St. Tammany Parish Sheriff, Rodney “Jack” Strain has had his fair share of attention from the national press in recent years. A year after Hurricane Katrina sent thousands of desperate New Orleans residents into exile, Sheriff Jack launched into a rant against trashy black people that attracted national headlines.
“For some reason, New Orleans chooses to coddle criminals in that area that tend to get away with a great deal,” Strain told a local news reporter while the camera rolled. “We will not coddle that trash in St. Tammany Parish. If they come to St. Tammany Parish, we’re gonna pursue them, we’re gonna arrest them, our prosecutors are gonna prosecute them, and our judges are gonna convict them.”
Technically, of course, judges don’t do the convicting unless you waive your right to a jury–but, no matter. The Sheriff was just getting warmed up.
“If you’re gonna walk the streets of St. Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff’s deputy,” Strain advised. “You can guarantee that things that you got away with in the city will not be tolerated in this Parish.”
Strain’s anti-dreadlock rant quickly caught the attention of advocacy groupls. “As you are no doubt aware,” the ACLU’s Katie Schwartzmann wrote in a letter of formal protest, “the vast majority of persons wearing dreadlocks, twists or braids are African American. Your stated policy of targeting persons with these hairstyles is overtly racist and we request a retraction stating that you will comply with the requirements of the law.” Furthermore, Schwartzmann noted, “Your comments routinely equate ‘trash’ and ‘thugs’ with ‘evacuees’ and ‘public housing residents.’ It is neither fair nor accurate to intimate that all New Orleans evacuees are thugs and criminals.”
Sheriff Jack was unrepentant. His comments about folks in dreadlocks were inspired by a horrific quadruple murder that has just taken place in the Tammany Parish town of Slidell, and Strain was certain that trashy people from New Orleans were responsible.
That explanation satisfied Britt Hume of Fox News and the Jack Strain controversy receded rapidly.
While it is difficult to understand how context sanitizes such a god-awful screed, Strain was right about the murder investigation. On June 27, 2006, short days before Strain’s bigoted Jeremiad, known heroin dealer Roxann Agoglia, her daughter Erika Agoglia, Andrew Perreand and his uncle, Eric Perreand, had all been found murdered, execution style in a Slidell trailer park. All the victims were white.
A young girl who had survived by hiding in a bedroom reported that the assailants were two black men, one with short hair, the other sporting dreadlocks and a tattoo on his arm.
Anthony “Tiger” Schwankhart, a neighbor who lived across the street from Roxann Agoglia’s trailer, told police that two black men left the car engine running and the doors open when they entered the home. They then raced back to the vehicle and raced from the scene.
Progress on the case was slow. Police claim they conducted hundreds if not thousands of interviews with drug dealers and street hustlers of every description, but their hard work failed to generate leads.
In retrospect, there is little doubt that Jack Strain was thinking of the dreadlocked murderer his deputies were searching for when he made his revealing comments about New Orleans trash. In fact, Strain had a special word for anyone interested in defending the eventual suspects in the case. “I know you have some slick lawyers on both sides of the Lake (Pontchartrain),” the Sheriff observed, “who make a tremendous living off of getting these people out of jail. We’ve proven in this Parish that’s it’s pretty difficult challenge for them to make a good livin’ (defense attorneys, that is). My personal opinion is that’s the first people we should put on a rail and get out of here.”
In July of 2007, over a year after the quadruple murders in Slidell, state trooper Gustave Bethea (a former Tammany Parish deputy) had an intriguing chat with Frank Knight, a habitual criminal with a long string of drug-related convictions. Bethea figured that a street hustler like Knight might have an interesting story to impart. It didn’t hurt that the notorious drug dealer was looking at a virtual life sentence (60 years, hard time) as a repeat offender.
Sure enough, Knight had a story. He hadn’t pulled the trigger of course (everybody knew the killers were black guys), but he was sitting in the back seat of James “Scarface” Bishop’s Honda Accord when the deal went down. It was Bishop and Kelvin “Dreads” Kaigler that did the shooting.
On August 2, 2007, Kelvin Kaigler was arrested while vacationing with his family. Jack Strain told reporters that Kaigler opened the motel door and surrendered without incident.
Two and a half years would pass before District Attorney Walter Reed (not to be mistaken for Jena’s Reed Walters) had the case ready for trial. In mid-January, 2010, a Tammany Parish jury found Kelvin Kaigler and James Bishop guilty on all four murder counts. The jury wasn’t unanimous, but in Louisiana the state needs only eleven cooperative jurors to convict.
“The evidence in this case was centered around the admissions of one of the perpetrators, Frank Knight,” Assistant DA Rick Wood told reporters shortly after the verdict was announced. “The jury was satisfied with his testimony, and we believe he was credible and truthful during his two hours on the witness stand.”
But what was it about Frank Knight that so impressed eleven jurors? He repeatedly failed to get his story straight, changing the color of the car and the time of day the shooting took place.
Besides, investigators were well aware that a reputed drug dealer named Michael Coates had a tattoo on his arm and wore his hair in dreadlocks. Reportedly, Coates shaved the dreads the day after the quadruple murders. Local officials showed no interest in Coates–they already had Kaigler.
According to Martin Regan, Kelvin Kaigler’s silver-haired attorney, the case comes down to simple self-interest. Frank Knight faced a simple choice: a lifetime in prison or few years behind bars. Knight accepted a fifteen-year plea bargain that made him eligible for parole after half that time elapsed. Moreover, the man had already served two and a half years, so he would be back on the streets in less than five years.
All Knight had to do was admit to being an accessory after the fact and a lifetime of incarceration disappeared.
Anthony “Tiger” Schwankhart told the jury that he saw the car parked across the street from the murder scene with the doors wide open and there was no white man in the back seat. Nobody took poor Tiger seriously. Police had discovered that their inconvenient witness had a history of mental illness and had bullied him into silence. Prior to trial, Schwankhart signed a statement admitting that he sometimes makes things up. At trial he was back to his original story, but no one was listening.
As usual, the regional media swallowed the prosecution story–the alternative is too disturbing. Consider this comment from Benjamin Alexander-Bloch of the New Orleans Times-Picayune: “While Regan threw punches with his black and blue markers, holding one or the other in his right hand, like a gun, ready at a moment’s notice to scurry to an easel and shoot, Bishop’s attorney John Lindner largely stayed in his corner, taking a silence-is-golden approach. Regan has an impressive record with New Orleans juries, but several local defense attorneys filtering in and out of courtroom’s gallery questioned whether north shore jurors will take offense to such intense grilling of St. Tammany’s boys in blue.”
This bit from a Times-Picayune story drips with pro-prosecution bias. “Both admitted Slidell drug dealers, Kaigler and Bishop were largely convicted through their co-perpetrator’s testimony, Frank Knight, 33, who cut a plea agreement a week before the seven-day trial.”
First of all, Kelvin Kaigler has never admitted to being “a Slidell drug dealer”; he has admitted using drugs–a fact that hardly distinguishes him from his peers. Kaigler was once convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia when the police pulled over a car with several occupants and found a crack pipe; but he has never been convicted of dealing drugs.
Secondly, the word “co-perpetrator” assumes the guilt of the accused. In a strict legal sense, the Times-Picayune writer is on solid ground: post-conviction, a defendant is technically guilty. But it isn’t a journalist’s job to side categorically with the prosecution in cases where the sufficiency of the “evidence” is highly questionionable.
Sheriff Jack Strain reflects his community. After all, the good people of St. Tammany Parish elected the man and they like his style. Strain was preaching to the choir when he launched into his bigoted rant.
Is Sheriff Jack an old-time, unreconstructed, Jim Crow era racist?
Not exactly. Last year, in the wake of the Obama election, a lost soul named Cynthia Lynch made her way to Tammany Parish to join up with a Ku Klux Klan-related group called The Sons of the Dixie Brotherhood. half way through an increasingly bizarre initiation rite, Lynch decided she didn’t want to join up after all. Enraged,Brotherhood leader Raymond Foster knocked Lynch to the ground and shot her dead with a handgun.
Jack Strain held a news conference a few days later with racist paraphernalia confiscated from the Sons of the Dixie Brotherhood draped over folding tables for the media’s viewing pleasure. The Sheriff dismissed the Brotherhood boys as a group of dimwit losers that weren’t a threat to anyone. He didn’t explain why a harmless group of imbeciles killed a woman in cold blood.
While the Klan once ruled places like Tammany Parish, their glory days are now ancient history. Well, perhaps not ancient, exactly. Former Grand Dragon (and neo-Nazi) David Duke calls Tammany Parish home. Duke’s website proudly proclaims that he was “Elected in 1996 to the Parish Executive Committee of the largest Republican Party District in Louisiana, St. Tammany Parish where the other elected members chose him unanimously to serve as chairman of the District. He served as chairman until 2000.”
I suspect that, like Jack Strain, David Duke would renounce the violent tactics of groups like the Dixie Brotherhood. But that’s as far down the road to tolerance as Jack and David care to travel.
On the other hand, Jack Strain’s famous rant wasn’t just about race–it was about the association between social status and human rights. Trashy people, in Strain’s view, have surrendered the right to due process. They can be profiled by the police and, even if they are fortunate enough to afford a first-class attorney like Martin Regan, they will be convicted. They are guilty of occupying the lower rungs of the social ladder as that ladder is defined by the good people of Tammany Parish.
Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, the Times-Picayune reporter, was surprised by the composition of the jury. “Unusual for St. Tammany,” he noted, “there were two black females and two black males on the jury. Typically, a black defendant in St. Tammany is lucky to have one black juror.” The bias on display in this case goes deeper than race. It’s about the “thug narrative” that makes it difficult for people like Kelvin Kaigler to get a fair trial. Once defendants are defined as “trashy” by the prosecution and the media, the evidence (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter.
Attorney Martin Regan and Kelvin Kaigler’s family aren’t finished. This case is bigger than a single defendant; it exposes the mechanics of wrongful conviction with a clarity that is seldom seen. Kelvin Kaigler is suffering the same fate as Troy Davis and Curtis Flowers and Friends of Justice will have much more to say about this grotesque miscarriage of justice in the weeks and months to come.