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Danziger witnesses reveal horrors, turmoil

12th July 2011   ·   0 Comments

The second week of testimony in the Danziger Bridge trial offered more insight into what the families and friends of those who were shot or lost their lives during the infamous post-Katrina shootings suffered nearly six years ago.

Among the highlights of last week’s testimony were the words of one of the youngest residents to witness the police shootings, a compelling description of how shooting victim Ronald Madison was stomped by a police officer and more evidence of the lengths to which the NOPD went to cover up the incident.

A NOPD officer used a racial slur in explaining why he fired at a teenager fleeing from deadly shootings on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina, former officer Kevin Bryan testified Tuesday at a trial for five other current or former officers charged in the shootings, The Associated Press reported.

Bryan, who left the New Orleans Police Department about a year after the 2005 storm, recalled asking fellow officer Ignatius Hills why he fired two shots at the back of a 14-year-old boy from the rear of a rental truck that police drove to the Danziger Bridge in response to a distress call. Hills responded that he tried to “pop a round off” at the Black teenager, referring to the youngster with a racial epithet, Bryan testified.

“It wasn’t (his explanation) that he was scared for his life or anything like that,” said Bryan, now a Plaquemines Parish sheriff’s deputy.

Hills, who is also Black, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and testified during the first week of the trial as a prosecution witness. Hills said he fired two shots at the boy’s back “out of fear,” but missed. He didn’t mention using a racial slur against the boy, Leonard Bartholomew IV.

Police shot and killed two people and wounded four others on the bridge less than a week after the storm smashed levees and plunged the city into flooding and chaos. Prosecutors say the officers shot unarmed people crossing the bridge in search of food, but defense attorneys have said police were shot at before they returned fire.

A group of officers, including Bryan, Hills and four of the officers on trial, piled into the rental truck and drove to the bridge after another officer radioed for help. Bryan said Sgt. Robert Gisevius, one of the defendants, told him officers were taking fire at the bridge.

“I didn’t know what kind of situation I was getting into,” Bryan said.

Bryan said he crouched over in the rear of the truck when the driver slammed on the brakes and gunfire erupted. After Hills shot at the fleeing teen, Bryan chased him down the bridge with his gun drawn. But he said he didn’t shoot at Bartholomew because he didn’t pose a threat.

Before he caught up to Bartholomew, Bryan saw a different officer shoot at the teen with a shotgun, also missing him. Bryan said he didn’t know that officer and couldn’t identify him. Bryan said he slapped Bartholomew with an open hand in the “heat of the moment,” immediately feeling “horrible.”

“That’s not the kind of person I am,” said Bryan, who hasn’t been charged in the case.

Bartholomew was arrested but freed within a matter of hours. His parents, sister and cousin, Jose Holmes, were wounded but survived the shootings. Holmes’ friend, 17-year-old James Brissette, was shot and killed on the east side of the bridge.

Bartholomew sobbed on the witness stand Tuesday when he recalled visiting his family in the hospital for the first time, more than a week after the shootings.

“Everybody else had to go through all this pain, and I’m walking around,” he said. “It wasn’t right.”

Out of guilt, Bartholomew said he told Holmes that he “felt like it was my fault.” Unable to speak because of his wounds, Holmes gave him a thumbs up.

Bartholomew said nobody in his group that morning was armed or did anything to provoke police. They were crossing the bridge in search of food at a grocery store when police opened fire without issuing any warnings, he said.

“I thought this was a big mistake,” he recalled.

The Associated Press reported that during testimony Wednesday, former NOPD officer Michael Hunter said that he saw a fellow officer spray gunfire at wounded residents and repeatedly stomp on a dying man who fled from police on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina.

Hunter, a government witness in the federal trial, said he was shocked when Sgt. Kenneth Bowen leaned over a concrete barrier and fired an assault rifle at several people who had been shot by police on the east side of the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the 2005 hurricane struck.

“He fired it indiscriminately at the people,” Hunter testified, saying he didn’t perceive any threat from them.

Hunter said he peered over the barrier and saw two wounded females on the ground, embracing each other and crying.

“I thought it was kind of messed up that the females got shot,” he said.

Hunter said Bowen later stomped on the back of 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, after another officer shot Madison in the back on the west side of the bridge. Hunter said Bowen apologized after he angrily confronted him for stomping on Madison.

“I was out of line,” Bowen said, according to Hunter.

“We’re not animals like them. We don’t do that,” Hunter recalled responding.

Hunter, who already has been sentenced to eight years in prison, is one of five former officers who pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up to make the shootings appear justified. Two other former officers who cut deals to cooperate with the Justice Department’s probe already have testified, but Hunter has given the most detailed eyewitness account of what police allegedly did on the bridge.

Bowen and three others were indicted last year on charges stemming from the shootings. Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, is charged in the alleged cover-up.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after flooding from busted levees plunged the city into chaos, Hunter drove a group of officers to the bridge in a rental truck in response to a distress call that an officer’s life was in danger.

Hunter recalled asking, “Where are they?” as they approached the bridge.

“I didn’t have a clear understanding of who we were looking for,” he added.

Hunter said he spotted several people and the bridge before he reached out the driver’s side window and fired warning shots into the air to scare them.

As Ronald Madison and his brother, Lance, ran up the bridge, another group of people scrambled for cover behind the concrete barrier. Hunter testified that he jumped out of the truck and fired his department-issued handgun at the Madisons but missed them as they ran away.

Hunter said he didn’t see them as a threat but fired at them “mostly because I wasn’t thinking straight.” Hunter said he was angry because he believed the Madisons may have shot at police officers on the bridge.

“I wanted to send a message,” he said.

“What was it?” prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein asked.

“Don’t mess with us,” Hunter said.

Turning his attention to the concrete barrier, Hunter said he yelled, “Cease fire!” at Bowen and at least one other officer who was firing. The gunfire momentarily stopped before Bowen allegedly leaned over and fired more shots.

“There was no threat,” Hunter said. “I was shocked.”

Driving the truck to the top of the bridge, Hunter saw the Madisons and a third man running away. He and two other officers hitched a ride with a Louisiana State Police trooper and chased them to the west side, where former officer Robert Faulcon allegedly shot Ronald Madison with a shotgun.

Bowen walked up and asked, “Is this one of them?” before he stomped on Madison several times, Hunter said.

“He was very angry,” Hunter recalled. “He had a very malicious look in his eye.”

Hunter said he and other officers who fired guns on the bridge later gathered at a makeshift police station to discuss the incident.

“It was pretty obvious that they were initiating a cover-up,” he said. “They didn’t separate us and ask us questions individually. Nothing was collected from the scene.”

In 2006, Hunter and six other officers were indicted in state court on murder or attempted murder charges. Hunter said they were treated like heroes by colleagues who viewed them as victims of a politically motivated prosecution.

“I got aggravated with it,” Hunter said. “There’s nothing heroic about shooting unarmed people who are running away.”

After a judge dismissed the state charges in 2008, the Justice Department opened its own investigation. Hunter said he agreed to cooperate after Lt. Michael Lohman, who was the ranking officer at the scene of the shootings, cut a deal.

“I was scared, basically,” Hunter said. “The truth had gotten out, and it was just a matter of time.”

Former officer Michael Hunter testified Thursday that Sgt. Robert Gisevius told him about a separate incident after the 2005 storm in which he fired at people who tried to take a truck he was driving.

Hunter said Gisevius had a “troubled look on his face” when they encountered each other on a highway, so he asked him what had happened.

“He said some people just tried to take his truck and he had to empty his magazine to get them away from him,” Gisevius said.

Hunter said he didn’t ask Gisevius if his bullets struck anyone. During the trial’s first week of testimony, however, former officer Ignatius Hills testified that Gisevius told him he shot and killed someone who tried to take his truck. Hills said he didn’t press Gisevius for any details.

It wasn’t clear from the trial testimony whether the shooting was formally reported or investigated.

Hunter returned to the witness stand Thursday for cross-examination by defense attorneys, who tried to portray Hunter as a liar tailoring his story to please the Justice Department prosecutors who cut him a deal, The Associated Press reported.

“God’s going to hold me accountable for my actions,” Hunter said. “I lied to Him, too.”

“So there’s really nobody you won’t lie to?” asked Gisevius’ attorney, Eric Hessler.

“There was a time when I would have lied to just about anybody,” replied Hunter, who insisted his trial testimony was completely truthful.

Before Katrina, Hunter was suspended three days for lying to a superior. He denied that allegation but admitted lying to a state grand jury about what happened on the Danziger Bridge as part of a cover-up.

“I didn’t have the courage to tell the truth,” Hunter said.

This article originally published in the July 11, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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