Four of the five current and former Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office employees who pleaded guilty to their role in beating parish inmates faced federal lawsuits alleging civil rights violations long before their pleadings were made public Tuesday.
Wade Bergeron, 40, of Milton; Bret Klein Broussard, 35, of Broussard; Robert E. Burns, 46, of Youngsville, each pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of deprivation of civil rights. Wesley Hayes, 36, of St. Martinville, and Byron Benjamin Lassalle, 34, of Erath, pleaded guilty to the same charge, along with one count each of civil rights conspiracy.
All of the men except Burns have been sued in federal court on allegations of wrongdoing, including excessive force and illegal arrest, but details of the criminal cases that went before Lake Charles-based U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi in Lafayette on Tuesday are still unclear.
The pleadings happened in a closed-door hearing, and records clerks at the U.S. District Court in Lafayette were still in the process of putting the case file into the public record late Wednesday afternoon.
Broussard and Lassalle are still Sheriff’s Office employees, according to a prepared statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office announcing the pleadings. Employee records obtained by The Advocate in November listed Broussard as a narcotics captain and Lassalle as a narcotics lieutenant. It’s unclear when Bergeron and Burns left the Sheriff’s Office.
Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. But he confirmed to The Advocate in April that federal authorities subpoenaed a videotape showing an Iberia Parish corrections officer, David Prejean, hitting and kicking a prone inmate with the help of a police dog in 2012. Prejean has since been fired, but his name has not come up in any public disclosure of the federal investigation.
An Advocate report in May detailed complaints alleging a wide array of misconduct by Sheriff’s Office employees.
The office has settled both state and federal lawsuits with at least 10 people at a cost of almost $1.1 million since Ackal took office in 2008 — a dollar amount almost double the amount paid out by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, which employs and serves about three times as many people.
Several suits have been filed against Hayes, who became warden nine months after the 2009 death of inmate Michael Jones.
Jones died when Hayes and his brother, Jesse — the two weighed a combined 700 pounds — sat on the mentally ill man to restrain him. A 16th Judicial District Judge later ruled excessive force led to Jones’ death.
Another suit filed against Wesley Hayes, a jail nurse and five unnamed deputies alleged a beating so brutal that a guard slipped on an inmate’s blood. According to the suit, the guards suspected a prisoner said something foul to them and then slammed the inmate’s head against the wall, maced him and cracked his head with a black metal object before his face was kneed and stomped.
The case is ongoing.
Ackal would later fire Wesley Hayes in October 2013, leading Hayes to file his own whistleblower lawsuit that alleged Ackal fired him for calling attention to abuses going on in the jail.
A suit filed and settled in 2013 alleges Lassalle and deputy Jason Comeaux illegally entered an elderly woman’s home looking for her niece, then searched the home without providing a warrant or explaining what they were looking for. The suit claims Lassalle slammed the woman against a freezer and pushed her out of the house while pulling her hair, then threw her on the ground and booked her in jail on a count of battery of a police officer. The suit claims the Sheriff’s Office told her it would drop the charges if she agreed to not file suit.
Bergeron, Broussard and Deputies Jason Comeaux and Ricky Bernard were sued in federal court in 2011 on allegations the two wrongfully arrested a New Iberia couple. The matter was settled in 2013.
Ackal’s administration has been on the radar of federal authorities for more than two years, when the U.S. Justice Department began investigating a YouTube video depicting former Deputy Cody Laperouse striking a handcuffed man at a 2013 Sugar Cane Festival street party. A judge in July sentenced Laperouse to one day in jail and one year of supervised release after he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of civil-rights deprivation.
A second federal investigation launched into the death of Victor White III, who died from a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the backseat of a deputy’s car, found no criminal wrongdoing in the death and upheld the long-held official account that White shot himself. But the case highlighted the growing distrust between the Sheriff’s Office and the community it serves.
Each of the defendants who pleaded on Tuesday, except Burns, face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. Burns faces one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. They all face three years of supervised release.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph G. Jarzabek, Special Litigation Counsel Mark Blumberg and Trial Attorney Tona Boyd with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division are prosecuting the case.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.