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CJ says sentences for wahoo thieves meant as deterrent

 “Stealing by young people is just chronic on the island”, said Chief Justice Michael Kruse when he handed down sentencing for two young men convicted of stealing 102 cases of wahoo from the StarKist Samoa warehouse late last year.

Joe Leota and Michael Leatigaga both entered into plea agreements with the government in this matter. Leota pled guilty to the amended charge of burglary second degree and stealing. The second degree burglary was amended from the first degree burglary charge.

Co-defendant Michael Leatigaga, who was initially charged with stealing and receiving stolen property, pled guilty to receiving stolen property and the government moved to dismiss the stealing charge.

Leota apologized to the court, StarKist Samoa Company and his parents for his actions. The defendant stated that his actions have disgraced his family and for that he’s very sorry.

He pleaded with the court for a second chance so he could return home, finish school and attain a job to assist with his family. “I know I don’t deserve a second chance but I want to go back to school and get a job”, said Leota.

Leota’s lawyer Assistant Public Defender Leslie Cardin said in court that the defendant is a very young man and if he’s placed on probation with strict supervision, Leota can turn his life around and become a productive member of society.

Ms Cardin acknowledged the presence of Leota’s father in court supporting his son.

Co-defendant Leatigaga apologized to his parents, family, village of Nu’uuli and StarKist Samoa Company for what he did. “Please accept my apology” was Leatigaga’s plea to the court.

Leatigaga’s uncle took the stand and apologized on behalf of his nephew, saying that throughout Leatigaga’s life and his upbringing, the incident is out of character for the defendant.

The uncle told the court that he assisted with Leatigaga’s education since he was 13 years old up to the time he graduated from high school, and Leatigaga worked for Samoa Packing until it closed down.

He added that he sought another job for Leatigaga at the shipyard where he worked as a security guard.

The uncle said Leatigaga is a loyal and honest young man and maybe it was his loyalty to his friends which led him to follow them, which has gotten him into trouble.

He pleaded with the court to give Leatigaga a second chance, where he will assist Leatigaga in turning over a new leaf.

Assistant Public Defender Michael White told the court that Leatigaga had a prior minor offense when he was a juvenile and asked the court to place the defendant on probation.

The Chief Justice said according to the pre-sentence report, on August 15, 2011, Leota went into the StarKist warehouse where he removed 102 cases of Wahoo, took five home and loaded 97 cases into Leatigaga’s car.

It was then Leatigaga who fenced the loot, taking the cases to Ocean Star store and Pio’s store, where he sold them.

Each individual Wahoo can has a log number on it, and when StarKist sent out its employees to look for the stolen cases of Wahoo, they found them at the stores.

The video surveillance at the store helped StarKist and police identify who sold the stolen cases to the stores, and a criminal complaint was issued a short while after.

Kruse said the profit made from the stolen cases was $1,455. Leatigaga gave Leota $300 and kept the rest for himself.  

“These two young men are at the beginning of adulthood and have the potential of going to the Tafuna Correctional Facility — which is not exactly as correctional as it professes to be,” said Kruse.

He added this is to be in their favor, however while in deliberation for an appropriate sentence the court has taken into account the community at large.

“Stealing by young people is just chronic on the island”, said Kruse. The Chief Justice agreed with the probation report and said it’s difficult for the court to understand the defendant’s actions, yet they come from good families.

Kruse added it seemed the defendants received everything they needed within their families, but when they had the opportunity to do what they did, they just did it.

He said the court needs to render sentencing to teach the defendants a lesson and also serve as deterrence for society at large.

The Chief Justice then sentenced Leota and Leatigaga to seven years in jail, however execution of sentencing was suspended and the pair are both placed on seven years probation under the conditions that they both serve 28 months in jail, and pay a fine of $2,000 each. After serving six months in jail, the pair can file motions requesting work release if they have attained employment.

Kruse also scheduled a probation review for the pair after serving 12 months in jail. Another condition of their release is that they both visit the probation office regularly.