Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal and his second-in-command, Gerald Savoy, pleaded not guilty to civil rights and conspiracy charges in federal court appearances Thursday.
Ackal and Savoy are accused in a sweeping federal investigation into abuses against prisoners perpetrated by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office. Ackal faces one count of conspiracy against rights and two counts of deprivation of rights under the color of law. Savoy faces one count of civil rights conspiracy and one count of deprivation of rights.
Both men are accused of having a supervisory role in ordering and instigating inmate beatings. Each man faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 on each count.
Thursday marked the first appearance in federal court by both men.
Ackal declined comment as his attorneys, Michael Skinner and Richard Haik Sr., escorted him from the U.S. Western District courthouse in Lafayette. Haik retired in January from his federal judgeship in the same court and is Ackal’s first cousin. Skinner worked as U.S. Attorney for the Western District from 1993-2000.
Skinner said Ackal has denied all charges and “he looks forward to his day in court.”
Savoy is represented by his hired Lafayette attorney Randal McCann, who entered a not guilty plea for his client.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna released Ackal and Savoy on their own recognizance — meaning they were not required to post bond — and ordered them to not have any contact with any other defendants or victims named in the investigation or with any potential government witnesses for the prosecution.
Hanna set a pretrial phone conference date of May 6. Trial is set for June 6 at a location to be determined.
Family members of Victor White III, who died from a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back seat of a Sheriff’s Office car, and some of their supporters attended the brief hearing and stood outside the courthouse after to pray and stage a silent protest.
The Rev. Victor White Sr., Victor White III’s father, has long called for Ackal’s resignation since his son’s death in March 2014.
White, the Lafayette NAACP Chapter and other supporters maintain that the 22-year-old did not kill himself but the Sheriff’s Office said he did, and an investigation by State Police found that to be the case. The U.S. Justice Department also reviewed the facts and arrived at the same conclusion, that White shot himself.
White said on Thursday he’s going to push for his son’s case to be reopened because of the new allegations coming forward about the conduct of Ackal’s office.
“You see a pattern, and my son’s case fits that pattern,” White said.
Joe LeBlanc, who’s launched unsuccessful bids for sheriff for the last six election cycles, attended the hearing with his wife.
“It’s a plus for getting Iberia Parish headed in the right direction,” LeBlanc said after the hearing. “We need to move this parish forward, not backward, because the last two administrations of sheriff did not leave a good marking on Iberia Parish.”
Investigators with the FBI’s Lafayette Resident Agency accuse Ackal and Savoy of conspiring with other deputies to assault five pretrial detainees during a shakedown of the jail on April 29, 2011.
Deputies who have pleaded guilty have attested in court that supervisors instructed them to take the men to the jail chapel, where there were no security cameras, to punish them using force without it being captured on video.
The indictment also places Ackal and Savoy inside the chapel for the beatings of Anthony Daye — who’s involved in a pending civil lawsuit in his case — and another detainee identified as H.G., whom Ackal had ordered punished in the chapel after learning the man had written letters complaining of conditions at the jail.
Savoy is accused of ordering a canine handler to make his dog bark to intimidate the two men.
Ackal also told then-narcotics agent Ben Lassalle — who pleaded guilty last month to his role in the beatings — to “take care” of a detainee accused of making a lewd comment to a deputy, according to the indictment. In Ackal and Savoy’s presence, Lassalle and then-warden Wesley Hayes conspired to bring the man to the chapel, prosecutors say.
Lassalle used his baton in the chapel to beat that detainee, Curtis Ozenne, and two others who were blamed for the comment, the indictment states. The two others who were beaten were identified only as S.S. and A.T., according to the indictment.
The probe has so far led to nine deputies pleading guilty to their roles in the beatings and offering to cooperate in future prosecutions.
Some of those deputies admitted to lying during depositions in the civil lawsuits that followed the beatings. Another deputy who entered a guilty plea on March 24, Jeremy Hatley, also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his knowledge of the April 2011 incidents.
While most of the guilty pleas have been related to assaults during a sweep at the jail in April 2011, some guards also were implicated in a beating of an inmate in September of that year.
And another plea came from a deputy who said a person identified in court documents only as a “high-ranking” sheriff’s official sent him to an apartment in New Iberia to exact revenge.
Deputy David Hines said he was directed to find and assault the man because a high-ranking Sheriff’s Office official believed the man had attacked one of his relatives, according to his plea agreement.
Hines said he struck the man with his knee and his baton, then wrote a false police report to justify the use of force, the plea agreement states.
The official accused of ordering the attack has not been named.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.