Desmond Pratt, an imprisoned former New Orleans homicide detective who tied several murders to Central City crime figure Telly Hankton and his alleged associates, spoon-fed details on one of those killings to two people and offered one of them cash and an SKS rifle in trade for false statements, they told the FBI.
Federal records unsealed Friday also reveal that as of May, civil rights prosecutors in U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office were busy investigating “the activities of Desmond Pratt.”
What has become of that probe remains uncertain. But a disclosure last month in a state murder case in which Pratt also was the lead detective describes a “pending federal proceeding” involving Pratt, suggesting that he may be charged with a crime.
A pair of witnesses in that murder case claimed Pratt pressured them to lie, prompting state prosecutors to settle for unusually light plea deals for the two defendants accused of murder in the 2010 killing of 18-year-old Roderick Sheppard in New Orleans East.
The federal documents have been turned over to attorneys for Hankton and a dozen of his family members and associates who are named as defendants in a sprawling federal racketeering case slated for trial in June.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite declined to comment, citing a gag order.
Pratt’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, said he was unaware of any outcome from the investigation but didn’t see the FBI statements as atypical. “It’s not unusual for a defendant to blame police for your troubles. We’ve seen it before when individuals don’t want to come forward and testify,” Jenkins said. “Mr. Pratt has denied all of that. He did not do anything wrong or improper.”
The allegations against Hankton include one killing of a purported witness and one attempted murder in which the target survived 17 gunshot wounds to testify against Hankton. That man’s brother was gunned down within days of Hankton’s life sentence.
Questions surrounding Pratt have prompted legal wrangling over evidence in the Hankton case and the role of the former detective, whose investigation helped create the narrative of vengeance and bloody witness retaliation that stands at the heart of Hankton’s criminal legend in New Orleans.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, who has issued a gag order in the case, had sealed the documents in May at the request of Polite’s office. The judge unsealed them Friday, also at prosecutors’ request, suggesting that the investigation into Pratt has come to a conclusion, though the outcome remains unclear.
The records, which include FBI interview summaries known as “302s,” describe recent statements from witnesses who had identified Hankton and another man, Edward “Skinny” Allen, as the gunmen in the murder of Hankton rival Jessie “TuTu” Reed, on June 20, 2009, as Reed sat eating on his porch on Terpsichore Street in Central City. The witnesses’ names are redacted from the court documents.
At the time, Hankton was free on $1 million bond and facing a murder charge in the 2008 killing of Reed’s friend Darnell Stewart.
Stewart was run down and thrown high into the air, then gunned down under the streetlights of South Claiborne Avenue. An Orleans Parish jury in 2011 convicted Hankton of second-degree murder in Stewart’s slaying. Hankton is now serving a life prison sentence.
A year later, Reed was fired on 50 times, and Pratt quickly secured three witnesses in the case, the reports show. One of them, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, was killed a few weeks later, allegedly at the behest of Hankton, who by then was back in jail. Pratt had been trying to convince Williams to leave town when he was killed, a report states.
Allen sat in jail for nearly three years on the murder charge before District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office dropped the count in August 2012, two months before federal prosecutors unleashed a racketeering indictment against the Hankton clan that did not name Allen.
Claim of coercion
According to the FBI reports and a May 1 letter from Polite’s office to attorneys in the Hankton case, another purported witness to Reed’s murder at first stood by his story last year that he saw a Ford Taurus pull up and watched Telly Hankton and Allen shoot and kill Reed. But the man said Pratt coerced him about identifying a third suspect, while also offering him “money and a gun” to identify a suspect in a separate drug case.
According to Polite’s office, agents in that July 2014 interview then showed the witness a binder of photographs, from which he couldn’t identify Hankton, Allen or even Reed, his cousin.
The man then returned last April for another interview with the FBI and Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Privitera, offering a revised statement: that he wasn’t there when Reed was killed and that “all of the statements” he made about the murder “were statements that Pratt instructed him to make.”
The man said Pratt took him to dinner at Houston’s restaurant on St. Charles Avenue, showed him notes and asked him to memorize them for his testimony.
“Then Pratt pointed to the picture of Edward Allen, who Pratt called ‘Skinny,’ and told (the witness) that Skinny was also involved in the murder,” the FBI report states.
The man said Pratt told him to sign the back of photo lineups to note his identification of Hankton and Allen. Pratt then gave the man a pre-paid phone to call Crimestoppers and provide the information on the murder, he told the FBI.
“Pratt told him to say that Hankton and Skinny committed the murder and that it was over drugs and a girl,” the report states. He said Pratt then took him home and handed him a manila envelope that contained “notes and pictures that Pratt wanted (him) to memorize.” He said Pratt later set those notes aflame.
Pratt also took the man to the murder scene to prime him on details of the killing, the man told the FBI. He said Pratt offered him money on several occasions and once placed a $100 bill on the table next to the lineup photographs.
He said Pratt offered him a rifle, telling him “the Hanktons were dangerous people and (he) might need the rifle for protection.” The man agreed, “and Pratt said he would need to get it from his attic, but Pratt never brought any weapons” to the man, the report states.
The man said he offered his earlier statement to the feds out of fear of criminal charges and fear of retaliation from Pratt — who was in prison at the time. Pratt, 45, remains behind bars, serving a three-year state prison sentence after pleading guilty last year to sexual battery and carnal knowledge of a juvenile.
Name expunged from record
The witness testified before a state grand jury on Oct. 15, 2009, the day an indictment was handed up accusing Hankton and Allen of first-degree murder in Reed’s killing.
Allen’s name has since been cleansed from the online court record in the case. The state murder case against Hankton for Reed’s killing was dropped. It now is contained in the federal case.
In another FBI report, from a July 2014 interview, the second living witness to identify Hankton in Reed’s murder stood by that identification and his presence at the scene, which he had reported early on to both Pratt and an FBI agent.
He told the FBI that he was in the neighborhood to meet a woman that day and had approached Reed on the porch to ensure that Reed knew he wasn’t there to further a lingering “beef” between residents of the St. Bernard housing project and Uptown street groups over the 2003 murder of rapper James Tapp, better known as Soulja Slim.
The witness said Reed was eating Chinese food on the porch with a man he later learned was Hockie Williams, when he saw Hankton open fire.
But he said he never independently identified Edward Allen as the other shooter. Instead he “was coached by Detective Pratt to identify Edward Allen,” the report says.
The man said Pratt had “helped (him) out on at least four occasions with drug charges,” and that Pratt told him he needed a favor in return.
Just how the disclosures, or any federal prosecution of Pratt, might affect the 24-count federal racketeering case against Hankton and his alleged associates is uncertain.
In a May letter to attorneys for the 13 defendants, Privitera, the federal prosecutor, insisted that “the government’s case-in-chief does not rely upon these witnesses.”
She went on to note that the indictment names Hankton and two others, Kevin Jackson and alleged hitman Walter “Urkel” Porter, in Reed’s killing.
But the details contained in the FBI reports drew a tart response from one of Allen’s attorneys. Robert Hjortsberg said Allen had told authorities from the start that Pratt was corrupt.
“Ed knew that Pratt was the root of all of this. He always said that this is all fabricated by Pratt,” he said.
Hjortsberg said there was ample evidence, including cellphone and flight records, to indicate that Allen was moving to Texas and couldn’t have been in New Orleans when Reed was killed.
“It absolutely doesn’t surprise me,” Hjortsberg said of the unsealed reports. “Pratt is probably the most dishonest, evil police officer I’ve ever encountered. Think about how many innocent people are sitting in jail right now because of cases he was involved with. I hope the feds think about that.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.