Dominican trainer still under probe

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- A prominent baseball trainer and agent in the Dominican Republic is still under investigation and could be charged in an immigrant smuggling case despite statements from his lawyer to the contrary, a prosecutor in the Caribbean country said Thursday.

Edgar Mercedes is one of six men suspected of illegally helping Cuban baseball players to the Dominican Republic so they could seek major league contracts, said Milciades Guzman, a deputy prosecutor who handles major criminal cases in the capital, Santo Domingo.

"I couldn't give you a date because the investigation is quite complex," Guzman told The Associated Press. "But there are interviews pending and there are arrests pending."

Mercedes, who helped Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes obtain a $36 million contract with the Oakland Athletics, and the others were briefly detained May 31 -- until a judge ruled there wasn't enough evidence to hold them. The trainer and his lawyer told reporters that all charges had been dropped.

"The judge set Edgar Mercedes, our client, free without any charge against, upon realizing that there was no proof at all that he was involved in what's been alleged," attorney Guillermo Estrella said at the time.

Mercedes insisted on his innocence in an interview Thursday with the AP, and asserted that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

"The prosecutor can investigate and do whatever he wants, that's his right," said Mercedes, who has been both an agent and a trainer in the baseball-loving Dominican Republic. "While he doesn't find anything that links me to (the case), I am free, like the judge said. I can leave the country. I can go to Europe right now. I can do whatever I feel like doing."

The prosecutor said the statements by Mercedes and his lawyer reflect a misunderstanding of criminal law in the Dominican Republic, where authorities routinely ask a judge to either detain a suspect or to allow release only on bail while the investigators build a case. It's only much later in the case when charges are filed, unlike in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Guzman said the case is being actively investigated and that the 43-year-old Mercedes may be called in for questioning.

"Now, the attorney is not telling the truth if he is saying that because he was not detained he has been cleared from the case. That is totally false," Guzman said. "All lawyers who practice criminal law know very well that a decision not to detain is not a dismissal."

In announcing the investigation, authorities said in a statement that there was a "powerful transnational criminal organization" made up of Cubans and Dominicans who smuggled Cuban baseball players in speedboats to the Dominican Republic so that they could pursue multi-million dollar contracts with the major leagues.

Officials raided homes in Santiago and Santo Domingo, and said they seized boats used to transport the players and family members. The investigation was conducted by agents of the Dominican intelligence agencies as well as an organized crime task force, suggesting the case was taken very seriously. Guzman himself has been in charge of major drug trafficking investigations.

"To search my house and to not have a single piece of evidence except the contract I had with Yoenis Cespedes is absolutely ridiculous," Mercedes said.