FBI agent tells of Katrina shootings police cover-up

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 18, 2011 8:34 PM
FBI agent tells of Katrina shootings police cover-up

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A federal agent who investigated a post-Hurricane Katrina shooting in which police killed two people in New Orleans said one reason he doubted police claims of being shot at by civilians was that the officers never took cover.

FBI Special Agent William Bezak told a New Orleans courtroom on Monday that when he first watched a news video of a portion of the September 4, 2005, shooting, he was struck by the deliberate way officers paused and took aim before firing at their targets, who are not seen in the tape.

"They're literally standing tall and shooting up the bridge," Bezak said of the officers.

His testimony began week four in the federal trial of five officers charged with shooting unarmed civilians in response to a report that police were in danger near the Danziger Bridge.

James Brissette, 17, and Ronald Madison, 40, were killed in the shooting, which wounded four other people.

Officers Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon and Anthony Villavaso face civil rights charges in connection with the shooting. Along with homicide investigator Arthur "Archie" Kaufman, they also are accused of covering up crimes.

Five other officers have pleaded guilty to a role in the incident, and four of them have testified for the prosecution.

Bezak, who is the lead investigator in the case, explained to jurors on Monday why he suspected that police were lying about what happened on the bridge and how he cracked the case.

As he testified, the jury not only reviewed the videotape but also heard a lengthy audiotape of a conversation between Gisevius and officer Jeffrey Lehrmann, who pleaded guilty to obstructing justice.

Lehrmann wore a wire to secretly record a three-hour meeting he had with Gisevius at a downtown New Orleans bar where they discussed the intensifying federal investigation.

During the rambling, obscenity-laden conversation, Lehrmann tried to get Gisevius to speak about his role in the shooting and a cover-up.

At one point on the tape, Gisevius frets over what one of the other officers may say to the FBI about false police reports.

"What can he make up about the cover-up?" Gisevius asks.

Referring to Kaufman's repeated revisions to the shooting report, he tells Lehrmann: "Archie went around and scratched words out" of the report.

Bezak said the tape gave him the leverage he needed to extract guilty pleas from several officers.

"I focused on the cover-up in hopes that the weight of the cover-up investigation would force one of the officers to cooperate on the shooting part of the case," he said.

After Lehrmann and another officer admitted to falsifying reports, Bezak snagged a plea from officer Michael Hunter, who had participated in the shooting and provided details of the other officers' actions on that day.

Bezak also told of trying and failing to locate two people whom Kaufmann reported had witnessed the shooting and could corroborate the defendants' claim of being shot at by civilians.

"These are witnesses that would justify the police shooting - ordinarily you would treat them like they were gold," Bezak said.

But he said Kaufman didn't even bother to get contact information for the two. The government has accused Kaufman of inventing the witnesses.

In other trial action, Judge Kurt Englehardt dismissed a juror who "due to no wrongdoing on her part" learned she is related to the spouse of one of the defendants.

The woman was immediately replaced by one of the four alternate jurors who have been in the courtroom and heard all of the trial testimony to date.

The prosecution is expected to rest shortly and the trial will continue with the defense taking the floor this week.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)