Days after he questioned the U.S. Justice Department’s refusal to identify an FBI agent who fatally shot a man more than two years ago in New Orleans East, a federal magistrate on Tuesday ordered the name of the lawman be made public in a related wrongful-death lawsuit.
U.S. Magistrate Joseph Wilkinson Jr. ordered the clerk of court to unseal court filings that identified John Sablatura as the agent who fatally shot Allen Desdunes in July 2013 near the Motel 6 on the Interstate 10 Service Road.
Authorities have provided scant details about the shooting, which happened during a drug investigation involving the FBI and New Orleans Police Department.
The Justice Department previously had revealed Sablatura’s name to Desdunes’ family under the condition it not be made public. But the government changed course last week after that arrangement drew fresh scrutiny from Wilkinson, saying it no longer opposed the release of the agent’s name. Without elaborating, government lawyers said that certain circumstances that had required the secreting of Sablatura’s name under the federal Privacy Act “are no longer present.”
On Tuesday, Wilkinson canceled a protective order he approved last year that had allowed the parties in the civil case to refer to the agent in court filings as “John Doe” even as they exchanged documents containing the agent’s true name.
“This court is a public forum,” Wilkinson wrote in a three-page order. “Its record is presumptively a public record, open to view by all.”
The release of the agent’s name — more than a year into the wrongful-death litigation — came less than two weeks after The New Orleans Advocate published an article that highlighted the disparate and often seemingly arbitrary practices of area law enforcement agencies when it comes to naming officers involved in deadly shootings.
Since the article was published, St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain released the names of eight deputies and one Slidell police officer involved in a fatal shootout on the north shore last month.
And last week, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff James Pohlmann finally released the name of a deputy, Dustin Gould, who shot and wounded a man in April during a domestic disturbance in Chalmette. The man had pointed an AR-15 assault rifle at Gould, according to the Sheriff’s Office, which previously redacted Gould’s name from a report on the shooting.
Pohlmann, however, still has not released the name of the deputy who fatally shot a New Orleans man last month, citing an ongoing State Police investigation. Authorities have said the man, Tyrone Bass, attacked the deputy with a railroad spike.
In the New Orleans East case, several questions remain unanswered about a fatal shooting that Desdunes’ family contends could have been avoided. The FBI has declined to comment on the shooting and denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking further details.
At the time of his death, Desdunes apparently had been the target of a drug probe by the FBI’s gang task force, and the authorities had been monitoring the Motel 6 for drug activity.
The lawsuit alleges Sablatura and other law enforcement officers pulled into the parking lot of the motel in unmarked vehicles just as Desdunes and a second man, Terry Lane, were about to drive away. One of the law enforcement vehicles struck the front portion of Desdunes’ car, the lawsuit says, while the other “rammed his vehicle in the rear driver side portion,” causing the air bags in Desdunes’ vehicle to deploy.
Sablatura, who was not charged in the shooting, is accused of opening fire on Desdunes at close range. “Mr. Desdunes was unarmed, there were no weapons in his vehicle and he did nothing to provoke the (officers’) unjustified use of excessive and deadly force,” the lawsuit says.
Craig Betbeze, an FBI spokesman, said Wednesday that Sablatura remains “an FBI employee in good standing.” He said Sablatura “requested and received a transfer to another division (of the bureau) for reasons unrelated to this litigation.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 14, 2015, to add a comment from FBI spokesman Craig Betbeze.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.