by David M. Reutter
A federal investigation into the abuse of pretrial detainees at Louisiana’s Iberia Parish Jail resulted in guilty pleas by ten sheriff’s deputies. A trial is pending for an 11th deputy who did not plead guilty, Mark Frederick. Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal was also charged but acquitted at trial in November 2016.
Ackal, who was elected to a third term in 2015, denied any wrongdoing, pointing the finger at a group of rogue deputies whom, he claimed, operated beyond his control and lied to supervisors to conceal their misconduct.
The probe of Sheriff Ackal and the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office thinned the ranks of the already small law enforcement agency. The ten former deputies who pleaded guilty to federal charges included the jail’s warden and assistant warden; the investigation stretched back to 2008, during Ackal’s first term in office, and more than 100 criminal cases involving the deputies who were charged have been tossed out.
During the sheriff’s trial, deputy Jason Comeaux, who pleaded guilty to several charges including conspiracy and deprivation of rights, said he and other deputies were protected by Ackal and directed to use excessive force against residents of majority-black neighborhoods in an effort to “clear the streets.” He also testified that he and other deputies were instructed by superiors to lie about incidents, including in depositions.
But jurors were unable to agree on Sheriff Ackal’s guilt and he was acquitted. Seven of his former deputies were sentenced on March 28, 2017. Former narcotics officers Byron Benjamin Lassalle and Bret Broussard both received prison terms of 54 months, while deputy Wade Bergeron received 48 months; David Hines, 40 months; Jason Comeaux, 40 months; Jeremy Hatley, 36 months and Robert Burns, six months.
In handing down the sentences, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Walter stated, “The best I can say is you had lousy leadership. I’m restrained to say anything further.”
On May 2, 2017, the remaining three former deputies who pleaded guilty to charges resulting from the investigation were sentenced. Wesley Hayes, the former warden at the Iberia Parish Jail, received 34 months in prison. His brother, Jesse Hayes, the former assistant warden, was sentenced to 24 months. Ackal’s chief of staff, Gerald Savoy, received an 87-month prison term – the longest imposed. Judge Walter said Savoy had wielded “outside influence” on the other deputies’ misbehavior.
The charges that led to the guilty pleas and sentences stemmed from a federal investigation into three separate incidents at the jail.
The first occurred when an April 29, 2011 contraband sweep resulted in three prisoners being beaten in the jail chapel, which was chosen due to its isolation and lack of video cameras. Two of the prisoners filed lawsuits concerning that incident, and one, Curtis Ozenne, alleged Sheriff Ackal had ordered the beatings.
“He told the deputies and the warden to bring me to a secluded area and teach me a lesson,” said Ozenne. “He’s the head. He’s the one the finger should be pointed at. He’s the orchestrator and dictator of what was going on at the jail.”
The Sheriff’s Office settled Ozenne’s civil rights action in 2012 for $15,000. Still pending is a lawsuit filed by prisoner Anthony Daye, who also was beaten in the jail’s chapel.
In entering a guilty plea, deputy Lassalle admitted beating Ozenne with a baton while he “was compliant, kneeling on the chapel floor, and not presenting a threat.” Lassalle also admitted forcing another prisoner to mimic oral sex on his baton before striking him. Deputy Burns was present but failed to intervene, as did Warden Hayes.
The second incident involved three guards who struck a detainee on September 27, 2011, in which assistant warden Jesse Hayes was present and participated.
The third concerned an October 2014 incident involving prisoner Whitney P. Lee, Jr., who claimed in a civil rights suit that a guard struck him with a baton and shot him in the leg with a non-lethal “bean bag” shotgun round.
A federal grand jury is also looking into video of a December 2012 incident in which a detainee was attacked by a police canine and stomped and kicked by a jail guard.
Five of the ten deputies who were charged pleaded guilty to participating in one or more of the assaults and to lying to investigators. One was Sgt. Hatley, who admitted he assaulted a prisoner in the chapel by placing his flashlight between his legs and forcing it into the prisoner’s mouth, mimicking oral sex.
After charges were filed against Sheriff Ackal, protesters called for his resignation, citing the cases of Michael Jones, a mentally ill man who was beaten and choked to death by guards at the Iberia Parish Jail in February 2009, and Victor White III, who died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the backseat of a deputy’s car. Jones’ family filed suit in state court and were awarded $61,000 in March 2015.
“We’ve known the Iberia jail has been a hotbed of problems for a long time, so none of this is a surprise for us,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
Unrelated to incidents at the jail, two federal lawsuits involving Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputies were filed in March 2017.
Ray Trosclair claimed former deputies Hines and Lassalle tracked him down, then handcuffed and beat him at the behest of Sheriff Ackal, who believed Trosclair had assaulted one of his elderly relatives. In a later encounter, Gerald Savoy, Ackal’s chief of staff, allegedly pushed Trosclair’s face against a wall and twisted his shoulder out of place. See: Trosclair v. Ackal, U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 6:17-cv-00470-RGJ-CBW.
In the second lawsuit, Diane Carlson said she was roughed up for no reason by Lassalle when he and deputy Comeaux were searching her home in 2011 while looking for her niece. Carlson was later booked on a charge of battery of a police officer.
She had filed an earlier suit over the incident but settled that case in 2013 for $10,000. Carlson contends in her most recent complaint that the settlement should be thrown out and the case revived because Lassalle and Comeaux lied about the 2011 incident.
“Without their false testimony, plaintiffs aver that they would not have agreed to such a nominal settlement considering the gravity of their allegations,” she stated in her lawsuit, which remains pending. See: Carlson v. Ackal, U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 6:17-cv-00469-RFD-CBW.
Sources:The Advocate, www.nbcnews.com, www.wafb.com, www.katc.com
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Related legal case
Carlson v. Ackal
|U.S.D.C. (W.D. La.), Case No. 6:17-cv-00469-RFD-CBW