An internal probe of the Danziger Bridge incident, in which seven police officers fired on civilians, killing two, in post-Katrina chaos, relied almost solely on accounts by the officers themselves, with scant backing from physical evidence or statements from bystanders.
Attorneys for the officers have cited the 53-page investigative report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times-Picayune, in arguing that they are innocent, but the officers were indicted on charges of murder and attempted murder by a state grand jury hearing evidence presented by District Attorney Eddie Jordan.
Though police Superintendent Warren Riley had vowed that the probe would be “thorough,” a close examination of the document reveals profound failings, according to an outside law enforcement expert and attorneys for the people shot by police. The officers, who say they fired back only after meeting a barrage of unprovoked gunfire, produced only one handgun from the scene, which the report does not directly connect to anyone suspected of shooting at police.
Moreover, the report’s witness accounts from bystanders or victims have since been disputed, discredited or come from people purportedly interviewed that day but who now cannot be found. To critics, the failure of the police to interview a wide range of witnesses is perhaps the gravest flaw, as it meant that valuable observations — including some possibly favorable to the police — were lost.
One of the witness accounts obtained that day came from a man the report identifies as a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy; that person later was found to be impersonating an officer and to have a criminal record, a fact the report never mentions.
In another glaring omission, the report never mentions that Ronald Madison, who the accused officers say shot at police before one officer shot and killed him, is a mentally handicapped man whom family describe as having the intellectual abilities of a child. Rather, the report repeatedly refers to him as “unknown, black male” until he is later identified solely by name.
Anthony Radosti, a former police detective and vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit watchdog group, called the investigation a “miscarriage of justice.”
Neglecting to pursue all leads failed not only the people who were shot, Radosti said, but the officers who now face murder and attempted murder charges and who might have benefited from that evidence.
“It was a poorly constructed investigation that does more harm than good,” he said.
In an e-mail message, Riley declined to comment on the report or allow any of his subordinates, including the homicide detectives on the case, to answer questions.
“We do not want to make any prejudicial comments,” Riley wrote, saying the court process must be given time to determine the fate of the seven NOPD officers.
Missteps from the start
The holes in the investigation stem from sloppy police work starting on the day of the incident — Sept. 4, 2005 — when police who arrived moments after the shooting neglected to undertake basic procedures, such as securing the scene to collect physical evidence and interviewing all available witnesses, Radosti said.
Even the follow-up interviews, conducted over several months, focused almost exclusively on the now-indicted police officers and other NOPD officers who witnessed the events from afar.
Although Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, one of the indicted officers, told investigators he saw handguns lying on the side of the bridge near some of the people police shot, the officers who arrived after the shooting made no attempt to gather weapons or evidence that day, and others in the department didn’t seek to do so until Oct. 26, 2005 — seven weeks after the shooting.
Police supporters have noted that challenging conditions in the hectic days after the storm made some missteps inevitable. “I don’t think any report or investigation conducted within six or eight months after the storm would be as thorough as we are accustomed to seeing,” said Lt. Michael Glasser, president for the Police Association of New Orleans.
Others said that if people had information to impart, they would — or should — have made themselves available to police.
“This is not like it was a secret investigation. People were aware of the incident from day one, and people had the opportunity to come forward,” said Franz Zibilich, the attorney for former officer Robert Faulcon, one of four men charged with murder, in his case two counts.
Claims of a cover-up
However, Frank DeSalvo, the attorney for Bowen, said a better report and investigation would have been in the officers’ favor, noting that some have called the police efforts a “cover-up.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that had that report been more thorough that we wouldn’t be in the problem we are in today. People want to look at that report and call it a cover-up,” DeSalvo said. “It is just a report that was hastily written under the circumstances.”
DeSalvo was also critical of the grand jury investigation, saying the jury did not substantively talk to either of the detectives on the case to ask about any holes and find out whether they had explanations.
While some would blame the initial investigative lapses on the chaos in Katrina’s aftermath, the level of investigative vigor did not increase when Sgt. Gerard Dugue, then part of the Major Case Homicide Section, took on the follow-up work on Oct. 14, 2005. Dugue teamed up with the original investigator, Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who responded shortly after the shooting and was, at the time, a homicide detective in the sprawling 7th District, which patrols eastern New Orleans. The investigation lasted months, with Dugue and others continuing to conduct interviews of New Orleans police officers through May 2006.
At the end of the report, Dugue and Kaufman cleared the officers of any wrongdoing, a ruling based largely on recollections of the police officers on the scene and those viewing it from the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge, more than 1,000 feet away.
In late December, the grand jury hearing evidence presented by District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s office indicted Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Faulcon with first-degree murder in the death of James Brissette, 19. Faulcon also faces a first-degree murder charge in the shooting of Ronald Madison, 40.
Those four men, and three other officers — Michael Hunter, Ignatius Hills and Robert Barrios — also were indicted on a slew of attempted-murder charges for wounding or shooting at several other people.
The same grand jury cleared Lance Madison, a longtime employee of FedEx with no criminal record, whom police arrested that day on eight counts of attempted murder for allegedly shooting at police officers and the alleged sheriff’s deputy. Police arrested Madison just moments after shooting his brother Ronald to death. But the grand jury found no proof of his guilt and declined to indict.
Shooting victims and police agree on only a few points: that about 9 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2005, six people were shot by police, five of them on the eastern side of the Danziger Bridge. The Bartholomew family — Leonard Bartholomew III, his wife, Susan, and their teenage daughter, Lesha — jumped behind a concrete barrier with a relative, Jose Holmes, and his friend, Brissette. The four survivors were repeatedly hit by police bullets: Susan’s right arm was partially blasted off, Lesha had four wounds, while Leonard was shot in the head, back and left heel.
The report describes Brissette, who died at the scene, as having seven gunshot wounds to his arms, neck, buttocks and leg. The Bartholomews’ teenage son, Leonard Bartholomew IV, fled and escaped the barrage of bullets.
At the time of the incident, the Bartholomews, along with Holmes, Brissette and other relatives, were camped out at the Family Inn on Chef Menteur Highway. They said they were crossing the Danziger Bridge to get to the Winn-Dixie on the Gentilly side when police opened fire.
Lance Madison and his brother were headed in the same direction after an unsuccessful attempt to visit their mother’s house in eastern New Orleans, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court. After trying to ride out the storm in Madison’s two-story townhouse, they ended up at their brother Romell’s dentist office on Chef Menteur, at the western foot of the Danziger Bridge.
As the shooting broke out, the Madison brothers ran over the bridge. Several police officers followed them. Armed with a .12-gauge shotgun, as well as his .40-caliber Glock, Faulcon shot and killed Ronald Madison in the driveway of the former Friendly Inn Motel, at the foot of the bridge on the Gentilly side.
State troopers and other officers then surrounded Lance Madison near the motel and arrested him for allegedly shooting at police. Police booked him at Camp Greyhound, the temporary jail set up at Union Passenger Terminal. He was then moved to Hunt Correctional Center, a state prison where many of those arrested in New Orleans were held after the storm.
Cause of shooting unclear
Exactly what prompted the officers to open fire remains a matter of fierce dispute.
The victims all say they were ambushed by the police, who drove up in a commandeered rental truck and disembarked brandishing an arsenal of weapons. Without identifying themselves as police, they fired a barrage of bullets at unarmed people, Lance Madison, Holmes and the Bartholomews have said in lawsuits filed in federal court.
In his preliminary hearing at the end of September 2005, Lance Madison said that some civilians shot at him and his brother as they approached the bridge, although he did not know who they were. Madison described seeing a group of teenagers — “six little boys” — running behind them and opening fire, prompting him and Ronald to run up the bridge. At that point, the police arrived in what Madison at the hearing described as a rental truck and a postal truck, according to a transcript of the hearing.
According to the police version of events, fleshed out in the internal probe, the police arrived at the bridge in response to a distress call from an officer who said people were shooting at police and rescue workers. Some officers said in their interview that they believed the radio broadcasts indicated that one or more of their comrades had been shot.
The officers said several people on the bridge had guns, though the report never directly ties a weapon to any of the people the officers shot, much less Lance Madison, whom they arrested.
“They had reason to believe they were in danger and being shot at,” said John DiGuilio, the attorney for officer Robert Barrios.
The officers’ descriptions of the gun-wielding civilians are at times too vague to be tied to any specific person. But in his interview with two detectives, Hunter described being shot at by “subjects” in clothing that matches the description of what Lance and Ronald Madison wore that day.
Villavaso said women as well as men were armed. In his statement, Villavaso said the officers immediately identified themselves when they saw the armed people, but members of the civilian group turned and opened fire anyway. Villavaso, who was armed with his .40-caliber Glock and also with an AK-47 assault rifle, said he then fired back.
In one example of the conspicuous lack of physical evidence in the report, police failed to recover any of the guns that Bowen said he spotted, including either of the two “dark-colored handguns” he said he kicked off the bridge after spotting them lying on the cement near a group of people, presumably the Bartholomews, who had dived behind a concrete barrier.
By his own account, Bowen ran down the bridge into a “grassy area” where he again mentions seeing several handguns on the ground. From this vantage, he said he saw a man later identified as Lance Madison tossing a weapon into the Industrial Canal as police chased him across the bridge.
Yet police did not pick up these weapons on the day of the shooting. DeSalvo said Bowen thought that other officers were collecting the guns.
The next day, after learning that “no technical support was available,” according to the report, Kaufman returned to the scene and found a Colt .357 Magnum. The report labels the gun a perpetrator’s weapon.
In the NOPD “confiscated firearms report” filed separately for the Colt, Kaufman indicated that the weapon belonged to Lance Madison — a claim contradicted later in the police investigation by Bowen’s description of Madison throwing his gun into the canal. The report’s ballistics analysis does not link the Colt described as a perpetrator’s weapon to any of the casings that were retrieved from the scene.
Through his attorneys, Madison has disputed the assertion that he was armed or threw a gun over the Danziger Bridge.
The report described no other efforts to collect evidence the day after the shooting. “Kaufman mentioned no blood samples, photographs, or measurements were taken, as well as the fact that no casings were located. He related he seized the weapon and secured it to be placed on the evidence books at a later date,” the report states.
Kaufman put the gun into evidence at the Greyhound Bus Station, the temporary central evidence location, on Oct. 11, according to the report.
Police officers did not return to the bridge to look for more physical evidence until Oct. 26, 2005, when Dugue and two other detectives met with Kaufman, Bowen, Gisevius and Hunter to “reconstruct” the incident.
Although seven weeks had passed, nine bullet marks could still be observed on the concrete barrier on the east side of the bridge. Two possible blood spots were visible on the bridge walkway, as was a dirty knitted hat that also appeared to be spotted with blood. On the ground, beneath the side of the bridge where the alleged gunbattle occurred, police found 26 casings and four Remington shotgun shells.
Investigators tied some of the casing to police weapons. Tests on others proved inconclusive, according to the report. The report leaves unclear whether they looked for evidence in front of the Friendly Inn Motel, where police shot Ronald Madison.
The report noted that Kaufman told Dugue that the rental truck used by officers — and which they stood near during the shooting — was “no longer in their custody.” In other words, the department made no effort to preserve the truck as evidence. Indeed, the report says police lost track of the truck completely.
“Because of the conditions after the storm, he (Kaufman) related the truck was used tremendously, because most of their vehicles were damaged extensively,” the report reads.
The disappearance of potentially important evidence infuriated Gary Bizal, an attorney for shooting victim Holmes in his federal lawsuit. Bizal noted that if the police were standing next to the truck taking fire, it would make sense for the vehicle to be littered with bullet holes. Those holes — or their absence — could be important physical evidence.
“What would it have taken to save the vehicle that cops were in?” Bizal asked in an interview. “How hard would it be to go back and find that?”
One key problem for the indicted police officers is that, for the most part, their accounts aren’t backed up by any witnesses outside the department.
Police never revisited the three civilian witnesses who the report said were interviewed on the day of the incident.
Several witnesses who have since come forward said police did not jot down any names or contact information on the day of the shooting, said Mary Howell, a New Orleans lawyer who has filed a federal lawsuit for the family of one of the men killed in the incident.
If police had gathered names, Social Security numbers and other contact information, they could have conducted interviews later at their convenience, Howell said. Instead, the report indicates no follow-up investigation with any witnesses other than the accused police and other NOPD officers.
One witness police neglect to identify by name in the report is a man who was initially apprehended by officers after he ran over the bridge at the same time as the Madisons. He was later released when police determined he wasn’t involved in any shooting. The report includes no record of officers taking his statement about what he saw that day.
At least eight New Orleans police officers — including two lieutenants — arrived at the scene after the shooting, according to the report. Photographs show that a number of Louisiana State Police and other law enforcement or military also showed up. To Radosti and Howell, this amount of back-up should have allowed the initial lead detective — Kaufman — to conduct a more thorough investigation at the time of the shooting, one that included interviews with as many eyewitnesses as possible, a matter of basic police procedure.
Instead, the report refers to statements from only two civilian witnesses. These witnesses give short, oral statements to Kaufman, who mentioned them in the report to buttress the conclusion that the shootings were justifiable. But neither witness was contacted for follow-up questioning.
In the report, Kaufman defended his failure to interview the witnesses more completely. It “was impossible to obtain an audio or videotape statement, due to post-storm conditions,” he wrote. He said he tried unsuccessfully to contact NOPD crime lab technicians.
Radosti said such excuses ring hollow, because State Police and other agencies unaffected by the storm could have been counted on to assist NOPD in the investigation of so serious an incident. At the least, Kaufman and the other NOPD officers on the scene should have gotten enough information to track down witnesses later, he said.
Pair not tracked down
One of the two nonpolice witnesses interviewed by Kaufman gave his name as James Youngman. Youngman, 44, said he saw “several black males shooting at police officers near Downman Road and then fleeing over the bridge.”
In the report, Kaufman does not list Social Security or phone numbers for Youngman, who is described as living at 14000 Michoud Blvd. with a cousin. The address was an empty lot even before Katrina, though there was an apartment building, now abandoned, across the street at 14001 Michoud Blvd. The manager of that building said in an e-mail message to The Times-Picayune that he has no recollection of a James Youngman, but that he would have no record of him if a relative or acquaintance was the leaseholder. The name James Youngman of New Orleans does not come up in electronic databases that collect credit information, voter registration and utility sign-ups.
Similarly, the report makes no mention of any attempt to track down the other civilian witness who supported the police account, Lakeisha Smith, 31. In the report, Smith confirms Faulcon’s recollection that as Ronald Madison was running away, he turned around briefly and appeared to be reaching for an object in his waistband. Smith, who is described as watching the incident from a second-floor balcony of the Friendly Inn, also reported to Kaufman that the Madison brothers were “looting and robbing people after the storm.”
The report notes that Smith said she intended to join a sister in Dallas “at an unknown address,” but it describes no effort by police to contact the witness for further questioning. No Social Security number or contact information is provided for Smith, who gave 6600 Chef Menteur Highway as her pre-storm address. The name Lakeisha Smith with the address and birth date provided in the report did not appear in electronic databases.
At the end of the report, in the section that argues why the shootings by police should be considered justifiable, both Smith and Youngman are described as “independent witnesses” who confirm the police version of events.
DeSalvo said that, although these witnesses have not been found, others have since come forward since the indictment who support the police version of events.
Not a cop after all
Critics of the police report say follow-up on another key witness would have undermined his usefulness in corroborating the probe’s version of events.
The report describes David Ryder as a deputy from the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office and notes that he “positively identified Lance Madison and the unknown deceased male in the driveway by the Friendly Inn Motel” — Ronald Madison — “as two of the several persons who opened fire on his convoy.”
The convoy was crossing the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge when Ryder became convinced that people under the bridge were shooting at the collection of boats and trucks he led.
The report describes Ryder, along with an NOPD officer also up on the interstate bridge, running down an interstate on-ramp to chase the people shooting at the convoy. Ryder said the shooting had stopped by the time he reached the Danziger Bridge, more than 1,000 feet away, according to the report. Ryder proceeded to finger the Madisons as the men who shot at him and others on the high-rise.
What the report never mentions is that Ryder was not — and has never been — a sheriff’s deputy, something that might have become clear if investigators had tried to contact him at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office for follow-up questioning or to speak to officers who might have known him.
The report records no such effort.
Instead of a record as a law enforcement officer, Ryder has a rap sheet that includes arrests in St. Landry Parish, including one for battery of a police officer. In 1992, he pleaded guilty in Nacogdoches County, Texas, to false imprisonment, a misdemeanor offense for which he received a six-month suspended jail sentence and probation.
Contacted by phone at the number listed in the police report, Ryder declined to comment for this article.
His lies and his record fatally undermine Ryder’s credibility as a witness, Radosti said. Continuing to rely on his account of events in the report is a “major blunder,” he said.
Hospital comments disputed
While failing to stay in touch with many witnesses, victims and suspects, the police did contact the Bartholomew family, who were being treated at West Jefferson Medical Center. In the report, Kaufman describes going to the hospital to speak to the Bartholomews on Sept. 8 and Sept. 22, 2005, accompanied by another officer.
The report states that on Sept. 8 both Susan Bartholomew and her husband, Leonard Bartholomew III, said their nephew, Jose Holmes, shot at military vehicles that pulled up near them as they crossed Danziger Bridge. Susan Bartholomew also told the officers she thought she was shot by a military helicopter, according to the report, which added she could recall nothing else.
In the Sept. 22 interview, according to the report, Susan Bartholomew told police that she remembered her nephew shooting at police officers as they approached the bridge. Leonard Bartholomew offered a different version, saying that a military truck pulled up on the bridge and opened fire on his family, and that Holmes shot at police at the same time, according to the report.
The Bartholomews have rejected the characterization of their statements in the police report.
“Both (of the Bartholomews) are emphatic that Jose did not have a gun or fire at anybody,” said Edwin Shorty, the family’s attorney in a federal lawsuit.
Shorty said that when the officers arrived at the hospital, his clients were frightened by them and asked hospital staff to block police access to their rooms in the future.
“Susan did stress to me that police had asked her who shot them (the Bartholomews). She was terribly frightened to answer that question and gave an evasive answer,” Shorty said, adding that his client remains deeply fearful of police retribution.
Although the report doesn’t mention it, police also interviewed Holmes while still hospitalized, said his attorney, Bizal, who has repeatedly said his client was unarmed. “The medical records confirm that police went out there and talked to him,” he said, noting that Holmes’ injuries were extensive, including gunshot wounds to his hands and elbows, neck and stomach.
In its conclusion, the report singles out the statements allegedly made by the Bartholomews — but later disowned by them — in portraying Holmes as a gunman. It also reiterates the view of detectives that the surviving Madison brother shot at police.
“With the apprehension of Lance Madison, as being one of the subjects shooting at police officers and rescue workers, and the arrest of Jose Holmes being imminent, this case is considered solved,” the report states.
Yet police never arrested Holmes on any charge. After his hospital discharge, he moved out of state to be with family.
Mentally disabled victim
Ronald Madison’s family is similarly skeptical of the police account of his death.
Both Faulcon and Smith said that just before he was shot, Madison turned toward the officer and reached into his waistband. Faulcon, who quit the force after Katrina, never gave a taped interview to police. Instead, Kaufman jotted down a statement, in which Faulcon described Madison’s movements as “an imminent threat” that he needed “to neutralize.”
Faulcon said he opened fire, hitting Madison, who “fell to the ground in the driveway of the Friendly Inn,” the report said.
Two witnesses at the Friendly Inn, separately interviewed by NBC News and CNN, have disputed Faulcon’s recollection, both saying Ronald Madison was simply running away and did not turn around. One said Madison had his hands out in front of him, while the another said his wife, watching from a motel room door, said Madison’s hands were above his head when he was shot from behind.
Madison’s family insist that he was incapable of violence. His sister Lorna Humphrey said Ronald had the mental faculties of a child and led a cloistered life in the bosom of his family: He had never held a job and spent much of his time with the family dogs, which he adored.
Humphrey said he was blocked from contact with guns or weapons and was not exposed to violent television programs or movies that might have acquainted him with their use.
“He wouldn’t have had a concept of what to do with a gun. He wouldn’t have played like he had a gun. It’s not even fathomable,” Humphrey said.
Although Kaufman appeared at Lance Madison’s preliminary hearing at the end of September — where the defendant described his almost 25-year career at FedEx, his graduation from Southern University and lack of criminal record — the police report delved no further into Madison’s background than to describe him as successfully apprehended.
From the report, investigators appear to have made no attempt to contact Madison’s employers or others who knew him to find out whether he was the kind of person who would have shot at police that day. Nor did investigators contact the family to find out more about the brothers’ histories, said Nathan Fisher, a Baton Rouge attorney hired by the Madisons after Lance was arrested.
Fisher said both Riley and former Superintendent Eddie Compass called members of the family shortly after the incident — but only to ask whether they intended to file lawsuits against the department because of Ronald’s death.
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Laura Maggi can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3316.