained alongside Hernandez and filed a similar lawsuit.
Hernandez and Gadar were the only two of the approximately two dozen members of the unit questioned in relation to the probe, who remained detained by investigators since last week.
Both participated in identification parades on Saturday.
Joel Balcon and Andrew Morris were prime suspects in the abduction of Bharatt, a clerk at the Arima Magistrate’s Court, who went missing on January 29.
Within hours of Bharatt’s disappearance, both Morris and Balcon were detained by a team of SORT and Anti-Kidnapping Unit (AKU) officers.
Morris died at hospital on February 1, while Balcon succumbed to injuries he allegedly sustained in police custody, almost a week later.
Bharatt’s bloated and decomposing body was found days before Balcon’s death (February 4), dumped over a precipice in Heights of Aripo.
Negus George was eventually charged with her murder. Another suspect was allegedly beaten by police but survived and was released without being charged.
Hernandez has been short-listed for one of three Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) posts. His nomination by the Police Service Commission (PSC) is yet to be debated and approved by Parliament.
In anticipation of the hearings of Hernandez and Gadar’s cases, messages of solidarity were being shared on social media, yesterday morning.
Hernandez was represented by Wayne Sturge, Gerald Ramdeen, Lemuel Murphy, Mario Merritt, and Alexia Romero.
Gadar was represented by Ramdeen, Dayadai Harripaul, Darren Mitchell, and Umesh Maharaj.