Tulia script plays out in southern Louisiana

Sheriff Greg Champagne of St. Charles Parish reported yesterday that 70 narcotics cases made by a single undercover officer are being dismissed.  Elijah Gary, the officer responsible for making almost 100 cases in the Parish, was on loan from a neighboring Parish (see Times-Picayune article below for the details).  When it was discovered that Mr. Gary had been convicted of domestic abuse and violating a restraining order, he was taken in for questioning.  Beating up a girlfriend and violating a restraining order doesn’t disqualify an undercover cop–lying about it does.

Several attorney friends sent me this story yesterday because of the obvious parallels between Elijah Gary and Tom Coleman, the Texas “officer of the year” who implicated 47 residents of Tulia, Texas in 1999.   According to the Times-Picayune story, “[Sheriff] Champagne’s office received the Crimestoppers Law Enforcement Award at the 25th annual Crimestoppers luncheon in March in New Orleans” on the strength of Elijah Gary’s work. 

As in Tulia, well over 100 narcotics cases were based largely on the uncorroborated word of a single individual.  Or so I assume.  A Fox News story suggests the alleged transactions were captured on camera; if so, the officer’s intergrity wouldn’t be as big an issue.  I suspect the additional evidence, if such exists, is less than compelling.   Defense attorneys would argue that if the undercover man lied to the authorities about his criminal record, he would be capable of lying about the alleged drug deals.

To create a perfect parallel with the Tulia sting you would have to imagine Sheriff Champagne calling Officer Gary into his office and asking him about the charges in Jefferson Parish.  Gary says his enemies fabricated the charges.  Champagne believes him.  Fortunately,that Tulia-style scenario didn’t play out in St. Charles Parish.  I would like to believe that the sheriff and DA were thinking of Tulia when they decided to pull the plug.  This shows the power of a compelling precedent.

Sheriff Champagne laments the fact that “a bunch of drug dealers in St. Charles Parish are back on the streets”.  He isn’t too worried, however, because he suspects that the 97 “street-level” dealers rounded up in operation “Krewe of Dope” will soon re-offend. 

Does the High Sheriff really believe that Krewe of Dope made the slightest dent in the local drug trade?  Of course he doesn’t.  The net result of picking up 97 drug dealers would be 97 openings in the underground economy.  Operation Krewe of Dope was intended to incarcerate one group of troubled young people so that a slightly young cohort of at-risk youth could take their place.  Next years’ operation will be aimed at this new krewe on the block.

Tragically, the well-intentioned Crimestoppers folk who celebrated the arrest of 97 “known drug dealers” really believe these drug sweeps make their communities safer. 

Some reports have suggested that all or most of the alleged dealers hail from Hahnville, La., population 2792.  If so, we have another Tulia question: how could a town this small support 100 dope dealers.

We must also inquire into the racial makeup of the group arrested in the Gary operation.  The phrase “Krewe of Dope” has a Hip Hop feel–a little (racially insensitive) law enforcement humor, perhaps?  I wouldn’t be surprised if the white defendants in this group can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The fate of the 20 defendants who already pled guilty in exchange for lenient plea deals remains uncertain.  In Hearne, Texas, DA John Paschall tried to make plea bargains hold up even after confidential informant Derrick Megress admitted that he fabricated an entire narcotics operation.  This was also an issue in the Tulia fight.  If this case gets sufficient scrutiny, I suspect that, as in Hearne and Tulia, the plea deals will fall apart in the next few days.

Drug cases must be dropped because of officer’s credibility

Lori Lyons, River Parishes bureau

Just seven months after the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office concluded a yearlong undercover drug sting that nabbed nearly 100 suspects, and six months after his office received an award for the operation, Sheriff Greg Champagne said the district attorney’s office will have to drop the charges against approximately 60 of the suspects because the credibility of the lead deputy in the case has been compromised.

“Frustrated is not the word I would use to describe how I feel,” Champagne said. “Frustrated is not a strong enough word.”

In a press conference held Monday at the St. Charles Parish Courthouse in Hahnville, Champagne and St. Charles Parish District Attorney Harry Morel agreed that pending charges relating to the sting operation dubbed “Krewe of Dope” must be dismissed. The operation was so named because the warrants were executed and the arrests made around Mardi Gras in February.

Elijah Gary, then a detective with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office and a five-year veteran of that department, was the officer who conducted all of the undercover drug buys in the operation, Champagne said. It is common practice among law enforcement agencies to “borrow” out-of-parish officers for such operations, he added.

But since then, authorities have learned that Gary had been arrested in Jefferson Parish in 2004 and charged with simple battery against a girlfriend, with whom he has two children.

When St. Charles detectives and a pair of assistant district attorneys questioned Gary about that incident, he denied it. St. Charles authorities say they later confirmed the incident.

Then in April, Gary was charged with violating a restraining order taken out by the girlfriend, which led to a two-week suspension and a demotion.

Gary, who could not be reached for comment, is now an unarmed corrections officer with the Plaquemines Sheriff’s Office, authorities there said.

“Essentially, we have a detective who is the main witness on these cases not really being forthcoming or truthful to two assistant DAs, two detectives and an administrator with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office,” Champagne said. “After we received that information about the most recent incident, I contacted the DA and let him know that I did not see how the cases were viable at that point.”

Said Morel: “I believe the outcome, although it is distasteful, is that we’re going to have to dismiss the cases. We’re still working on the mechanics of that. A lot of them are bad guys. A lot of them are guilty, but we probably can’t convict them. Hopefully this won’t happen again.”

Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle was out of town on Monday and unavailable for comment. But spokesman Maj. John Marie said his office is dismayed about the case.

“As far as the fact that he lied, that’s the worst thing,” Marie said. “Because of him, a bunch of drug dealers in St. Charles Parish are back on the streets.”

Marie said Gary originally was hired by Plaquemines Parish in October 2004 and that Hingle’s office was aware of his prior arrest for simple battery. Gary had pleaded under Article 894, which allows a defendant to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and have the charge dismissed after a certain amount of time if he commits no other offense.

In July 2007 Gary was promoted to patrol officer. In 2009 he was loaned to the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office for the yearlong undercover operation that culminated in February when 97 suspected street-level drug dealers were rounded up as a result of Gary’s undercover work.

Champagne’s office received the Crimestoppers Law Enforcement Award at the 25th annual Crimestoppers luncheon in March in New Orleans.

Champagne said that since the arrests, 20 suspects have pleaded guilty to drug charges relating to the sting operation. He said he did not know the disposition of those cases. Several defendants have bonded out but about 20 remain in the St. Charles Parish jail, some on new charges.

“At least three have been rearrested since the original bust on new charges,” Champagne said. “Basically we are dealing with some chronic drug offenders in our parish. And I am certainly not happy to have to request that these cases be dropped. But I am reasonably confident that probably most of them will reoffend in very short order. So this will not hamper our fight against drug trafficking in the parish. It’s a speed bump as far as we’re concerned.”

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