Judge in Danziger case sickened by 'raw brutality of the shooting and the craven lawlessness of the cover-up'
By Times-Picayune Staff
April 07, 2010, 9:27PM
This story was written by Laura Maggi and Brendan McCarthy
In January 2007, Michael Hunter, one of the seven NOPD officers indicted in the Danziger Bridge shootings, enters Central Lockup. The seven officers were charged on an array of murder and attempted-murder charges.
Michael Hunter, 33, became the first officer who actually participated in the shooting to enter a guilty plea. Two investigators have already confessed to playing roles in a wide-ranging cover-up of the police shooting, which injured four unarmed civilians and left two men dead.
Hunter, who resigned last week after he was charged in federal court, contends that fellow officers shot at people they should have seen were unarmed. The account of events Hunter signed Thursday afternoon, called a factual basis, provides the most specific details to date about officers' actions on the bridge, which spans the Industrial Canal at Chef Menteur Highway.
Hunter, 33, said a New Orleans police sergeant fired an assault rifle at wounded civilians at close range after other officers stopped shooting and after it was clear that the police were not taking fire. He also says he saw another officer in a car fire a shotgun at a fleeing man's back, although the man did nothing suggesting he was a threat to police. That man, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, who was severely mentally disabled, died of his wounds.
As part of his plea, Hunter also acknowledged taking part in a conspiracy with colleagues to conceal the circumstances of what he considered an unjustified shooting. At one point, in a meeting with other officers, a supervisor said "something to the effect of, we don't want this to look like a massacre," the court document says.
"I don't think you can listen to that account without being sickened by the raw brutality of the shooting and the craven lawlessness of the cover-up," said U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance after the factual basis was read aloud in the still courtroom by prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, deputy chief of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
Hunter said little in court, filled with rapt spectators, including some of the surviving victims and relatives. In a voice that grew steadily more quiet, Hunter pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and misprision of a felony, or failing to report a crime.
His attorney, Townsend Myers, released a statement saying Hunter, who resigned from the force the day after he was charged last week, accepts responsibility for "his bad decisions and for their consequences."
"From Sept. 4, 2005, on, Michael Hunter made a series of very bad decisions related to what happened on the Danziger Bridge, and what he did in the aftermath of those events," Myers said. "But today, in stepping forward to acknowledge his past mistakes in open court, he has made the right decision -- for himself and his family, for the victims and their families, for the New Orleans Police Department, and for the City of New Orleans."
As part of Hunter's federal plea deal, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has agreed not to prosecute him on state charges for his admissions in this case.
Attorneys for other officers involved in the bridge incident said the details recounted by Hunter are not accurate and they will fight any charges against their clients.
"I'm in better shape today than before," said Frank DeSalvo, a lawyer representing Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, an officer who is repeatedly referenced in the Hunter guilty plea as "Sergeant A." "I'm not going to tell you why, but take it to the bank."
But in a news conference after the court hearing, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten called the guilty plea "a milestone" in the case.
"Today is a milestone, as it were. That is, for the first time, available to the public, on the public record in U.S. district court, we see a factual basis outlining evidence of the actual circumstances and individuals involved in the shooting of innocent, unarmed individuals," Letten said.
The federal investigation of the Danziger Bridge incident began in earnest in the fall of 2008, after a state prosecution by the Orleans Parish district attorney's office was tossed out by a criminal court judge.
The state indictments -- which charged the seven officers involved in the shooting with murder and attempted murder -- focused on the shooting itself.
But until Wednesday, the federal prosecution has largely concentrated on what the government contends was a cover-up that began just after police stopped firing their weapons.
Former Lt. Michael Lohman and former Detective Jeffrey Lehrmann -- officers who participated in the investigation of the shooting -- in recent weeks both pleaded guilty to helping orchestrate a cover-up.
Lohman and Lehrmann admitted the NOPD's internal investigation included imaginary civilian witnesses, a planted gun and false officer accounts to justify a shooting of unarmed people.
Attorneys for the two sergeants who wrote the NOPD's homicide report finding
the shooting justified have acknowledged that their clients have received letters indicating they are targets of the federal investigation. But both deny their clients, Sgts. Arthur Kaufman and Gerard Dugue, participated in a cover-up.
The details about the shooting in Hunter's guilty plea suggest federal prosecutors are not focusing solely on the cover-up, but also on the shooting itself.
The court documents filed Wednesday suggest prosecutors plan to charge some officers of violating the victims' civil rights through excessive use of force, said Harry Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney.
"It appears they are moving on two parallel tracks -- one is the cover-up, and the other is in the direction of seeking criminal charges under the Civil Rights Act," he said.
Mchael Hunter resigned from the New Orleans Police Department the day after he was charged. The day of the shooting, Hunter and other officers assigned to the 7th District were camped out at the Crystal Palace banquet hall on Chef Menteur Highway. On the morning of Sept. 4, New Orleans police officers put out a radio call saying they were taking fire on the I-10 high-rise near the Danziger Bridge.
At least seven officers jumped into a large Budget rental truck, driven by Hunter. Bowen, a 7th District sergeant, rode with him in the cab, according to the NOPD's investigation.
As the officers approached the eastern side of the bridge, Hunter could see civilians "casually walking" on the road, his court statement said. He fired his handgun with his left hand out the window to warn the civilians. The shots caused the civilians to disperse, some of them running toward a concrete barrier on the bridge that separated the road from a pedestrian walkway.
As the truck stopped, the document says, the sergeant next to Hunter fired Hunter's assault rifle toward the civilians behind the barrier. Though the document refers to him as Sergeant A, the descriptions in the guilty plea match details in police documents about Bowen's actions.
The document says that Hunter fired his handgun at another group of people who were running up the bridge, away from the shooting at the eastern side. Hunter did not see any weapons on these people, nor did they act in a way that was a threat to officers, he said. Hunter believed he did not strike any of the fleeing civilians.
Hunter claims he told officers shooting at the people on the walkway to stop shooting upon realizing that the police were not taking fire. At that point, the document says, Hunter could see that the civilians were both injured and unarmed. Nonetheless, it says, Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier, "held out his assault rifle, and in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground."
"It's not true," DeSalvo said of the allegations against Bowen, his client. "That's not what I believe, it's what I can prove."
Next, the document says, Hunter and Bowen got back into the rental truck and drove to the crest of bridge, where they met up with "Sergeant B." Other documents filed in the case make clear that this officer is Sgt. Robert Gisevius.
Three officers -- Gisevius, Hunter and Officer Robert Faulcon -- then jumped into an unmarked state police car that pulled up nearby. Riding in the front passenger seat was "Officer A," who, other documents make clear, is Faulcon.
Lt. Doug Cain, spokesman for Louisiana State Police, acknowledged that a state trooper has met with federal investigators and is cooperating with the investigation. The trooper is considered a witness, not a target, he noted, adding that the agency has turned over relevant documents and records to the FBI.
The group saw three men running away, toward the Gentilly side of the bridge, in Hunter's account. Two of those men were Lance and Ronald Madison. Hunter said he didn't see a gun on either one, although Ronald Madison appeared injured, with blood splatters on his white shirt.
As the car pulled to a stop -- and without a verbal warning -- Faulcon fired a shotgun at Ronald Madison's back, the factual basis says, though Madison never appeared to pose a threat.
The internal NOPD investigation of the shooting also identified Faulcon, who left the force shortly after the storm, as the officer who shot Ronald Madison in the back with a shotgun. But the 54-page homicide report says Faulcon ran on foot after Madison, who turned toward him and reached into his waistband, as if grabbing a weapon.
According to Hunter, that didn't happen.
Franz Zibilich, the attorney representing Faulcon, said it is not clear to him that Faulcon is "Officer A."
But he said his client's original account is accurate -- not Hunter's new version. "Hunter's alleged perspective is not the thought process of what Mr. Faulcon saw," Zibilich said.
Hunter makes one more disturbing allegation. As Madison lay dying on the pavement, Bowen began "kicking or stomping him with a foot," the court document says. Bowen continued to do that until Hunter stopped him, it says.
Apart from Madison, the other man who died during the shooting was James Brissette, a 17-year-old New Orleans man. His friend Jose Holmes, then 19, was severely wounded, as were three members of Holmes' family: Susan Bartholomew, Holmes' aunt, then 38, his cousin Lesha Bartholomew, 17, and his uncle Leonard Bartholomew, 44.
Holmes attended the guilty plea, as did Brissette's sister and mother and members of the Madison family. Sherrel Johnson, Brissette's mother, said she couldn't explain her feelings. "He didn't get to live his life," Johnson said about her son. "I'm glad justice is going to be served."
Romell Madison, speaking on behalf of his family, called the details in Hunter's guilty plea "horrific."
"The cruelty that my brothers had to endure, and the other victims had to endure, is heartbreaking," he said.
Laura Maggi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3316. Brendan McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3301.
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