GONZALES — A district judge on Monday sentenced a St. Amant man she called a “cold-blooded killer” to 61 years in prison for the murder and kidnapping 25 years ago of a woman who was a distant relative.
Judge Jessie LeBlanc, of the 23rd Judicial District, sentenced Kenneth Lavigne, 50, to 40 years in prison in the second-degree kidnapping of Jeanie Lavigne in December 1990, which is the maximum sentence for second-degree kidnapping.
LeBlanc in January sentenced Lavigne to 21 years on the manslaughter charge, the maximum under state law in 1990, but waited to sentence him for the kidnapping until Monday, as she waited for a pre-sentence report.
She ordered that he serve the two sentences consecutively, which will ensure Lavigne will spend the rest of his days in a prison cell, the judge said Monday.
LeBlanc said she wanted Lavigne to understand the despair, pain and loneliness that his extended family has felt as they pleaded for years for help from the public to find Jeanie Lavigne’s killer.
Jeanie Lavigne was Kenneth Lavigne’s uncle’s ex-wife, and Kenneth Lavigne grew up among the Lavigne and Templet families living on Harry Savoy Road in St. Amant.
“Kenneth Lavigne lived among them for years knowing he was a cold-blooded killer,” LeBlanc said.
Lavigne, whom Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office investigators linked to the cold case nearly three years ago through DNA analysis, pleaded guilty in January to reduced charges of manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping in a plea deal with prosecutors.
In an emotional admission at that January hearing before Jeanie Lavigne’s adult son and other family members, Lavigne admitted to kidnapping Jeanie Lavigne from her home the night of Dec. 16, 1990. Lavigne, 25, at the time, took her to the Summerfield area of Ascension Parish, sexually abused her and killed her in the course of committing a battery against her with a knife.
“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Lavigne said at the time.
Three hunters found 38-year-old Jeanie Lavigne’s partially nude body with her throat slashed in a wooded area near La. 431 and the Amite River a day after the kidnapping.
But on Monday, minutes before the sentence, Lavigne’s attorneys announced Lavigne wanted to withdraw the guilty plea to second-degree kidnapping.
Assistant District Attorney Robin O’Bannon objected. She said the deal came with no promise on what sentence he would face for the second-degree kidnapping count, except that it had to be at least 21 years and that both sides would wait on a pre-sentence investigation.
Susan Jones, attorney for Lavigne, countered that her client was saying he didn’t agree to a deal that left him open to consecutive sentences.
LeBlanc then recounted the steps she took in explaining the plea in January before he agreed to it and said she wasn’t going to allow his plea to be withdrawn just because he is not happy with what the sentence is going to be.
“Stand up, Mr. Lavigne,” LeBlanc said soon afterward, and she then went forward with her sentence over Jones’ objection.
After the hearing, O’Bannon, the prosecutor, said she was surprised Lavigne tried to withdraw his plea.
“He was emotional and appeared to be remorseful at the last sentencing, but I guess that just shows it wasn’t real remorse,” O’Bannon said of Lavigne’s January plea.
She said the judge allowed both sides to review the presentencing investigation report Monday morning.
“And when (Lavigne’s attorneys) realized what the report recommended, they advised the client that there was a real probability he was getting the maximum (sentence), consecutive and decided he wanted to withdraw his plea,” O’Bannon said. “Because he obviously thought if he would apologize last time for his crime, that maybe he would get a minimal sentence, and he thought wrong.”
Ryan Lavigne, 37, Jeanie Lavigne’s son, said even though his cousin was being sentenced, he was happy with the sentences and said it was a good feeling knowing something positive “hopefully came out of this.”
“Being as long as they (the sentences) were, I feel that the judge understood what I’ve been through and what’s happened,” Ryan Lavigne said.
Ryan Lavigne was 11 when his mother disappeared and was killed. Kenneth Lavigne lived next-door to them. Ryan Lavigne said he often gave rides on his four-wheeler to one of Kenneth Lavigne’s sons.
Ryan Lavigne helped provide the crucial DNA link to find his mother’s killer.
That link allowed investigators to get a warrant for Kenneth Lavigne’s DNA. Lavigne fled St. Amant for Mississippi after he turned over his DNA but was found at the Chameleon Motel in McComb, Mississippi, in late March 2013.
Ryan Lavigne said finding out that his cousin was his mother’s killer all these years remains a shock, but he said he is trying to repair relations with members of Kenneth Lavigne’s immediate family.
“We are trying. We’re getting to a good place in the end,” he said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.