In Ascension Parish, politics, lives lost to violence, a scandal involving an elected official and another tale of a drone misadventure grabbed readers’ attention in 2015.
Here are some of the stories that were the most talked about in 2015.
Parish president elected
Shortly after taking office in January 2012 for his fourth term, Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said he would not seek another term, setting the stage in 2015 for a free-for-all for the parish’s top executive post. But heading into 2015, only two candidates, surveyor Clint Cointment and two-term Parish Councilman Chris Loar, had announced they were running, even as Martinez beat back rumors that he would jump into the race. Parish administrator and five-term Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa stayed in the wings until February when he set up a three-horse race through much of the winter, spring and summer.
As Matassa fought to catch up on fundraising, Cointment, running as an outsider, took aim at the management and operations of parish government, a line of attack that hit both his opponents. While Matassa fought back by emphasizing his experience, Loar spoke about his vision for better parish management and progressive changes, but he didn’t fully respond to Cointment’s attacks until late in the season for the Oct. 24 primary.
Come election day, Loar, who was the strongest in early fundraising, was the odd man out in the eventual five-man race that also included Democrats Ricky Diggs and Clarence Henry Jr.
Matassa led with Cointment only five points behind. In the runoff, Matassa continued to stress his experience and rolled out endorsements from Parish Council members and others, while Cointment pounded away at what he saw as parish government’s inability to deal with growth. Cointment closed the gap, but Matassa was the eventual winner, garnering just 117 votes more than his opponent.
With wins by Matassa, a former longtime Democrat turned Republican, and incumbent Coroner Dr. John Fraiche, who changed parties in 2015, all five parishwide elected officials — parish president, coroner, sheriff, assessor and clerk of court — are Republicans for the first time in decades.
Domestic abuse deaths
A Geismar man was accused of brutally beating his estranged wife to death with a baseball bat Aug. 9 and breaking the arm of her 18-year-old son when the teen tried to defend his mother.
David Johnson Sr., 38, was under a restraining order to stay away from his wife, Monica Butler Johnson, 45, when he allegedly killed her and left her body in the backyard of the family home.
Johnson was arrested on a count of first-degree murder.
Johnson had been arrested in December 2014 on a count of domestic abuse strangulation. Domestic abuse strangulation is considered the best predictor of the future homicide of victims of domestic violence, police and victim advocates say.
Monica Johnson, though, dropped that count against her estranged husband, but six months later, she sought a protective order, saying he was stalking her.
A temporary restraining order issued against him was extended, and a hearing had been scheduled for Aug. 24 to consider the protective order.
Monica Johnson’s murder was one of two domestic violence homicides in Ascension Parish during 2015.
Deshad Perry, of Prairieville, was stabbed to death in October. His girlfriend, Jonqualya Benton, was arrested in the killing.
Also, a mystery that had remained for nearly a year in an apparent 2014 domestic violence homicide case was solved when the body of the alleged perpetrator was pulled from the Mississippi River.
Authorities said at the time that Ronald Green Sr. leaped from a bridge after shooting to death his wife and son, Dewona Green, 40, and Ronald Green Jr., 12, at their Gonzales home in April 2014. When his body wasn’t immediately found, it led to speculation that Green had, instead, planned a getaway.
But Green’s body was found in March by a crew member of a tugboat who saw it floating in the river near Reserve.
Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley created some controversy in August, following Monica Johnson’s death, when he advised domestic violence victims to arm themselves and be prepared to use their guns. Wiley stood by his comments after criticism by such groups such as the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which said that it’s actually more dangerous for women to have a gun in the home when they live with an abusive spouse.
This past fall, the Sheriff’s Office put into effect new protocols for handling domestic violence cases, including helping victims get to a shelter more quickly than before, adding more officers to its Domestic Violence Unit and speeding up the process of serving offenders with temporary restraining orders.
Politician accused of abuse
Slightly more than a month after cruising to victory in his Oct. 24 bid for re-election, Democratic State Sen. Troy Brown was arrested on allegations he punched a woman who claimed to be his longtime mistress — what she called a “side friend” — during an argument after the Bayou Classic in New Orleans on Nov. 28. The married man didn’t confirm the claims because he said he could not remember what happened that night. He said brain damage from a long-ago car accident has led to short-term memory loss, a disorder he said that worsens when he imbibes in alcoholic beverages, which his spokeswoman admitted he was doing the night of the big football match between Grambling State and Southern universities in New Orleans.
The victim told officers she and Brown, who as a legislator in 2014 proposed the creation of a domestic violence commission, had previous arguments that involved grabbing. In 2012, she and Brown had a domestic disturbance at her Labadieville home one night that led her to call Assumption Parish sheriff’s deputies, though she did not press charges and Brown was not arrested, a sheriff’s report says.
Amid that turmoil, it also came to light that Brown lives at and uses for tax and business purposes a Geismar address that is outside the boundaries of his Senate District 2. Brown gave the address to New Orleans police officers responding to the incident at the Hyatt Regency hotel. Brown’s spokeswoman said he has multiple properties and spends time at the Geismar address — where his wife said he lives — and at a unit in a Paincourtville duplex that is in his district. Though Brown’s spokeswoman has said he has no intention of leaving office, he was forced in early December to give up his vice chairmanship on the Senate Environmental Quality Committee until his legal issues are resolved.
Brown is headed to court Jan. 8 in New Orleans over his Nov. 28 arrest on a charge of misdemeanor domestic abuse battery. A court challenge also has been filed against Brown over his residency in Senate District 2.
Argument leads to slaying
Todd Toups, 18, a high school senior who apparently planned to make a quick stop by a girl’s home Oct. 10 to finalize details of giving her a ride to the St. Amant High School homecoming dance later that night, was killed when an argument between himself and another boy, Jacob Westbrook, 16, ended with Toups being fatally stabbed, authorities have said.
Earlier that week, Westbrook’s girlfriend, the stepsister of the girl that Toups planned to drive to the dance, had warned Toups that she’d stab him if he hurt her sister, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said at a news conference following the homicide.
Westbrook has been charged with second-degree murder and will be tried as an adult. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Drones bring controversy
In October, Derek Vidrine, an Ascension Parish man, who was hunting squirrels on his property shot down a neighbor’s drone that had been flying over his home off and on for several months, making his wife feel as though she was being watched, he said at the time.
His neighbor and owner of the drone, Aaron Hernandez, denied the allegations, saying his camera-equipped drone could be flown only for short periods and flew too high to film people on the ground.
It was one of several incidents that occurred this year nationwide involving drones, including a drone that crashed on the White House lawn and another one that came down into the University of Kentucky football stadium before a game with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
No arrests were made in the Oct. 6 incident in Ascension Parish.
Recreational drones have been self-regulated up to now, but on Dec. 12, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would begin requiring drones to be registered to make it easier to identify owners and education hobbyists.
The requirement covers aircraft weighing up to 55 pounds, including equipment mounted on them, such as a camera. Drone owners age 13 and older are required to register on an FAA website that became available Dec. 21, just before the wrapping paper came off of drones that were holiday gifts.