VILLE PLATTE — The last month has been a trying time for people in Ville Platte, especially those who occupy businesses on Main Street where three major crimes have left business owners stunned and searching for answers.
“It’s been awful,” said Pam McGee, Main Street coordinator for Ville Platte. “You just hope that we all catch our heads and start doing things with the right foot forward.”
The string of crimes began May 6 when Tuc Thanh Do, the 40-year-old co-owner of T.A.T Nail Salon on Main Street, was shot and killed in his shop during an armed robbery.
On May 20, Barry and Marla Giglio, owners of The Pig Stand — a popular restaurant on Main Street — were arrested and accused of aggravated rape in a child sex case out of Church Point.
And on June 7, John Melvin Lavergne, an insurance agent for more than three decades who had become entangled in an insurance fraud investigation, gunned down Rhett Jeansonne, 39, and Kim Sledge, 44, two investigators with the state Department of Insurance, before turning the gun on himself inside his business on Court Street near the intersection with Main Street.
The three businesses are located within a half-mile area near the center of this city of about 8,000 people.
Flower shops, restaurants and a hometown furniture store are among the local businesses that line both sides of Main Street.
On Friday, there was no trace of the mayhem and chaos that had enveloped the area only days earlier when about 100 lawmen stormed into the city in response to the shootings of the insurance investigators.
But the mood still hangs over the city.
Randel Chapman, CEO of Evangeline Bank, described that mood as one of surprise and shock.
The bank’s main branch sits on Main Street just across from Lavergne’s Insurance Agency, where the insurance investigators were shot.
A resident here since at least 1973, Chapman said this appears to be “the peak of crime now.”
Chapman does not believe the crime trend is unique to the city — there is a general impression that crime is becoming more serious everywhere, he said.
Last year, the bank began employing a full-time security guard. The position began as a holiday hire, but soon grew into a full-time position as it seemed to ease both customers’ concerns and those expressed by employees, he said.
Chapman described the community as having a “hometown feel” with a population made up mostly of people who are nice to each other as well as to the city’s visitors.
The city, he said, celebrates “old traditional values” and its love of food.
Ville Platte is known as the “smoked meat capital of the world,” a point that will be driven home later this month when the annual Smoked Meat Festival is held.
The festival can’t get here quick enough for Camille Fontenot, executive director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
The recent events have left Fontenot, who also serves as director of the Parish Tourism Commission, grasping for an explanation.
The Chamber’s offices sit on Main Street, near the Giglios’, Lavergne’s and Do’s businesses.
“We just want people to come and have fun over here,” Fontenot said.
Kevin West, pastor of First Baptist Church on Main Street, said he believed the incidents are a reflection of “our lost morals” and the disintegration of the family unit.
Those who rob and kill, West said, have a selfish mentality.
“This community is really appalled by this,” he said.
Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue said he has never seen such a tragic run of crime in more than 20 years of policing the city.
“It’s a terrible thing for it to be happening in our quiet, small town,” he said. “(We’re) used to this happening around us.”
Still, the chief said, he does not believe this series of events is reflective of a shift in the city’s mindset, its direction or its future.
“We’re responding to the incidents and I believe the citizens approve of our actions,” he said.
Lartigue is referring to the arrest of 21-year-old Dannie Lafleur, who was arrested on counts of first-degree murder and armed robbery in Do’s shooting.
Several others have been arrested as accomplices in the robbery, authorities have said.
Lartigue said Lafleur has also been connected to other armed robberies in the area.
The Giglio case is different because the alleged crimes are said to have occurred in Church Point.
The Giglios were among eight people arrested in a case that involves three girls under age 9 who were forced to have sex with eight adults last year, authorities have said.
The Giglios’ arrests stunned many here, because the couple had quickly established themselves in the business community soon after moving to Ville Platte in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Barry Giglio had been a nominee as “Man of the Year,” and the restaurant regularly hosted the city’s monthly Chamber of Commerce meetings, Fontenot said.
The Chamber has since moved its meetings to the Cajun Smokehouse, another restaurant on Main Street, Fontenot said.
The Giglios, who are both out of jail on a $300,000 bond, employed at least two of their accused co-conspirators: Brandy Blood, 26, and Jennifer Stelly, 30.
The others accused in the case are: Lawrence Ricks Jr., 35, of Ventress; John Stelly, 57, and Alice Stelly, 55, both of Church Point; and Marty Blood, 42, authorities have said.
Reached by phone Sunday, Barry Giglio offered the following statement:
“I fully respect the State Police and their investigation. However, my wife and I are absolutely innocent and have faith in our court system,” he said. “We’re currently working with our attorneys and expect to go public with our statement in the near future.”
In the Lavergne case, both McGee and Chapman knew Lavergne, and both described him as a man who had never appeared to be violent.
McGee has described him as a soft-spoken and shy man, and she said, she had never seen Lavergne lash out or act angrily toward anyone.
Chapman expressed similar sentiments.
“I think the problems he may have been having, he kept inside until he finally just couldn’t handle it anymore,” Chapman said. “He’s never been a volatile or violent person. I think in the end he just cracked.”
McGee said the last month has been out of character for the city. In the days ahead, she said, the city should respond together as a community.
“We need to pick ourselves up and move forward in a positive way,” she said.