SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 22, 2013

Man says he didn't know bag held $1M worth of cocaine

Grilli testifies that he thought he was delivering money

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — Jason Grilli admitted yesterday that he knew the arrangement was “shady.”

He said he was being paid $2,500 to pick up a bag at a Peabody hotel and deliver it to a truck driver in Boston, who would bring the bag back to Canada, where Grilli lives.

But, from the witness stand in Salem Superior Court yesterday, Grilli, 40, who is from a town just outside Montreal, insisted he had no idea that bag contained 11 kilograms — 25 pounds — of cocaine with a street value of $1.1 million.

Grilli is standing trial on charges of conspiracy and cocaine trafficking of more than 200 grams.

He testified that he thought the bag contained money that his friend “Benny” wanted to smuggle into Canada without having to declare it.

His attorney, Michael Farrell, conceded to jurors that Grilli is guilty of conspiracy to commit an unlawful act — but argued that there’s no proof that he knew what was in the large black bag he was carrying to a rented minivan in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn on Route 1 in December 2011.

Farrell repeatedly referred to the bespectacled Grilli as a “two-bit gofer.”

But prosecutor Gregory Friedholm argued that Grilli’s claim makes no sense.

Why would the Canadian organized crime kingpins entrust $1 million to a man who claims to be an unemployed waiter desperate for money to buy gifts for his kids.

“Does that make any sense?” Friedholm asked the jury. “Are they going to take a chance with someone who is not involved in this organization?”

Grilli insisted that he was simply trying to make some money and was desperate when he met a friend he identified only as “Benny” at a Tim Horton’s restaurant in Montreal. The friend asked him to drive to Peabody, pick up a bag from a man he knew only as “Chihuahua” and drive it to Boston.

So, the prosecutor asked, why did he take precautions when he arrived at the hotel, such as driving around the lot before parking and going inside?

Grilli insisted that he feared he might be robbed.

Friedholm suggested it was because he was looking for police officers.

And why did he use the fake name “Bobby Clarke,” a name that was found in text messages exchanged among the leaders of the Canadian drug organization that were intercepted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?

“I was desperate,” Grilli testified. “I needed the money. I did exactly what he told me to do.”

When Grilli was confronted by police, Friedholm pointed out to jurors, he immediately dropped the bag and stepped back, jamming his hands into his pockets.

He claimed that day not to know what was in the bag. Friedholm suggested that was simply his way of trying to distance himself from the contents.

Farrell, a Philadelphia attorney practicing in the case with the permission of the judge, suggested it was more evidence that showed Grilli didn’t know what was in the bag.

Farrell, who used PowerPoint-style slides filled with exclamation points during his opening and closing arguments, suggested to jurors in his closing that it was their “chance to govern,” a suggestion that both the judge and prosecutor called an attempt at jury nullification — an improper attempt to convince jurors to ignore the law.

Friedholm, meanwhile, offered his own drama during his closing argument, when he dropped the cocaine-packed duffel onto the floor in front of the jury box. Earlier in the trial he unpacked it, kilo by kilo, while questioning Peabody police Lt. Scott Richards.

Two co-defendants in the trial pleaded guilty earlier this year and were sentenced for their roles in the case. In June, Gerardo Flores, a now-former staff sergeant in the Arizona National Guard, was sentenced to three years after he admitted to driving from Texas to Peabody to deliver money for the deal.

In July, Valentine Munoz-Torres, a Mexican citizen, pleaded guilty to a trafficking charge and received a 12-year sentence.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.