Senior police investigators believe a former acting commissioner of police, now retired, and a director of a south-based contracting company might be able to provide useful information to investigators trying to find out how a decommissioned police car ended up back in use escorting heavy machinery.
The squad car was removed from the Cumuto scrapyard. Its interception on June 24 has triggered a wider investigation and audit in search of an undisclosed number of police vehicles, outfitted with flashing blue lights and sirens, now known to be missing.
The chance interception of a marked squad car, driven by a civilian in Tableland, escorting trucks carrying heavy machinery owned by the Laing Group of Companies has opened a Pandora's box and a desperate search for the missing vehicles, which police believe could be used to commit criminal offences.
Part of the investigation is focused on a possible link unearthed by national-security intelligence agencies to use several police vehicles in a jailbreak plot being hatched by a prisoner awaiting trial for a high-profile murder.
This is not the first time police vehicles have been discovered in use by civilians. A similar incident took place last year when a marked vehicle, which had left a garage in southwestern Trinidad, was intercepted in the Western Division.
Sunday Newsday contacted retired deputy commissioner Irwin Hackshaw to find out if he could provide any information on how a decommissioned police vehicle was used by a company to which he once provided security consultancy services.
Hackshaw left the service in November last year while under investigation by the Police Complaints Authority. He was under suspicion of receiving millions of dollars from several business organisations, including Laing Sandblasting and Painting Company Ltd.
Questions were also sent to Damian Laing, a director of the Laing Group, but had not been answered up to press time. The normal process to request a police escort can be made at a police station or online and once approved has an attached cost, police familiar with the process said.
Sunday Newsday, in a WhatsApp exchange, asked Hackshaw whether he still had a business relationship with the Laing Group and particularly Damian Laing. Hackshaw replied, "Do not ask me any questions about that nonsense."
He referred to Express investigative reporter Denyse Renne, who broke the story that the Financial Intelligence Unit had flagged him for suspicious activity in 18 separate accounts, suggesting that Sunday Newsday seek answers from her.
"You all are scrubs (sic) that pick up the scrums (sic),” he said, “and when you all have nothing to write about, just as you all did, and you in particular, about me without a shred of evidence and proof."
Hackshaw said the story was being pursued without giving the "police service a chance to investigate" and suggested that the newspaper "go and find some story" on its own and not put itself "in line to be sued."
"Print that!" he said.
During his short stint as acting CoP, Hackshaw reportedly authorised the an Emergency Response Patrol vehicle, assigned to the Western Division, to escort Laing on his personal business in another police division, one senior officer said.
Hackshaw is the brother of the late temporary PNM senator Joan Hackshaw-Marslin, who died last year. She had been a member of the Port of Spain North/St Ann's West constituency for decades and also served as an alderman on the Port of Spain City Corporation.
She was elected youth officer female on the party’s national executive and served from 1995-2003 and also served on various party committees. His brother, Stirling Hackshaw, who retired as an acting assistant commissioner of police, is the security manager at the Housing Development Corporation.
In the 2015 general election, Irwin Hackshaw's name surfaced as a potential candidate for the PNM in the Point Fortin constituency. He did not respond when Sunday Newsday asked whether he still had ambitions to contest a general election on a PNM ticket.
Hackshaw avoided disciplinary charges instituted by CoP Gary Griffith last year for moonlighting as a security consultant while on vacation without the approval of two former commissioners – Stephen Williams and Harold Phillip. It was Phillip who triggered the investigation after the FIU raised concerns about more than $2 million in Hackshaw's accounts, Sunday Newsday was told by multiple sources. Hackshaw said then that the money represented donations from businesses to help offset the costs of social events hosted by the police, including Police Can Cook.
Griffith had initially said he could not initiate disciplinary action against Hackshaw because the latter was the second-highest-ranking officer in the service and Griffith could not act as "judge, jury and executioner."
He later changed his position and appointed acting Deputy Commissioner of Police Anthony James to hear the matter. James was subsequently slapped with disciplinary charges for failing to complete the tribunal against Hackshaw before he retired, when it lapsed.
Hackshaw could still face possible criminal charges depending on the strength of evidence gathered by the PCA.
Griffith said on Tuesday intelligence reports suggested the use of police vehicles was "part of a bigger agenda," along with the importation of a large cache of high-powered weapons at a Piarco bond and the discovery of military-grade explosives and weapons in the Maximum Security Prison’s garden.
Griffith said it was possible the weapons, blue lights and sirens seized by Customs on April 22 could have been used to facilitate the escape of prisoners using police cars.
Investigators said then they intended to question a businessman linked to the shipment, and believe the weapons were imported for a specific purpose, as it also contained fake police sirens and blue lights. Police said the seizure came after a tip-off from a foreign agency on March 15.
National security sources have linked both past and serving police and prison officers working in league with a network of criminals, including foreigners, in a plot to destabilise the country. They said millions of dollars have been already paid to carry out the jailbreak and other potentially dangerous diversions.
On Tuesday, Griffith said some vehicles from among the 1,700 used by the police were missing and could be used to commit offences. To combat this, he said, the Attorney General had been asked to approve regulations for police vehicles to carry special registration plates with radio-frequency identification linked to the vehicle's chassis number.
Griffith also announced a crackdown on unauthorised vehicles using flashing blue lights, and instructed his officers to stop even police vehicles, marked and unmarked, trying to drive past roadblocks, to ensure the occupants were legitimate officers doing police work.
Among the vehicles which will not be stopped are those assigned to the Office of the President, Prime Minister and Chief Justice, a senior officer said. All other marked and unmarked vehicles will be subject to stop and search especially during the curfew hours of 9 pm to 5 am during the current state of emergency, the officer said.
In the past, Griffith has ordered an investigation after police vehicles were being used to transport and escort known criminals to and from Chaguaramas during the Carnival season driving past roadblocks and lines of traffic.
Griffith said on Saturday that for the past 50 years unmarked police vehicles outfitted with sirens and flashing blue lights have been breaking the law as not all had the approval of the Transport Commissioner. Each police vehicle with dark tints must also get the approval of the Transport Commissioner. Other public servants, whose vehicles are outfitted with flashing blue lights, including a senior official of the Central Bank, must also get the approval of the Transport Commissioner or remove the lights, police said.
On Thursday, at the Carenage Police Station opening, Sunday Newsday questioned the Prime Minister about the missing police vehicles in the presence of Griffith and National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds.
The PM, who is the head of the National Security Council, replied, "I don't know that they cannot account for its vehicles. They can tell you that it is in the graveyard. They can tell you it is in the shop.
“When you say they ‘cannot account for it,’ it means that it is stolen or lost. That is not the point.
“The point is that the vehicle is somewhere, but it is not available for use because it requires repair."
At that event, Rowley pleaded with the police to be more responsible in their use of vehicles, saying it was costing taxpayers millions to replace them. He said that after Griffith was appointed he asked for the derelict police vehicles which were rotting at the Police Barracks in St James to be removed.
Since then, over 460 non-functioning police vehicles, which were scattered at several sites across the country, were towed to the Cumuto impound lot, which is guarded by 24-hour security. They are scheduled to be auctioned in August.