Thursday, August 19, 2010

New Orleans Disaster Shootings: The Aftermath

by Cathy Scott

A story out of New Orleans, of police charged with the shooting deaths of six residents, is currently winding its way through the Louisiana criminal court system. So far, seven officers have been charged separately for conspiring to cover up the fatal shootings of unarmed residents Leonard Bartholomew, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew, Jose Holmes Jr., Lance Madison and Ronald Madison during the chaos that was Hurricane Katrina.

The story comes on the fifth anniversary of Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall in Louisiana. It reminded me of another police-related shooting case out of New Orleans, this one involving people's pets. It took nearly as long for arrests in those cases. But the outcome was much different.

Many victims of Hurricane Katrina who were forced to leave their pets behind in St. Bernard Parish were devastated to learn that the animals they loved and entrusted to law enforcement officers were brutally shot to death. They wanted answers -- and justice.

Some evacuees left their pets in the care of police at one of three schools in the parish. When the residents returned for the animals two to four weeks later, they found that most of them were dead -- their bodies scattered in classrooms, tethered or shot in groups.

“I trusted the deputies,” said evacuee Jodie Jones. “It is such a shock and such a heartbreak that anybody could just shoot them.” Jones and others wanted those responsible to be held accountable.

Investigators with the Louisiana Attorney General’s office in Baton Rouge launched two lengthy probes, one looking into the street shootings and the other into the school killings. The findings of the investigators led to St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies, many of whom were entrusted with the care of more than 60 dogs, some cats and a few birds at three different schools.

Incriminating Evidence

Photographer David Leeson, Jr., on assignment for the Dallas Morning News immediately following Hurricane Katrina, has produced the most damning evidence to date of police wrongdoing. The paper, under subpoena, has turned over to the attorney general’s office Leeson’s raw video footage of dogs being gunned down on the streets around Sept. 7.

While driving the streets between St. Bernard Highway and Judge Perez Drive near Chalmette, Leeson stopped to help a dog but was dismayed to see what happened when two people in a Jeep and two officers in the back of a pickup drove up.

“They shot the dog I was stopping to help right in front of me,” Leeson said.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer then recorded other events. “On the raw tape you can hear the shootings of eight to nine dogs,” he said. Also disturbing in the video is the admission by then-Sergeant Mike Minton of the sheriff’s office that he had, in fact, shot dogs to death.

When Minton noticed Leeson’s camera, “(Minton) just kind of jumped in front of me and said, ‘What’s going on?,’ Leeson said. “I told him who I was. I said, ‘Tell me about the dog shootings.’ He started talking.”

When Leeson asked Minton how many dogs he’d shot, Minton replied, “Enough.”
And, Leeson said, on the unedited tape, Minton (right) implicated a senior officer. The sergeant, who was suspended by his department after an edited version was posted on the newspaper’s website, has since resigned his post.

The video appeared to contain enough evidence for the attorney general's office to continue its case. “For the dogs in the street, we have evidence,” said Assistant Attorney General Mimi Hunley. “We have the film.”

In December 2006, a grand jury in St. Bernard Parish indicted former parish sheriff's deputy Minton and Deputy Chip England for aggravated cruelty to animals.

Evidence from the Schools

For the probe into the school shootings -- at Sebastian Roy Elementary School, Beauregard Middle School, and St. Bernard High School -- investigators, according to sources close to the case, are said to be relying on ammunition and spent bullets found at the scenes, and, equally important, on eyewitness accounts.

Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman for the attorney general, noted, “We can’t comment on how many (officers may be involved), except to say we do have a list of deputies we are questioning in connection with this investigation.” The St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office, Wartelle said, is the only law enforcement agency under investigation. That rules out earlier speculation that National Guard officers may have been involved.

On Sept. 29, after the bodies of animals were discovered at Sebastian Roy Elementary School on Bayou Road, Sheriff Jack Stephens told CNN: “I'm certainly not prepared to say without reservation that it wasn't one of our officers that did it. But what I do know is that it's a despicable act. And someone who did this just has some imperfection in their psyche. And if that someone is a law enforcement officer, they can't be in this business. They're in the wrong business.”

About 60 people evacuated with their pets to Beauregard Middle School, including Kit Bauer. She was rescued on August 29 from her attic when neighbors in a boat heard one of her dogs barking. They took her to Beauregard, where she and the dogs spent three days.

Bauer left a note written in chalk on a wall outside a classroom with her phone number. It read, “In this room are 6 adult dogs and 4 puppies. Please save them. Kit.” The puppies were three-week-old dachshunds and were still nursing. She left water and opened three boxes of Fruit Loops cereal for the dogs. One dog, Indy, was found two weeks after the storm at a shelter and has since been returned to Bauer.

Jodie Jones also left a note at a school. She and her husband, Clay, evacuated the Saturday after the levees broke. A half-mile down Bayou Road, the Joneses left their three cats and a dog in the hands of deputies at a makeshift evacuee center at St. Bernard High School. To their horror, two of their cats were found dead four weeks later inside the carriers they had delivered them in. They haven’t found their third cat. All were 10 and 12 years old.

“I asked the deputies to promise me they’d get my animals to safety,” Jones said. “They assured us nothing was going to happen to them.

“The deputies told us, ‘If you want to get out alive, you have to go now. We’re saving people, not animals.’ I knew two of the officers. We thought we were doing a good thing by taking our animals to the school.”

Their dog, Suzie, somehow escaped being shot and was located in a foster home. “Suzie made it to California,” Jones said. But “she died three days before we were scheduled to get her. I think she died of grief.”

Carol Hamm stayed at the high school for two days, waiting for her husband and son, who used their boat to rescue people stranded on rooftops and in attics of flooded homes. While at the high school, Hamm said, “One moment (the deputies) told us we could take our pets, and the next moment they said we couldn’t. My husband was still at the house with our dogs.”

Her husband ended up paddling a boat and dropping off their four dogs at Beauregard Middle School, because sheriff’s deputies told him they would take the dogs to an animal shelter for safekeeping. Then he and their son went to the high school and were evacuated out a day later with Hamm.

On Sept. 30, Carol Hamm returned to the school to look for the family’s pets. “It’s the worst memory I’ll ever have,” she said. “The bodies were being removed. It was horrible. I was crying over strangers’ dogs. Only three of our dogs were in the room. We saw a golden retriever, two Yorkshire terriers, all breeds, and a lot of pits and rotties. Some were shot running, one up the stairs. Bullet, our husky mix, was shot in the head.”

Many animals were also taken to St. Bernard High School. “People were there with dogs, cats and birds, too. You name it, people brought them," Hamm said. “There was an old woman who wanted to take her Yorkie. The dog was so tiny she could fit it in her purse. They made her leave it.”

While still at the high school, Hamm overheard a deputy say to another officer, “As soon as these people leave, I’m shooting these dogs.” Hamm and others confronted the officer. “A medic was also there,” Hamm said, “and he told me he wouldn’t let anything happen to them.”

At both the middle and high schools, evacuees were eventually ordered to get in the back of garbage trucks. They were driven in the trucks to barges that took them across the river to buses. Some were bused to Oklahoma and Texas, others to Baton Rouge.

Christopher Acosta also left his dog, Mercedes, at Beauregard Middle School, along with 10 dogs belonging to his mother, uncle, cousin and best friend. His uncle’s German shepherd somehow escaped and made it back to his house.

 Acosta (left) returned to the school two weeks later to look for the remaining dogs. What he found were bodies. “It made me mad,” Acosta said. “The more bodies I saw, the angrier I got.” He opened every classroom, searching. By his count, about 40 deceased pets were in the building. They included his mother’s Pomeranian. Mercedes, his pit bull, missed being shot because her leash got stuck in a file cabinet, trapping her behind it.

A resident walked by the school sometime after the shootings and heard a faint whimper. He flagged down the driver of an SUV that had “animal rescue” scrawled on the window. Kelle Davis of Animal Rescue New Orleans went inside and found the whimpering dog, who turned out to be Mercedes. Mercedes was later taken to Best Friends Animal Society's temporary rescue center in Tylertown, Mississippi, and reunited with Acosta three months after the evacuation.

Picking up the Pieces

Those who lost their pets in the carnage are trying to get on with their lives.

Carol Hamm and her family, who relocated to Temple, Texas, were reunited with Daisy, the sole survivor of the four dogs they left at the school. Another of the few survivors of the bloodbath at the schools, Daisy was taken to the Tylertown rescue center, and then placed in a foster home.

Christopher and Crystal Acosta were living in a FEMA trailer on their St. Bernard Parish property while they repaired their house. “I love this dog with all my heart,” Acosta told reporters the day he and Mercedes were reunited, as he stood in front of the school. "I'm just grateful to get her back.”

Jodie Jones returned to her home after she and her husband received keys to their FEMA trailer. Going home brought back many memories. Jones said, “You know how when you pull up in the driveway you’re used to them barking, and when you go inside they’re happy to see you? It was like we expected to see them, but they weren’t there. It’s been difficult. My pets were my children. I can’t get over the abuse.”

Kit Bauer now lives out of state and has no plans to return to St. Bernard Parish. “There’s nothing to go back to,” she said. As for the investigation, Bauer said, “I don’t want to dwell on what the deputies may or may not have done. They took care of us while we were at the school and found us food. I just pray my dogs didn’t suffer.”

In December 2008, the final word came down from the Louisiana attorney general's office. Citing insufficient evidence, State Attorney General James "Buddy" Caldwell dropped the animal cruelty charges against the two deputies -- Minton and England -- accused of killing the stray dogs while they worked for the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office in the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina. No charges were ever brought against the deputies long believed to have killed pets inside the schools.

The animal cases may have ended, and certainly justice was not meted out there. Hopefully, with the cases of the six residents who were fatally shot by cops, this time justice will be served.

Photo of Christopher Acosta and Mercedes by Cathy Scott. Photo by Clay Myers of Angel, (top, one of the few survivors, who was found alive tied to a table in the school cafeteria; she was later reunited with her family).


Story Teller said...

How devastating and senseless. This post is the first I've heard of this event, and I can't understand why the officers would be so cruel. Have they no heart? Why would anyone murder innocent animals? That no one was punished for this is so infuriating!

pattydiva said...

I live 85 miles from New Orleans and haven't heard this before. I can't imagine their reason. Whatever they profess it was, it stinks. There is no reason to do this. I cried when I read about the 4 dachshunds. I have 4 of them myself and can't even conceive of someone doing that to my dogs. So sad.

Leah said...

Horrible. As I first started reading, I wanted to think these were going to be mercy killings because of lack of food, care, shelter and all the disease they would be suseptible to. How very unfortunate.

Leah said...

Horrible. As I first started reading, I wanted to think these were going to be mercy killings because of lack of food, care, shelter and all the disease they would be suseptible to. How very unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing about this but am very angry that justice was not served. The cruelty that people are capable of never ceases to amaze me. Even before Katrina, I always said there is no way I would ever leave my pets behind, even if it meant me losing my life as well, they mean that much to me.

Cathy Scott said...

Keeping it out there, hopefully, will ensure that it never happens again. It really looked like the sheriff and his deputy, in the street shootings, were going to be prosecuted. Then a new AG took over and dismissed the case. I was at the high school two weeks after the school shootings, which at the time no one knew about. We found bodies under a bleacher on the football field, but didn't realize the dogs had been shot (without going into detail, the temperature was about 110). And we wondered why there were so many dogs and cats hiding in that neighborhood. We rescued dozens that day. A couple days later, Anderson Cooper broke the story about the shootings, which explained what we had seen. But we also knew that some of those animals had escaped being shot, because our team rescued them.

Ethan Smith said...
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