“I am still trying to recover,” said Tiwanda White, 40, as she was joined by defense attorneys Enrique Latoison and Laura Laszewski at their Front Street law office as they rehashed the case that made for shocking headlines at the time of her arrest in May, 2016. “It has changed my life in almost every aspect.”
A jury of eight women and four men deliberated about two hours Thursday, October 26, and about 10 minutes Friday morning, October 27, before returning the not guilty verdict on charges of possession with the intent to manufacture or deliver; possession of a controlled substance; and conspiracy to possession with the intent to manufacture or deliver, according to Latoison.
White, a caseworker for the Department of Human Services with an exuberant personality, did not testify during the trial, which opened Wednesday, October 25, before Common Pleas Court Judge James P Bradley.
Looking back, White said she was coming off three days of fun in Montego Bay when her life turned upside down – an ordeal she recounted during a 43-minute interrogation by a pair of Homeland Security agents hours after her return to Philadelphia, on the evening of May 24, 2016.
The interrogation was recorded on video, which both the prosecution and defence used, in part, to bolster their case. Assistant District Attorney Michelle Thurstlic-O’Neill described White as seemingly unconcerned in the video, combining her demeanour with other circumstantial elements like paying in cash for her ticket for a last-minute trip, to portray her as a professional drug-running mule, to show her as a willing participant in the smuggling of cocaine valued at as much as US$500,000.
Even Laszewski admitted Wednesday that White’s spontaneous trip “would be a red flag, 100 per cent.”
“She was the sacrificial lamb,” Latoison said Wednesday.
In court, Latoison went as far as calling White “an idiot,” due to her gullibility. He asked jurors not to become “inflamed” by the prosecution’s interpretation of details, or the 10 cans the DA’s office had on display in Courtroom 5.
Over the course of a two-hour interview Wednesday, White was friendly and chatty. She shared details of her life ranging from the most intimate, like matters involving feminine body functions while in jail, to the most whimsical, like sharing a birthday with Madonna.
Over the long weekend of May 20-23 in 2016, White said she reconnected in Montego Bay with a man she knew as “Ras,” a handsome taxi-driver with long cornrows she met during a previous trip in January.
The trip was supposed to have included White’s older sister, who at the time had recently been diagnosed with cancer. When her sister said she wasn’t up for it, White decided to go solo, booking a suite at the El Greco hotel for about $70 a night through Trip Advisor.
White has a long-time boyfriend, but described their relationship as on-again, off-again. Together, they earn a six-figure income, and White drives a Mercedes. He is a native of Jamaica, and has family who reside there. She’s said she has travelled to the island many times over the last six years.
She said she purchased the $700 ticket in cash at the airport the evening before her 7:20 am flight out of Philadelphia on May 20. She was looking forward to seeing Ras.
She saw Ras on Friday, and again early Saturday. But she said he disappeared Saturday night, a no-show when he was supposed to pick her up from a crab fest she attended with other people. She admitted being disappointed, but not enough to let it dim her fun. In the video, she told a pair of Homeland Security agents that she hooked up with another guy Saturday night.
“He showed back up Sunday night. He said he didn’t get my message,” White said of Ras. At first she wasn’t going to let him in her room, but he was persistent, and he apologised saying he never received her text. In conversation, he mentioned that she was flying home to Philadelphia and said he had relatives in New Jersey, which wasn’t far in distance.
“Would she carry a couple things back for his grandmother and mother,” she said he asked, referring to what she believed to be cocoa, teas, chocolates and spices.
“I looked to see what he had,” she said, describing two plastic bags similar to Wawa’s only black instead of white, which contained concealed cans of Lasco cocoa/nutmeg mix, a Jamaican brand with red plastic lids. There was even a receipt inside one of the bags for 14 cans.
White said Ras told her he would arrange for someone to pick up the cans so she did not have to drive to New Jersey.
Likening it to “a care package,” White said she agreed, “as long as it didn’t put my bag overweight.”
White said there was plenty of room in her suitcase to hold the cans, as well as the six bottles of alcohol and other souvenirs she purchased during the trip.
Besides bikinis and towels, she said she had packed few other belongings in the suitcase, which she paid $25 on her credit card to check at the airport. She carried on a duffel bag and a purse. When the Customs and Border Patrol agent at the baggage claim area at the Philadelphia International Airport waved her over that fateful night, she figured he’d inspect her belongings and then she’d contact Lyft and be on her way home in no time – a little inconvenienced, but nothing worth complaining about.
White said she’s been told that she’s too gullible. She said even her longtime boyfriend teases her about being too trusting, saying, “You skin your teeth for everyone to see.”
But moving forward, she said, “I will be less trusting of people.”
According to Latoison, the customs agent recognised the cans in White’s suitcase as being similar to ones seized in a previous incident at the airport.
If his client was the professional mule as the prosecutor contended, Latoison said, “Why take the same cans that are hot? Give me something different.”
Soon after jurors resumed deliberations Friday morning, Latoison said they requested to review the interrogation video.
“I’m just going to say the truth. At the end of the day, that’s all I have,” White told the agents early in the recording. “I’m a little gullible. I’m always being told that.”
White is wearing what appears to be a bikini halter-top under a black T-shirt. Pleasantries are exchanged between questions. Early on, investigators allow her to call her daughter on one of their cell phones. White told her daughter she was delayed and to get something to eat.
At one point, she texted a message to the number she had for Ras, letting him know that she arrived in Philadelphia. There was no return text.
“The video was her testimony. Without it, she would have gotten on the stand. It’s everything she told us from day one. It makes sense. You see her personality and what she’s like, and how she could be tricked into this,” Latoison said Wednesday. “That Friday, I’m watching it for the 40th time. I am looking at the jury watching it. I know we live or die in that video, and I’m fine with that.”
The video was not located until four days before the trial was initially listed in September, forcing Latoison to request a continuance. Latoison credited Thurstlic-O’Neill, who inherited the case mid-way through the process, for tracking one of the agents in the video.
Laszewski, who had done the lion’s share of pre-trial research but had a pre-planned vacation, missed the actual trial. Attorney James Halligan sat as co-counsel for the defense.
Thurstlic-O’Neill introduced the video as evidence on the first day of the trial. Latoison replayed excerpts of the video in his closing arguments; Thurstlic-O’Neill expounded on the same excerpts in her closing.
“Agent Blong is my hero,” Latoison said Wednesday, referring to Homeland Security Agent Matthew Blong, who provided the video to Thurstlic-O’Neill. “Tiwanda had been telling us all along about this video. Michelle tracked down the agent.”
What they saw when they first watched the video, Latoison and Laszewski said Wednesday, was an innocent person, someone who is honest and respectful, someone trying to be cooperative with investigators, contrary to the prosecutor’s interpretation.
“At this point, she still thinks she’s going home,” Latoison said of his client.
But following her arrest and preliminary arraignment, White was immediately remanded to the county prison. She was incarcerated for about four months before family members were able to post bail, which was reduced to 10 per cent of US$500,000 to 10 per cent of US$300,000 with house arrest.
After her release from jail, she remained on house arrest until her acquittal.
A tough case
During the trial, Thurstlic-O’Neill presented testimony from Blong; David Haraszkiewicz, the customs agent who initially stopped White at the airport; and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Javier Garcia, testifying as a drug expert.
“I think all the evidence points to the fact she did know what she had,” the prosecutor said. “None of us are mind readers. Look at the whole picture and see what that says about her behaviour,” before, during and after the trip.
“I want you to put yourself in her shoes as a traveller. Pretend you were coming through the airport. What are you going to do? Are you going to freak out? Or are you going to remain calm, as she did?” Thurstlic-O’Neill told the jurors in her closing.
She argued that White’s calm demeanour, inconsistencies and avoidance during the interrogation, coupled with purchasing the plane ticket in cash a day before she left for the trip, her second to Montego Bay in four months, was among circumstantial evidence that combined to prove her knowledge of the crime.
“We all live in a post 9-11 world. When it comes to air travel, everyone is paranoid, everybody is concerned. It doesn’t take a whole lot of common sense to realize you are not going to take a package from somebody you barely know and transport it into the country,” Thurstlic O’Neill told the jurors. “She just happens to have enough room in her luggage. When I travel, my bag is full. You wouldn’t have extra room unless you knew what you were going down there for. That cocaine is money to drug dealers. They’re not giving it to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. “Just don’t get distracted about what police didn’t do,” the prosecutor continued. “They go hard on her in the interview and she denies it and shuts down, that’s it. The other option is let her talk and see what she is going to say and see what lies they can catch her in. That’s what they did here,” she said.
For the defence, Latoison called Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Keith Hagan, who testified that nothing illicit was found on White’s cell phone or laptop; Gregory Auld, a former FBI agent and current private investigator who corroborated information White provided in the video; and David Leff, a drug expert who talked about typical behaviour of drug mules.
“Leff did more in-depth investigating that anyone combined in the case, including checking her bank records,” Latoison said. “Her bank statements reflected her honesty, and everything she had said. But the jury never heard that.”
At the outset, Latoison knew it was a tough case. He reminded jurors that the character of an individual, as well as their lawfulness, can be a consideration during deliberations. Latoison noted his client was a hard-working mom with a college degree and no previous criminal convictions.
“The Commonwealth put her credibility at issue. They think she is lying, they think the video is a mockery,” Latoison told jurors in his closing.
Of course, Latoison said he had to prepare White for the worst. She was facing 10-20 years in state prison, if convicted. When the verdict exonerating her was read, White practically collapsed.
“I had to hold her up,” Latoison said. “She was bawling her eyes out.”
White’s boyfriend, a daughter, and her sister from South Carolina were in the courtroom for support.
“This is not a ‘not guilty’ because they couldn’t prove the case,” said Laszewski, who followed the trial from New Orleans, Louisiana, “She got a ‘not guilty’ because she didn’t do it.”
Thurstlic-O’Neill said Friday that she was disappointed in the verdict.
“In cases like this, it can be difficult to prove whether she knew,” the prosecutor said, reiterating her belief that the totality of circumstances showed White’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
After her arrest, White said she was embarrassed to even call her parents. But she is grateful to them and her entire family for their unwavering support.
“My dad used to say save our get-out-of-jail-free card for something good,” she said. Though she can laugh about it now, it wasn’t funny when that moment came.
In the video, White seemed shy about talking to the agents about her romantic rendezvous in Jamaica. Divorced for about 10 years, she said she admired her parents for their successful marriage, and she’s told her children that she doesn’t want to be alone in life.
White told the agents that she’s trying to be a mom, but she’s also trying to have a personal life.
“I was just getting away. to chill out,” she said about the Jamaica trip in May. With limited vacation after being on the job only two years, she said she took a personal day on Friday and called out sick on Monday.
“People ask me if jail is like it is on TV. I don’t know what it’s like on TV,” White said. “Jail is depressing. Sometimes I still think I am dreaming.”
During her incarceration, she was one of three women in a cell. She slept on a “boat” – slang for a plastic bed used when the prison is overcrowded.
“At first, I didn’t talk to people,” she said. “I just cried.”
She dropped 30 pounds. She read books, played cards and watched the Summer Olympics on TV. Though she struggled emotionally, she said she was never afraid for her safety.
“The emotional part for me was being separated from my children,” she said.
While she spoke to her children every day, she didn’t want them to see her in jail. They visited her only once. White’s boyfriend visited every week – which meant that afterward she would have to undergo a strip search before she returned to her cell.
The first thing she did after her acquittal was drive to a Wawa, simply just because she could. She didn’t even buy anything special to eat.
“I can be at Wawa at 3 a.m.,” she said. “I can be outside after dark.”
She was especially happy to lose the ankle bracelet.
“My first night, I’m looking at my ankle, wow,” she said.
Today marks White’s first week back at work. She’s expecting a hefty check for her back salary. She was a little surprised to learn that only $18,000 of the $30,000 bail money will be returned, and the rest goes to the county.
Looking ahead, she will probably vacation again in Jamaica, but not any time soon.
“I am really scared to go right now,” White said.
For now, White is planning to spend Thanksgiving with family in South Carolina, where she grew up.
She was happy to report her sister is now cancer-free.
“Now, she lives every day like it’s her last,” White said. “That is kind of how I am.”
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