Katrina's Hidden Race War
New Orleans, of course, is awash in tales of the horrible things that transpired in the wake of the hurricane--and many of these wild stories have turned out to be fictions. In researching the Algiers Point attacks, I relied on the accounts of people who witnessed shooting incidents or were directly involved, either as gunmen or shooting victims.
Seeking to corroborate their stories, I sought out documentary evidence, including police files and autopsy reports. The NOPD, I was told, kept very few records during that period. Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard was a different story. The coroner, a flamboyant trumpet-playing doctor who has held the office for more than thirty years, had file cabinets bulging with the autopsies of hundreds of Katrina victims--he just wouldn't let me see them, in defiance of Louisiana public records laws.
After wrangling with the coroner for more than six months, I decided to sue--with a lawyer hired by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute--to get access to the autopsies. (We weren't the first to take the coroner to court. CNN and the New Orleans Times-Picayune had successfully sued Minyard, seeking particular Katrina-related autopsies.) This past May, Orleans Parish district court judge Kern Reese ruled in our favor, ordering Minyard to allow me to review every autopsy done in the year after the storm. But I soon learned that reconstructing history from the coroner's mess of files was next to impossible, because the paper trail is incomplete. "We carried the records around in our cars, in the trunks of our cars, for four months and, I mean, that--that was the coroner's office," Minyard said in a sworn deposition obtained during the course of our suit. "I'm sure some of the records got lost or misplaced." [Read the depositions of Minyard and his chief investigator here.] Even the autopsy files we got were missing key facts, like where the bodies were found, who recovered them, when they were recovered and so forth.
Many of the manila file folders the coroner eventually turned over were empty, and Minyard said he'd simply chosen not to autopsy some twenty-five to fifty corpses. The coroner also told us he didn't know exactly how many people were shot to death in the days immediately after the storm--"I can't even tell you how many gunshot victims we had"--but figured the number would not "be more than ten."
Under oath Minyard proceeded to say something stunning. The NOPD, he testified, was only investigating three gunshot cases, all of them high-profile--the Danziger Bridge incident, in which police killed two civilians, and the shooting of Danny Brumfield, who was slain by a cop in front of the Convention Center. Minyard's statement buttressed information I'd gotten from NOPD sources who said the force has done little to prosecute people for assaults or murders committed in the wake of the storm.
I contacted the police department repeatedly over many months, providing the NOPD with specific questions about each incident discussed in this story. The department, through spokesman Robert Young, declined to comment on whether officers had investigated any of these crimes and would not discuss any other issues raised by this article.
Sifting through more than 800 autopsy reports and reams of state health department data, I quickly identified five New Orleanians who had died under suspicious circumstances: one, severely burned, was found in a charred abandoned auto (see "Body of Evidence," page 19); three were shot; and another died of "blunt force trauma to the head." However, it's impossible to tell from the shoddy records whether any of these people died in or around Algiers Point, or even if their bodies were found there.
No one has been arrested in connection with these suspicious deaths. When it comes to the lack of action on the cases, one well-placed NOPD source told me there was plenty of blame to go around. "We had a totally dysfunctional DA's office," he said. "The court system wasn't much better. Everything was in disarray. A lot of stuff didn't get prosecuted. There were a lot of things that were getting squashed. The UCR [uniform crime reports] don't show anything."
In response to detailed queries made over a period of months, New Orleans District Attorney spokesman Dalton Savwoir declined to say whether prosecutors looked into any of the attacks I uncovered. The office has been through a string of leadership changes since Katrina--Leon Cannizaro is the current DA--and is struggling to deal with crimes that happened yesterday, let alone three years ago, Savwoir told me.
James Traylor, a forensic pathologist with the Louisiana State University Health Center, worked alongside Minyard at the morgue and suspects that homicide victims fell through the cracks. "I know I did cases that were homicides," Traylor says. "They were not suicides." NOPD detectives, the doctor continues, never spoke to him about two cases he labeled homicides, leading him to believe police conducted no investigation into those deaths. "There should be a multi-agency task force--police, sheriffs, coroners--that can put their heads together and figure out what happened to people," Traylor says.
One of the suspicious cases I discovered was that of Willie Lawrence, a 47-year-old African-American male who suffered a "gunshot wound" that caused a "cranio-facial injury" and deposited two chunks of metal in his brain, according to the autopsy report. Minyard never determined whether Lawrence was murdered or committed suicide, choosing to leave the death unclassified. However, the dead man's brother, Herbert Lawrence, who lives in Compton, California, believes his sibling was murdered. Herbert tells me he got a phone call from one of Willie's neighbors shortly after he died. The caller said Willie, whose body, according to state records, was found on the east bank of the Mississippi, was killed by a civilian gunman. "The police didn't do anything," Herbert says, pointing out that NOPD officers didn't create a written report or interview any relatives.