Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said Wednesday his office is “seriously considering” arming some employees after two Fraud Unit investigators were shot to death in Ville Platte.
“Yesterday was the darkest day in the history of the Department of Insurance,” he said. “I made a commitment to (the families) that this will never happen again.”
Troubled businessman John Melvin Lavergne on Tuesday shot and killed Rhett Jeansonne, 39, and Kim Sledge, 44, both members of the department’s Fraud Unit, when they arrived at his business to collect evidence.
Lavergne, 67, later died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a standoff with State Police and other agencies.
Donelon said all department policies are being reviewed, with a focus on increasing police escorts for employees meeting with the public and possibly training them to carry handguns.
Employees do not undergo safety training and do not carry guns, Donelon said. Current policy is for investigators to request and automatically receive State Police escort if they feel unsafe.
Donelon said investigators and examiners had received threats in the past, but none had ever turned violent.
The department was not aware of Lavergne making any threats against Jeansonne and Sledge and there was no reason to suspect Tuesday’s visit would be hostile, he said.
Sledge and Jeansonne — both Denham Springs residents — had met with two of Lavergne’s clients before going to Lavergne’s office to collect files for the investigation, Donelon said.
Officials were unsure if Lavergne was expecting the investigators to visit his office Tuesday afternoon.
Sylvan Lavergne shook his head when asked to explain the actions of his younger brother.
“He just went berserk,” Lavergne said softly. “When you go berserk you’re not yourself.”
The older brother owns a furniture business on Main Street, about a block and a half from the scene of the shooting at Lavergne’s Insurance on Court Street near Main Street in Ville Platte.
Sylvan Lavergne said the shooting was completely out of character for his brother, a man he described as “easygoing.”
Other residents used similar words to describe the longtime businessman who had sold insurance since the ’70s.
“He was a good businessman. He was an honest businessman, honest as he could be,” Sylvan Lavergne said. “I don’t know what could have went wrong.”
Other family members declined comment Wednesday. But a person who answered the door at Melvin Lavergne’s home said a statement would likely be issued on a later date.
Pam McGee, Main Street coordinator for the city, ran into Melvin Lavergne at City Hall on Monday, a day before the shooting.
McGee said they spoke for about 15 minutes and she could not detect anything out of the ordinary — he told her that he was doing as good as could be expected given the problems he was having with the state.
Those problems included his Jan. 31 arrest by State Police on seven counts of prohibited acts and unfair trade practices related to his agency.
She said his troubles had become common knowledge to most people in town.
“He seemed his normal self,” McGee said. “He was always a very soft-spoken, kind-mannered man.”
McGee said the Lavergne name is well respected in this city, having started out years ago in the upholstery business.
“I’m just so sad because the town has lost a friend and it was a troubled friend and we just didn’t realize it,” she said.
John Melvin Lavergne’s legal problems include two civil suits pending at the Evangeline Parish Courthouse.
He was being sued by Imperial Fire & Casualty Insurance Company for $3,717 in damages, which the company said it paid out in a claim from a fraudulent policy Lavergne issued, according to court records.
The insurance company said Lavergne issued a policy that he had backdated so that it appeared to be valid.
In June 2009, CACH, a collection agency, sued Lavergne for $3,095 he owed to a credit card by Washington Mutual/Providian Bank. The court granted a judgment by default against Lavergne on Aug. 12, 2009.
Lavergne also was scheduled to appear in court for that case on July 8 for a judgment debtor examination, which would have forced Lavergne to answer questions about his assets, court records show.
Also in November 2009, the state insurance department issued a cease-and-desist order to Lavergne after he provided fraudulent proof of insurance to the state Department of Motor Vehicles in Lafayette on four occasions, an insurance department news release said.
The department that year served him with a six-month suspension of his licenses and a $16,500 fine, the release said.
Lavergne appealed the reprimands and an Administrative Law Judge lifted the suspension and reduced the fine to $1,500.
Donelon became visibly upset several times during Wednesday’s news conference, pausing to collect himself while speaking about his fallen colleagues.
“All of their fellow employees loved them dearly and unanimously speak of them only in the highest terms,” he said.
Donelon said Sledge joined the Insurance Department in 2000 and requested transfer to the Fraud Unit in 2005 to be able to “do more good for the policy holders directly.”
“She’s remembered as a true country girl, who loved the outdoors and caring for her animals,” he said.
Sledge is survived by her husband, daughter and two stepsons, Donelon said. Relatives could not be reached Wednesday.
Jeansonne worked in the Fraud Unit since 2006, he said.
Jeansonne also volunteered at the Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 5, where he was a captain, said Asst. Chief Mickey Sharp.
Capt. Charlie Weaver said Jeansonne was outgoing and “always cracking jokes. Whatever you had going on, he would try to help out as much as possible. It’s a big loss for the community.”
Weaver said Jeansonne will be buried with full firefighter honors.
“One of the rescues that he made, we had a 16-year-old boy upside down in a ditch, filling with water,” Weaver said. “Rhett just grabbed the jaws of life and jumped in the water and started cutting the car to rescue the kid, and he got him.”
Jeansonne was married with four children and one grandchild, Sharp said.
Staff Writer Faimon Roberts contributed to this report.