Louisiana Sheriffs Hid a Gun That Could Free a Man and Then Blamed Hurricane Katrina

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Louisiana deputies say evidence that could exonerate a murderer was lost in the storm—but their parish didn’t flood.”>

RESERVE, Louisiana One gun took away Arizona Batistes freedom, another gun could give it back.

Batiste has been locked up for the past 21 years for the 1993 murder of Leonardo Alexander in what he says was an act of self-defense because Alexander pulled a gun on him. Batiste was convicted by a jury that didnt buy his claim because Alexanders weapon was never found by sheriffs deputies working the crime scene.

Or was it?

During Batistes trial, there was some doubt among jurors about the deputies version of events and they voted 10-2 to convict. In 48 states, it wouldve been declared a mistrial but Louisiana and Oregon do not require unanimous decisions.

In fact, deputies did recover a pistol matching the description of Alexanders handgun on the morning after the murder, according to recently uncovered documents obtained by The Daily Beast. The documents also show the district attorneys office was aware of the guns existence but did not disclose it to Batistes defense counsel before his triala clear violation of his right to due process and grounds for petitioning for a new trial.

A few minutes earlier, Batiste, 19, had killed Alexander, 27. Batiste had shot Alexander three times with a Cobray Street Sweeper semi-automatic shotgun.

Before the shooting, he never really got in any trouble, said Elva Perriloux, Batistes aunt. He sang in the church choir.

Throughout his trial, Batiste maintained hed killed Alexander in self defense, but the sheriffs department called his statements self serving and reported officers only recovered the murder weapon. Witnesses at the scene during the commission of the murder advised that Alexander did not possess a weapon, said the report by Detective Allan Wayne Schaeffer.

Batiste was hanging out with friends in his aunts mobile home, drinking beer and watching a Saints game.

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Around 10 p.m., other friends Waylon Frank and Albert Nicholson pulled up in their car outside and started honking, witnesses said. The men had a couple baseball caps and wanted to know if they were Batistes. Theyd gotten the hats from Alexander.

We went around the street to look for [Batiste] to tell him that we think Leo had broke in his house, Frank told sheriffs deputies, who later determined that Alexander had robbed Batistes trailer, stealing several gold rings from Batistes mother, along with the caps.

Man, that motherfucker must of broke into my house, Batiste said when he was shown the hats, according to Nicholson.

Batiste and his friends went looking Alexander and found him a few streets over. Alexander claimed hed been given the items by Batistes mother, one of his friends, Andrew Tercuit, told deputies.

Arizona didnt believe that, he added.

Batiste headed back to his aunts trailer to call his mom and ask her about Alexanders claim, and Alexander followed him back, arguing. During the fight, witnesses said Alexander had even pushed his way into the trailer.

He walked in our trailer with a gun, Danielle Perriloux, Batistes cousin, told deputies, in her first witness statement, a few hours after the murder. (Perriloux and others later recanted that testimony, weakening Batistes self-defense claim in court.)

As they argued, one of Batistes friends, Thomas Duhe, retrieved the Street Sweeper shotgun from a closet and poked Alexander in the chest with it, forcing him from the stairs into the yard. (Batiste had actually bought the Street Sweeper from Alexander for $200 a month earlier, and that night, he and his friends had taken turns shooting buckshot in the air.)

According to several witnesses, Alexander raised his liquor bottle and tried hit Duhe.

Thomas Duhe and Leo were fussing, Perriloux told sheriffs deputies. Thomas hit Leo, and thats when Leo had a bottle for Thomas. Etrena Gerard, who was 14 years old at the time, said that at this point, Alexander had the gun pointed to [Duhes] head.

It was small, silver like, Regina Terezo, Batistes girlfriend at the time, told deputies.

Batiste grabbed the shotgun from Duhe and fired at Alexander.

The first shot struck Alexander in the leg and he fell to his knees. Batiste claimed he didnt mean to shoot him again.

I pull the trigger once, and it kept shooting, he told deputies. Another shot hit Alexanders left arm and the fatal shot struck the artery his right shoulder.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections refused to allow The Daily Beast to email or speak with Batiste about the shooting or about anything else, including his time in prison or even his high school football career. (Batiste played offensive tackle and fullback.)

Our policy prohibits inmates from interviewing with reporters for public safety and security reasons, said Natalie LaBorde, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. LaBorde did not respond to questions about how emailing Batiste would harm public safety.

***

The Pressure

One of the first deputies to arrive on the scene was Paul Schnyder, Alexanders first cousin.

[Batiste] killed my cousin, was the first thing one witness recalled Schnyder telling him that morning.

Several hours later, Schnyders partner, Allan Wayne Schaeffer, took over because of the conflict of interest but he remained on the case and conducted the first interviews with Tercuit, Perriloux, Terezo, and Gerard. They all said Alexander had a handgun.

Every person who saw the murder and spoke to deputies before noon the next day described Alexander holding a silver handgun. After repeated questioning by deputies (including Schnyder) all of the witnesses except Batiste took back their statements about Alexander possessing a gun.

Deputies even accused the teenagers of lying to them, saying they concocted the second gun.

In their second interview with Gerard, sheriffs deputies asked her, Is it true that this [previous] statement you gave was a false statement?

Yes, Gerard said, according to the transcript of the interview. Youre being totally honest this time? they asked her again.

Today, Perriloux and Gerard have both taken back the second version of the story they told the deputies and maintain that Alexander pointing a gun when Batiste fired.

They both explained in a May 19, 2016 hearing why, as teenagers, they said there was only one gun.

Perriloux said sheriffs deputies told her there wasnt a second gun and one of them said I was lying. They both had repeated conversations with the sheriffs deputies (many of which werent recorded). They kept coming back, Perriloux said, and eventually she told them what they wanted to hear, even if it wasnt true.

I felt pressure, Gerard said.

***

The Canal

Before the deputies arrived, Batiste dragged Alexanders body into a field a few yards behind the trailer.

He was scared, said Terika Anderson, Batistes current girlfriend. At first, he said he couldnt believe what he did.

Batiste then grabbed both guns and flagged down a green Ford Tempo with one working headlight that was coming down the road. It was being driven by Batistes acquaintance Jerry Lewis, who was on his way home from a nearby bar, the Bumble Bee Disco Lounge.

According to Schaeffers report, they returned empty handed.

Jerry Lewis also suggested there were divers at the canal with him that werent mentioned in Schaeffers report. They had the divers out there, he said. They were debating but they werent going down.

I was always under the impression they never found the gun, Lewis said, but there was a chance he wasnt there to see the weapon being found. After Lewis showed the officers the canal, I got back in the car, he said, and they took him back to the station.

The sheriffs office had no official [diving] team in 1993, said Carl Butler, the sheriffs lawyer. But Edward Nowell, who was the commander of the St. John the Baptist Sheriffs Office Marine Division at the time confirmed that the St. John the Baptist Sheriffs Office had access to divers.

Nowell didnt remember the case, but reached out to the two divers who would have been sent to the canal. One didnt answer, and the other was dead.

Once they returned from the canal, deputies wanted Lewis to lie and say that there was only one gun. Lewis says today that they kept asking him, You gonna continue to lie for Arizona?

I never did change my story, Lewis said. I just told the truth.

Yet according to the investigative report, in Lewiss last interview with detectives, he supposedly told them there was only one gun.

Detectives questioned Lewis about the weapons that hed received from Batiste, said the report (emphasis added). Lewis states that he only received one gun from Batiste, that being the 12 gauge shotgun.

This is not actually what the transcript of Lewiss interview says.

Charges against Lewis were eventually dropped after Batistes trial, because he had produced Batistes shotgun for the deputies. In Lewiss first interview with the sheriffs deputies, Mike Tregre, the young detective who interviewed him, asked, Have any threats or promises been made to you or has pressure of any kind been applied to induce you to answer questions or give up any of your rights?

No, Lewis told Detective Tregre in his interview, but he told me if I come up with the guns everyIm free, Captain whoever told me that, said Lewis, referring to a Captain Robert Hay.

Lewis said he was afraid to speak out publicly, and when The Daily Beast called him, he originally pretended he wasnt the person answering the phone. They [the sheriffs deputies] were putting a lot of pressure on me, he said, and pointed out that Tregre, one of the officers who questioned him, is now the sheriff, when talking about his fear of retaliation against him.

My life got really hard after this, he said referencing the Batiste case.

***

The Handgun

Last fall, Batistes appeals lawyer, Gwyn Brown, made a public records request of the the St. John the Baptist Parish district attorney for the files on his case. Brown, who provided a copy of those records to The Daily Beast, found a document that hadnt come up in Batistes original trial.

On Dec. 29, 1995, shortly before the trial, Deputy Schaeffer faxed a file to St. John Assistant District Attorney GeorgeAnn Graugnard that said a silver handgun recovered in the Batiste investigation was being held by the sheriffs office for safekeeping. It was a .25 caliber Handgun, Raven Arms brand Chrome finish with wooden handgrips. (Emphasis added).

Just like the gun that witnesses described Alexander holding.

Please call if you need me for anything further, Schaffer wrote at the bottom of the fax.

According to its chain of custody form, this gun was not sent to the Louisiana State Polices crime lab to be processed as evidence. The sheriffs office did send the shotgun and other evidence to be processed.

But, this gun doesnt fit perfectly into the narrative. Theres a problem with this being Alexanders gun: the timeline is wrong.

This file says that Captain Robert Hay retrieved this second gun at 5:55 a.m. on the morning of the murder, before turning it over to Schaeffer, according to the chain of custody form for the gun.

If Hay truly located the gun at 5:55 a.m., then it cant be Alexanders, because Hay didnt go with Lewis to the canal until four hours later.

The pistol (.25 caliber Raven Arms) was seized approximately four (4) hours before the St. John the Baptist Sheriffs Office Detectives obtained any information or had knowledge of the fact that Jerry Lewis transported both guns to Kenner, Louisiana, where he disposed of the revolver in a canal in Kenner, Louisiana, says a June 8 memorandum by St. John the Baptist Assistant District Attorney Orenthal Jasmin, arguing against Batistes pleading for post-conviction relief based upon this document.

St. John the Baptist Parish District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut was unwilling to comment on pending cases, but during recent hearings, assistant DA Jasmin maintained that the weapon was found at Batistes residence as part of a separate investigation into Batistes trailers burglary, and was not the victims weapon.

There is no documentation in the investigative report of Hay finding a weapon at 5:55 a.m. Theres nothing at all recorded at 5:55 a.m. In fact, besides the chain of custody form, theres no supporting documentation on this gun at all that describes when and where it was found.

***

The Katrina Lie

When Batistes new lawyer, Brown, uncovered the fax about the handgun, she confirmed with the sheriffs office was still in possession of the actual gun. As soon as Alexander appealed for a new trial, the sheriffs department became less forthcoming, Brown said.

The DA says theres nothing else there, she says she was told after asking for any other new evidence.

After repeated delays and interference by the DAs office, sheriffs case files were eventually provided to The Daily Beast but a large number of files were missing, including the fax about the handgun and another key interview with Jerry Lewis.

The sheriffs department blamed Hurricane Katrina.

The sheriffs file for this case was maintained in a trailer which I am told was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Carl Butler, the sheriff offices lawyer, said.

Katrina was a category 5 hurricane that hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005 and killed more than 1,000 people in New Orleans and displaced another 400,000. Parts of the city were submerged under 10 feet of water during the storm.

But St. John the Baptist Parish didnt flood. Instead, it served as a staging area for recovery efforts into the flooded city.

In our parish there was no loss of life, no flooding, and no looting, said the St. John the Baptist Sheriffs Offices annual report from 2005 (PDF). Power outages inconvenienced us all but thankfully damage was mostly limited to roofs. Downed limbs and trees did destroy a few residents storage buildings.

The report didnt mention any damage to any of the sheriffs facilities.

Our department came through Katrina with very few problems, the report said.

If the sheriffs office somehow did lose a trailer full of evidence files, they might have requested reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm, at least for cleanup. Officials from the Louisiana Governors Office for Homeland Security and Emergency Preparations said there were no reimbursement requests filed by the sheriffs office for an evidence trailer.

Or the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriffs Office might have filed an insurance claim for their lost trailer. They were unable to produce an insurance claim.

But for a trailer of filled with evidence, there ought to be some documentation of its destruction.

As soon as the Katrina excuse was debunked, the sheriffs office changed its story.

The case files you seek were relocated to a mobile trailer following Hurricane Katrina damage to the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] building where they had been stored, he said, appearing to take back the earlier claim about these files being destroyed. However, those files cannot be currently located.

Investigative reports can be wrong, Butler also said in the meeting where he claimed Katrina destroyed the files, claiming that the missing documents may never have existed, because Schaeffer, while he was alive, was known to be shady.

Schaeffer was accused of sexual assault and abuse by five different women and pled guilty to lesser charges in 2008. As part of his plea, he was required to stop using fake names.

When he was working nights, he would sneak into my house and I would awaken with his hands around my throat, Tracy Mutz, an ex-girlfriend of Schaeffer, told The Daily Beast.

***

The Second Chance

Batiste has filed for post conviction relief, arguing that he had ineffective legal counsel during his 1995-96 trial. More than the gun itself, Batistes fate may rest upon how much information his first lawyers had about the chrome handgun: Did they know about it, and if so, why didnt they use it during trial?

The district attorneys office claims that this second gun was not concealed from Batistes lawyers and was provided to one them, Sterling Snowdy, on the morning of the trial. Snowdy is now a judge in St. John the Baptist parish.

According to testimony, on the morning of the trial, Assistant District Attorney, GeorgeAnn Graugnard, phoned defense attorney, J. Sterling Snowdy, and notified him about the gun, wrote Judge Madeline Jasmine at a hearing for post-conviction relief, denying Batistes earlier claim that prosecutors suppressed evidence.

There is no excuse for the State withholding this information until the morning of the trial, wrote Jasmine. A continuance [delay] of the trial would have been warranted, but the record does not suggest that a continuance was requested.

If Batistes lawyers did know about the gun, they never used it in court.

Mr. Snowdy [now the Honorable Judge Snowdy] developed no testimony regarding this gun and did not introduce the gun at trial, read Batistes post conviction relief application.

Meanwhile, Batistes other lawyer, Richard Millet, said he had no idea there was a second gun.

I did not know about the existence of a gun, other than the shotgun, he said at a hearing on May 19.

Millet explained that he would have shown witnesses pictures of the gun to have them identify it, had it tested for ballistics, and used it as evidence. He said it would have affected his decision to put Batiste on the witness stand.

I shared it with both people, Snowdy said.

I did not know about it, Millet replied.

During the original trial, Snowdy and Millet fought with the district attorney because they had been denied access to evidence.

How could Snowdy not tell Millet about the gun or use it at trial that they both hammered the state to produce evidence?

Upon information and belief, defendant contends that the state is in possession of [the victims] handgun, Snowdy wrote an in August 1995 motion, demanding that the state produce Alexanders handgun. Upon information and belief, said gun is now said in possession of now in the possession of the state, under this case number or under another case number and in connection with a crime committed by another individual.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Snowdy alone was told about the gun, why didnt he use it to make the self-defense claim on behalf of his client?

The only two answers to this conundrum seem to be that either the state suppressed evidence or Batistes counsel was too stupid to use it. Either way, it would appear he deserves a new trial.

***

On May 19, Terika Anderson had brought brought her two sons to court to watch the trial, and they were fidgeting in the front row. (And occasionally turning around to stick out their tongues at me.) She regularly brings her sons up to Angola prison to hang out with Batiste. They call him daddy.

I hate that hes there, because he cant help me in there, she said. But, Im sticking by his side.

Anderson says Batiste regretted what happened, but not his actions, because he believes they saved his life. I wouldnt change the situation of how I dealt with it, but I wish it could have been in another form, she said he told her.

After the hearing ended, Batiste, who was in prison orange, with his hands shackled, was allowed a few minutes with his mother, and the rest of his family and friends in a conference room off to the side of the courtroom. Once there he kissed one of the boys on the forehead. Tell him youre gonna see him Sunday, said Anderson.

She didnt feel like Batiste had gotten a fair shake, and hed eventually be released from prison. I feel like when God says its enough, Anderson said. Arizonas coming home.

Read more: www.thedailybeast.com

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