EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 16, 2013

Jailed at 19

Son of deputy police chief admits to robbery with dad's gun

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — LAWRENCE — Jamel Bonilla, the 19-year-old son of Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla, yesterday pleaded guilty to his role in 2010 drug deal that fell apart and was sentenced to 18 months in Middleton Jail.

Bonilla pleaded guilty to illegal possession of a firearm, a silver handgun that belonged to his father, and two counts armed robbery. Judge John Lu sentenced the 2011 Lawrence High School graduate to 18 months in the jail, the minimum mandatory jail sentence for the firearms charge, followed by four years of probation when he’s released.

While he’s on probation, Bonilla must refrain from using any illegal drugs, including marijuana, submit to random drug testing and stay away from the two men he robbed on Oct. 21, 2010 on Caulkins Court in Lawrence.

The armed robbery charges carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Bonilla, dressed in khaki pants, black hooded sweatshirt and sneakers, was handcuffed and shackled by court officers and taken to Middleton Jail after pleading guilty at noontime yesterday. His father was not at the court proceeding.

“Mr. Bonilla is pleased this matter is over. He has taken responsibility for his actions and looks forward to becoming a productive member of society when he finishes his sentence,” said his defense attorney, Alex Cain of Andover.

Prior the Caulkins Court incident, Jamel Bonilla had no criminal record.

Bonilla and two other men were charged after the home invasion on Caulkins Court. Promised immunity from prosecution, Deputy Chief Bonilla admitted the gun Jamel had with him that day belonged to him. It was never clear how Jamel obtained the weapon, however. State law requires all firearms “be stored in a secured, locked container or equipped with a tamper resistant mechanical lock or other safety devices property engaged as to render the weapon inoperable by unlawful users.”

Prosecutors described the incident as a drug deal that fell apart. The two victims agreed to pay $3,000 for 200 Percocet prescription pills. Co-defendants Jonathan Vargas, 24, and Joseph Rodriguez, 20, both from Lawrence, did not plead guilty with Bonilla.

An attorney for Rodriguez yesterday said his client intends to take the matter to trial on Feb. 4.

Under questioning by Lu yesterday, Bonilla said the last job he held was at Stop and Shop in North Reading and that he is single with no children. He told Lu he does suffer from the disease diabetes and took an insulin shot yesterday morning as required.

“The insulin is not a factor in his mental functioning whatsoever,” Lu ruled in court yesterday.

Bonilla also told Lu he was pleading guilty willingly and he was not in any way confused about the court proceeding.

Prosecutor Michael Sheehan said the victims in the case were notified of the plea hearing yesterday. The opted to provide “no input,” he said.

Sheehan and previously prosecutor Timothy Shyne were both brought in to handle these cases on special assignment since they involved the son of an Essex County police official.

In September, 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.

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

In recent months, Jamel Bonilla’s legal troubles eclipsed those of his father. On Sept. 12, the elder Bonilla 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.

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

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