EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 16, 2012

Judge's absence delays Jamel Bonilla guilty plea

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — SALEM, Mass. — Due to a scheduling issue, the son of Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla did not plead guilty yesterday to armed robbery and illegal firearms charges connected to a 2010 drug deal that fell apart.

It was anticipated that Jamel Bonilla, 19, would plead guilty in Salem Superior Court, but Judge John Lu, who has presided over the case and approved the undisclosed plea arrangement, was not available yesterday.

Bonilla, who arrived at court with a large group of family and friends but not his father, and his two co-defendants, are now due back in court on Dec. 18. Bonilla is expected to enter a guilty plea and be sentenced at that time.

His attorney Alex Cain has declined to discuss the details of the plea arrangement.

Jamel Bonilla is charged with two counts of armed robbery, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail, and illegal possession of a firearm, which is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 18 months in Middleton Jail or 2 1/2 years in state prison. Bonilla was carrying a silver handgun on Oct. 21, 2010 when he and two others tried to rob two men on Caulkins Court in Lawrence, prosecutors said.

The incident was allegedly a drug deal that fell apart. Two victims agreed to pay $3,000 for 200 Percocet prescription pills, police said.

Lu previously set a Feb. 4 trial date in the case should the plea agreement fail. Attorneys for Bonilla’s co-defendants, Jonathan Vargas, 24, and Joseph Rodriguez, 20, also from Lawrence, have not yet indicated if their clients would plead guilty or go to trial.

Rodriguez and Vargas are also charged with two counts of armed robbery. Vargas is also charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and carrying an illegal firearm without a license.

A special prosecutor, Timothy Shyne from Plymouth County, was brought in to handle the cases because it involves the son of Essex County police official.

Jamel Bonilla’s legal troubles are on top of that of his father, who on Sept. 12 was arraigned in Salem Superior Court on bribery, extortion and conspiracy charges related to an ongoing criminal investigation into Mayor William Lantigua and his administration.

Melix Bonilla was Lantigua’s campaign manager who was promoted from sergeant to deputy chief once Lantigua became mayor in January 2010. He received a $45,000 pay raise.

The older Bonilla is accused of swapping 13 city-owned vehicles for four Chevrolets. He was relieved of duty and stripped of his gun, badge, work ID, cell phone and cruiser after indictments were handed down on Sept. 11.

But, Melix Bonilla continues to get a paycheck on his $140,000 annual salary. Lantigua has the authority to stop payments, but hasn’t done so even at the request of Police Chief John Romero.

In September, in Jamel Bonilla’s case, Lu denied a motion to suppress statements the teen made to police when he was arrested.

Cain argued the statements should be thrown out because his client was 17 at the time and was not allowed to consult with his father during the interview.

The law only requires a person 16 or under to have a parent present during questioning. Lu also said police were not confrontational and Bonilla was not crying or distraught when he was interviewed. Bonilla was also read his Miranda rights as legally required before he was questioned and “then gave a detailed statement to police about his involvement in an alleged robbery,” Lu ruled.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.