February 24, 2010, 8:53PM
Laura Maggi and Brendan McCarthy wrote this story
John McCusker / The Times-PicayunePolice must be held to the law, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said on the steps of the federal courthouse Wednesday.
Admitting a cover-up of shocking breadth, a former New Orleans police supervisor pleaded guilty to a federal obstruction charge on Wednesday, confessing that he participated in a conspiracy to justify the shooting of six unarmed people after Hurricane Katrina that was hatched not long after police stopped firing their weapons.
The guilty plea of Lt. Michael Lohman, who retired from the department earlier this month, contains explosive details of the alleged cover-up and ramps up the legal pressure on police officers involved in the shooting and subsequent investigation. It’s unclear when Lohman’s cooperation with federal authorities began, but he presumably is prepared to testify against the officers he says helped him lie about the circumstances of a shooting he immediately deemed a “bad shoot.”
Lohman, who pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to obstruct justice, admits he failed to order the collection of evidence or canvassing of witnesses, helped craft police reports riddled with false information, participated in a plan to plant a gun under the bridge and lied to investigators who questioned police actions.
A spokesman for NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley said the chief did not have a comment about the guilty plea. Bob Young said Riley stands by the quote he made Tuesday, as news of the guilty plea broke. “We hope that justice is served,” he said then.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin did not respond to a request for comment.
In a news conference after Lohman’s plea, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said police must be held to the law.
“Police officers are there to protect us, and to protect the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “Their jobs are to help individuals and protect us, not to hurt us. Sadly, sadly, we come across in the course of our work here…officers who violate their oaths of office, who occasionally violate their duties, violate their commitment to serve the public. And we take actions against those individuals wherever they violate federal law. We will continue to do that.”
In the wake of the startling developments, defense attorneys for some of the six police officers and one former officer involved in the shooting maintained their clients’ innocence.
The Times-Picayune first questioned NOPD investigation into Danziger Bridge shootings in 2007. Read that story here.
All seven men were indicted by a state grand jury in December 2006 on murder and attempted-murder charges, but that case collapsed in court in the summer of 2008. Six weeks later, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division agreed to take over the case.
Frank DeSalvo, an attorney for Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, one of two sergeants to fire his gun at the scene, said Lohman’s guilty plea does not change his client’s position.
“We are not concerned about it,” DeSalvo said. “The government gave a story here that is not correct….It looks to me that they alleged superficial stuff that is not true. We can prove that some of this stuff is not true.”
A widely respected supervisor within the NOPD, Lohman served on the force from 1988 until his retirement early this month. After the storm, he moved from the 7th District in eastern New Orleans to the Central City-based 6th District, along with Major Robert Bardy, his longtime commander.
As a lieutenant in the 7th District, he was a ranking officer over many of the officers involved in the shooting. He was a direct supervisor to Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, a homicide detective who Lohman ordered to investigate the case.
The incident on the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, spanned nearly the entire length of the Danziger Bridge, which crosses the Industrial Canal in eastern New Orleans. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, was shot to death outside a motel on the Gentilly side of the bridge.
James Brissette, 19, was killed on the eastern side of the bridge, while four people walking with him with were seriously wounded. Susan Bartholomew lost part of her arm in the shooting and her husband, Leonard Bartholomew III, was shot in the head. Their daughter, Leisha Bartholomew and a nephew, Jose Holmes, suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Leonard Bartholomew IV, a teenage son, was uninjured.
After the shooting, police arrested Lance Madison, a longtime FedEx employee who had been taking care of his brother after the storm. Madison was accused of shooting at officers and booked with attempted murder. That was a “false arrest,” according to the bill of information, the charging document that lays out the laws Lohman allegedly broke.
The cover-up of what Lohman immediately judged an unjustified shooting began just after supervisors arrived, according to the bill. While police attorneys and police reports have asserted that officers were fired upon by the victims before shooting their weapons, the bill maintains that the victims were unarmed.
The factual basis, which outlines the facts Lohman is admitting, said the sergeants involved in the shooting told him that civilians shot at police, justifying the officers’ actions.
Former Lt. Michael Lohman retired from the New Orleans Police Department earlier this month.”When defendant Lohman asked them where all the civilians’ guns had gone, the sergeants did not have a good explanation,” the document states. At that point, Lohman directed his subordinates to talk to the other officers, hoping they would devise a story to match the physical evidence.
At the scene, Lohman assigned a detective to conduct an investigation. While not named in the document, that detective was Kaufman, who tells him an NOPD probe will not be necessary becauseNOPD Superintendent Eddie Compass had said no reports were necessary in the aftermath of Katrina.
“21 NAT, Babe, we don’t have to do anything,” said Kaufman, according to the factual basis, which refers to him as “Investigator.” In NOPD shorthand, “NAT” means “necessary action taken,” while a “21″ report is a “miscellaneous incident,” not a crime.
But Lohman apparently told Kaufman the Danziger case would require a report.
The court documents describe Lohman consulting with various shooting officers to confect a plausible cover-up. But the documents do not identify by name the other officers involved in the alleged conspiracy, though they are described clearly.
The bill, for example, defines three officers as “co-conspirators”: a sergeant, referred to as “Investigator” and “the sergeants involved in the shooting.” The Investigator is Kaufman, who wrote the initial police report and co-wrote the supplemental investigative report. The two sergeants who participated in the shooting were Sgts. Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius, both supervisors in the 7th District. They are identified in the documents as “Sergeant A” and “Sergeant B.”
Attorneys for Kaufman and Gisevius have acknowledged they received target letters earlier this year. They have maintained their clients’ innocence.
Kaufman’s attorney said “that bill of information is not specific enough to indicate that my client is involved.”
“If it did, he categorically denies being involved in anything listed in that bill of information,” said Stephen London.
Eric Hessler, who represents Gisevius, said the court documents simply lay out allegations. “I certainly don’t consider them indisputable facts,” he said.
The documents say Kaufman lied when he gave a voluntary statement to FBI agents on Jan. 22, 2009. Shortly afterward, Lohman talked to Kaufman, who said “everything was ‘cool,’” the bill says. It also states that Lohman gave an interview to FBI agents on May 27, in which he “concealed that he and his co-conspirators were involved in a cover-up.”
Lohman’s cooperation seems to date to sometime after that May 27 meeting. The span of the conspiracy in the bill dates from the day of the shooting until that date in May, suggesting that Lohman changed his story soon afterward.
In pleading guilty, Lohman admits to encouraging Bowen and Gisevius — the “involved sergeants” — to devise a story justifying the shootings. Lohman talked to more of the officers involved in the shooting and “discussed the statements they should give,” the bill stated.
Lohman also knew that “the Investigator” planned to put a planted gun under the bridge. Kaufman logged into police evidence a gun he described as belonging to Lance Madison.
While discussing that scheme, Lohman asked Kaufman whether “the gun was ‘clean,’ meaning that it could not be traced back to another crime,” according to the bill.
The federal paperwork describes Bowen, who joined the force in 1997 and rose to sergeant, as a major figure in creating continuously changing stories to provide a legal foundation for the shootings. While working for the NOPD, Bowen earned a law degree from Loyola University.
The statements attributed to by “Sergeant A” match statements made by Bowen in a 54-page supplemental police report written by Kaufman and Sgt. Gerard Dugue.
DeSalvo, Bowen’s attorney, would not address whether Bowen fits the description of Sergeant A. His client has not received a target letter, he said.
But the documents describe Sergeant A alleging that Lance Madison threw a gun into the Industrial Canal — an allegation made by Bowen in the supplemental report.
The documents also describe Sergeant A initially saying that he kicked two guns belonging to the shooting victims off the bridge. The same sergeant also described running under the bridge after a suspect. That story was later changed, the documents say, after Lohman and others agreed it was implausible.
However, Bowen does describe kicking the guns and running under the bridge in the supplemental report.
In October 2005, Lohman frequently talked to Kaufman about how to make the report he was working on “more plausible,” the bill stated. At one point, he became so impatient with the draft report that he personally wrote a 17-page report that Kaufman was supposed to use instead.
Although the documents say this report was signed and “submitted,” it did not remain in the official record. It was eventually replaced by a seven-page report, which NOPD has distributed as the initial incident report.
In Lohman’s 17-page report he made significant changes that would have bolstered the police case. Instead of Bowen alone spotting Madison tossing the gun, Gisevius and three other officers attested that they, too, saw it. Lohman thought “the cover-up story would be stronger and more logical if four officers said they saw Madison throw the gun,” the bill stated.
In a supplemental report, Susan and Leonard Bartholomew are described as saying their nephew, Jose Holmes, had shot at police. The federal documents state that the Bartholomews did not make such a statement.
In Lohman’s report, he “further falsified” the Bartholomews’ stories, saying Susan Bartholomew told police that the Madisons were walking with their family across the bridge and Ronald and two other people fired a gun at police. The Madisons did not know the Bartholomews and were not walking with them, according to the bill and victim accounts.
Kaufman showed each of the officers who fired their guns the report and all signed off on the document, the bill states. At that point, the document was filed, with both Kaufman and Lohman’s name on the front cover page.
But, at some point, Kaufman “switched out” the reports, replacing the 17-page one with a seven-page document. He used the cover page from the 17-page report, the bill stated.
Kaufman in 2006 told Lohman that he “had switched out the report because he had written another report to match the shooters’ audiotaped statements,” according to the bill.
While the federal documents focus largely on Lohman’s dealings with Kaufman and the two sergeants who were part of the shooting group, his allegations will likely have implications for other officers.
For example, the documents state that Lohman talked with the officer who shot and killed Ronald Madison, asking “leading questions” to ensure answers that would justify the shooting. Former Officer Robert Faulcon, who quit the NOPD after the storm, is identified in police documents as having shot Madison.
“I’m not in a position at this point in time, to concede that (Lohman) ever spoke with my client,” said Franz Zibilich, who represents Faulcon, who he added has not received a target letter.
Faulcon had “nothing to do with authorizing or writing a police report” and partaking in a cover-up, Zibilich said. “It’s been his position all along that the shooting is justified,” he said.
The other officers involved in the shooting were Michael Hunter, Ignatius Hills, Robert Barrios and Anthony Villavaso. Their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Last summer, FBI agents raided the NOPD’s homicide bureau, where Kaufman worked. They took not only his files and computer hard drive, but also those of Dugue, who worked with him on the supplemental investigation.
An attorney for Dugue declined to comment on Wednesday’s developments.
At the end of Lohman’s court proceeding, after accepting the guilty plea, U.S. Judge Ivan Lemelle decried media reports from Tuesday night that said Lohman was expected to plead guilty the next day.
Lemelle said he “would ask and direct” the federal government to conduct a criminal investigation into the leaks and find a person or persons who “violated the seal order.”
Lemelle said he “would expect” federal investigators to pursue the matter “with vigor,” regardless of the source.
He noted that a leak could be considered obstruction of justice.
At a news conference after the hearing, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said “we will do whatever we have to do to learn where that came from.” He asserted that nobody from his office, the FBI or Justice Department leaked information.
A TIMELINE OF THE CASE
- Sept. 4, 2005: New Orleans police, responding to a call of gunfire on the Danziger Bridge, shoot six civilians, two of them fatally. Lt. Michael Lohman assigns the investigation of the incident to Sgt. Arthur Kaufman.
- October 2005: Kaufman submits a first draft of his investigation for Lohman’s review.
- August 2006: Families of the Danziger shooting victims file a series of federal civil lawsuits against NOPD.
- Dec. 28, 2006: A state grand jury indicts seven New Orleans police officers on charges of murder and attempted murder.
- Feb. 8, 2007: A Times-Picayune story notes profound flaws in the police investigation into the bridge incident.
- Aug. 13, 2008: Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Raymond Bigelow tosses out the state’s case against the “Dangizer Seven,” saying the case was tainted by a prosecutor.
- Sept. 30, 2008: U.S. Attorney Jim Letten announces that federal authorities will examine the Danziger case for possible civil-rights violations.
- Jan. 22, 2009: Kaufman meets with FBI.
- May 27, 2009: Lohman meets with FBI.
- Aug. 5, 2009: FBI seizes files from NOPD homicide division, including files belonging to Kaufman and Sgt. Gerard Dugue, who helped with the investigation of the Danziger incident.
- Sept. 26, 2009: FBI shuts down Danziger Bridge for a day in order to reconstruct the scene from the day of the shootings.
- Feb. 1, 2010: Lohman retires from NOPD after 21 years on the force.
- Feb. 3, 2010: Prosecutors file under seal a bill of information charging Lohman with conspiracy.