New Orleans police trial explores shooting, alleged cover-up

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 28, 2011 8:39 PM
New Orleans police trial explores shooting, alleged cover-up

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans police Lieutenant Michael Lohman said he knew within moments of arriving on the scene of a bloody shooting just days after Hurricane Katrina that something wasn't right.

Officers had just killed two people and wounded several more, saying they'd traded gunfire in a battle on the Danziger bridge on September 4, 2005, during the height of post-Katrina chaos.

"I was concerned that if these were the perpetrators, then where were their guns?" Lohman told jurors on Tuesday in a New Orleans federal courtroom.

But because he didn't want anyone to get in trouble, he said he helped stage a years-long cover-up that he described publicly for the first time for federal prosecutors.

Lohman's testimony about the killings of 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison highlighted day two of the federal trial of five police officers accused of depriving citizens of their civil rights, using weapons in a violent crime and falsifying evidence.

The federal charges encompass 25 counts in connection with shooting and killing the two unarmed civilians, wounding four others and allegedly conducting an elaborate cover-up in the months and years after.

On trial are officers Robert Faulcon, Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman. A sixth officer is scheduled for trial in the fall.

Lohman and four other officers have pled guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice or filing false reports. All of them have said that the civilians shot on the bridge were unarmed.

Also testifying on Tuesday was emergency medical technician Stanton Arnold, who responded to the scene in an ambulance. He said he saw no guns anywhere on the victims.

The first victim Arnold approached was 19-year-old Jose Holmes.

"Leave him," a supervising paramedic told Arnold and the other technicians, making a quick assessment that the young man could not be saved.

"Don't give up on me," Holmes begged.

"It shocked me that he was able to talk given how many times he'd been shot," Arnold testified. His team worked on wounds to Holmes' neck, abdomen, legs and arms. He survived.

While Stanton's testimony was emotional, Lohman was clearly a key witness for the federal prosecutors.

Under questioning by lead prosecutor Barbara Bernstein, Lohman said he suspected soon after arriving at the scene that the shooting was "bad," meaning it was unjustified.

He said Bowen and Kaufman, both sergeants at the time, told him that the pedestrians had fired first and the police returned fire. Suspicions when he could see no guns on the dead men deepened when he questioned other officers.

"They seemed to be unsure what actually happened," he said. "No one could tell me which one of the perpetrators actually had a weapon."

He said he put Kaufman in charge of compiling a false report that would explain the officers' actions.

"I told them to collect their thoughts and figure out what happened and come back with a plausible story," he said.

His order set in motion a series of reports, including one he wrote, that he now says were riddled with "lies and fabrications."

Lohman said Kaufman at one point came to him and proposed to "plant" a gun at the scene to make it look like the people were armed.

"I told him if he was going to do it, just do it and nobody else had to be involved," Lohman said.

Lohman met with Bowen, Kaufman and the other officers involved to coordinate various concocted versions of the events, he said. He agreed to plead guilty in late 2009 to one count of obstruction of justice.

Kaufman's lawyer, Stephen London, said Lohman might have faced 25 years in jail if he hadn't agreed to testify.

"So you must now be truthful or you won't have a deal, correct?" he said.

Lohman said he expects to go to prison but acknowledged that as a result of his plea deal, he faces a maximum of just five years.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)