Judge rules against ex-police chief accused of sex assault

AP News
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Posted: Jun 06, 2016 7:11 PM

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A small Cajun community disbanded its troubled police force more than a year ago, but the town hasn't shaken a scandal that fueled the department's collapse and ousted its elected police chief.

A federal judge ruled Monday that former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot violated the civil rights of a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her in his office while she was drunk and he was on duty.

At the end of a daylong trial for the woman's civil lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick put off a decision on whether Theriot owes the woman any monetary damages. And she didn't immediately rule from the bench on whether the town is liable for the woman's claims against it.

But the judge concluded that the woman was legally incapable of consenting to sex with Theriot given how drunk she was at the time of their Nov. 1, 2013, encounter inside the town's police station.

In 2014, Theriot was sentenced to two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his sexual encounter with the woman. The plea deal for the criminal case required him to resign from his post in Sorrento, where sheriff's deputies now patrol the town of roughly 1,500 residents.

Theriot, the town's police chief for 12 years, "knew or should have known" of the woman's inability to consent and failed to meet his obligation to "protect and serve," Dick said after hearing testimony without a jury. Dick didn't say when she would issue a written ruling on damages and the town's liability.

The 44-year-old woman said Theriot, 68, forced her to perform sexual acts in his office after he found her drunk in public. Theriot's attorneys claimed the woman initiated the "unconsummated" sexual encounter to save herself from jail.

The woman testified that the encounter left her "in a state of shock and fear."

"Did you do it because you wanted to?" asked her attorney, Tregg Wilson.

"No," she said, reaching for a tissue to wipe away her tears. "I did what he told me to."

Sorrento's police force was plagued by other allegations of officer misconduct before residents voted in November 2014 to abolish the department.

The town fired an officer who shocked a college student with a stun gun in 2009 to demonstrate how the device worked; it also fired an officer whose patrol car's tracking device showed it exceeding 75 mph more than 700 times in two months, The Advocate newspaper has reported.

Mayor Mike Lambert, who took office in 2013, said the town's police department spiraled out of control under Theriot and became "one hell of a mess." The six-officer department was dogged by so many lawsuits and other problems that an insurance company dropped its coverage, Lambert said.

"The people of Sorrento were scared of the police department," Lambert said in an interview. "We had to make some drastic changes."

A court filing that accompanied Theriot's guilty plea in the criminal case said he had "inappropriate sexual contact" with the woman on Nov. 1, 2013. His accuser claims Theriot detained her, forced her to perform sexual acts and physically restrained her after she called for help.

On the night before she crossed paths with Theriot, the woman went out drinking with friends. One of them dropped her off at a gas station, where she fell asleep.

The next day, Theriot responded to a 911 call and found the intoxicated woman in the gas station's parking lot. He placed her in the front seat of his police vehicle — without handcuffs — and briefly stopped in front of her home before driving her to the police station.

That's where their accounts diverge.

The woman claims Theriot used the threat of jail to coerce her into having sex. She also accused Theriot of taking off her belt and restraining her with it.

Theriot's lawyers deny that he restrained the woman. In a court filing, they claim the woman has "inexplicably" changed her story after originally telling the FBI that she initiated the "sexual contact."

Theriot took the stand during Monday's trial but refused to answer questions from the woman's attorney. He asserted his right against self-incrimination in response to all 10 questions posed by the lawyer.

Theriot and his accuser both declined to comment on the judge's ruling Monday.

The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault. The woman said the encounter made her feel ashamed and suicidal.