Robert Sonnier just wanted to tell the world about Jesus.
For at least 10 years, the devout Catholic and Loreauville native had experienced religious visions. The visions didn’t bother him so much as keep him entertained, according to his family.
On disability, Sonnier, 62, spent much of his time in the pews at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church or whittling wooden crosses and angels, fretting over those who didn’t believe in God.
“He liked to go to church when there was nobody there,” Barbara Sonnier, his wife, testified. “Sit down in the mornings and just — by himself.”
That all changed one day in early May 2011, when Sonnier phoned KATC-TV in Lafayette to suggest they send a crew to St. Joseph’s Church that Sunday. He said he had a vision that Jesus’ shadow would appear.
Sharing his premonition cost Sonnier dearly. First, it landed him behind bars. Within three weeks, the father of three was dead from a traumatic brain injury inflicted by an untrained Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputy.
Since 2005, at least eight people have died in the custody of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office — in its jail or after an arrest — according to records compiled by The Advocate. Seven of those who died were inmates. At least two of those seven suffered from mental illness.
One was Sonnier. The other was Michael Jones, who died in 2009 after an altercation with the corrections staff. Last March, a judge ruled that two Sheriff’s Office employees, including former warden Wesley Hayes — who allegedly sat on Jones to subdue him — were responsible for his death.
Sonnier’s death has received comparatively little attention. The family settled its case against the Sheriff’s Office for $450,900, but confidentiality agreements prevent them from discussing it. However, public records, transcripts and other documents tell a disturbing story of how Sonnier died. Taken together, the deaths of Jones and Sonnier raise pointed questions about how the Iberia Sheriff’s Office cares for mentally ill inmates.
It’s a problem facing wardens across the country. Designed for short-term stays, jails hold mostly pretrial detainees and inmates sentenced for minor crimes. In Louisiana, though, they often play host to longer stints as well: Sheriffs hold state and federal prisoners at fixed daily rates.
Jails and prisons are not equipped to treat the mentally ill, said Dr. Richard Lamb, professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California Medical School, but they increasingly have no choice.
“It used to be if you were mentally ill, you would be in a hospital,” Lamb said. “As the hospitals emptied out, there were fewer and fewer beds, so people who had a mental illness, and who had anything disruptive or antisocial, began to be put in jails and prisons.”
A 2006 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated 64 percent of jail inmates had mental health problems. One 2009 study estimated that rates of serious mental illness are up to six times higher among inmates than in the general population.
In an interview with The Advocate, Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal acknowledged that his staff is ill-equipped to handle such people.
“I don’t think any jail should have to house a mental patient,” Ackal said. “We’re not psychiatrists. We’re not psychologists.”
Booked with terrorizing
After Sonnier reported his vision to KATC, a station employee called the Sheriff’s Office to report that Sonnier had told the station it would be “worthwhile” to have cameras at the church.
That night, about 10 p.m., four deputies arrived at Sonnier’s home. Built like a fireplug at 5-foot-5 and 190 pounds, Sonnier had had two heart attacks, several back and neck surgeries, and a stroke. He used a cane. His daily medications included Lortab, a painkiller, and Xanax, for anxiety, among others.
“They told me that they were just going to question him and they would bring him back,” his wife, Barbara, said in a deposition.
But by 5 a.m. the next day, her husband had been booked with terrorizing.
Barbara went to the jail to deliver his medication, but officials told her Lortab and Xanax were banned.
Later that day, according to a report by State Trooper Katie Morel, who investigated his death in 2011, Sonnier fretted he was having another heart attack. Jail medical staff found nothing wrong with him.
Barbara testified that her husband called that day. “He talked for a little while and told me he was all right and not to worry,” she said. “And that’s all he said, because he started crying, and he hung up.”
His condition worsened. On May 9, Sonnier complained of chest pain and shortness of breath. He was taken to the Iberia Medical Center and later discharged back to the jail. The next day, Barbara authorized a psychiatric evaluation at a nearby facility, ordered by 16th Judicial District Judge Keith Comeaux, who would not reduce Sonnier’s $10,000 cash bond.
The evaluation never took place. The facility was full. And that afternoon, Sonnier was sent to the hospital again. His medical records are redacted for privacy reasons. But doctors discharged him back to jail.
There, according to Morel’s interviews, correctional officers set him in a wheelchair in the jail’s booking area.
By 5:30 p.m., Sonnier had urinated and defecated on himself. Deputies said he refused to shower, and they left him there. About midnight, Lt. Camellia Prince instructed deputies to wheel Sonnier into another room where staff could easily watch him.
By 3 a.m. on May 11, Sonnier — still stewing in his own waste — had become agitated, and he began slamming his wheelchair into the door.
Deputies rushed in, and Deputy Adam Fitch said he ordered Sonnier to move back. Sonnier refused. Fitch then said he tried to take Sonnier down to handcuff him. Prince called for backup. Sonnier grabbed at Fitch’s radio and screamed for help, Fitch later told Morel.
Then Sgt. Eric Blanchard blasted Sonnier with pepper spray. The officers took the wheelchair, leaving Sonnier lying on the floor, his head tucked into his coveralls. Audio and video recordings show officers complaining about Sonnier’s soiled state, calling him “s***ty.”
Later on, one deputy said: “The thing with people like that is, you know, what do you do with ’em?”
The fatal blow
Thirty minutes after his run-in with deputies, Sonnier was still lying on the floor. Corrections staff tried to lift him, but he resisted and was pepper-sprayed again.
According to Blanchard, Sonnier then “exploded” and lurched at Fitch.
“I just wanted to stop him,” Fitch told Morel. “I’m a big guy. With his momentum onward and me pushing him back and it being slippery, with the spray and the feces and the blood all over the floor, it made for a bad situation already.”
The blow that killed Sonnier was simple — an open-palm strike to the chest. As he fell backward, Sonnier slipped on the excrement and chemicals. His head slammed audibly against the concrete wall. An officer told Prince, “You need to call an ambulance. He’s out cold.”
Audio reveals minutes passing as officers curse. “Motherf***er,” one said. “Should have punched the f*** out of him. I didn’t even think. I just tried to grab him.”
When Sonnier awoke, officers told Morel, he begged for death. That morning, he was airlifted to a hospital in New Orleans, but doctors told his family he would simply bleed from the brain until he passed away.
In her deposition, Barbara Sonnier said that when she saw her husband at the hospital, he was covered in bruises. She kissed him on the forehead, and her lips burned. It was the pepper spray.
“I said, ‘Rob, what happened?’ And all he told me was, ‘Big boy body-slammed me.’ And that’s all.”
The Sheriff’s Office, according to Ackal, does not keep records of how many inmates or arrestees have died in its custody. The Iberia Parish Coroner’s Office releases records of any inmates it determines have died from an in-custody accident, homicide or suicide.
But Sonnier was not listed in records released to The Advocate, because when an inmate’s injuries are serious enough to warrant transfer to a hospital, the warden can ask a judge to release him or her from custody.
That’s what happened with Robert Sonnier: When he died on May 30, 2011, he was a free man.
No crime found
In her final report on the case, Morel, of the State Police, noted that Sonnier had acted aggressively that night and concluded that Fitch “pushed back on Sonnier to move him out of his personal space for safety reasons and to stop his aggression.”
Her report raised no questions about Fitch’s lack of training or why jail staff had left Sonnier to sit in his own excrement.
Capt. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman, said the investigation was limited to determining criminal intent. “It wasn’t the scope of our investigation to review the policy, procedure or administrative issues within the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.
Morel also was tasked with investigating the death of Victor White, who was fatally shot in March 2014 while handcuffed in the back of an Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office patrol car. His death, ruled a suicide by the coroner, received national attention.
Morel’s probe into White’s death has not yet been released, as a parallel federal investigation is ongoing.
Ackal admits the Sheriff’s Office has problems caring for the mentally ill, but he said his staff is doing the best it can with a nearly impossible problem.
The sheriff also believes families bear some responsibility.
“When something happens, it’s our fault,” he said. “Where is the family? Where were you when he needed you?”
In the meantime, the Sheriff’s Office is taking corrective measures. For instance, under a new contract, the jail has medical staff on-site 24 hours a day, Ackal said. Until recently, the jail had one psychiatrist working two hours a week.
“We take every death in custody seriously,” said Richard Hazelwood, Ackal’s chief deputy. “If there’s something that we did, that we contributed to, we’re going to take whatever action we have to take to make sure that it doesn’t happen.”
But officials seem unable to explain certain lapses, such as why Fitch, who still works at the jail, was not trained for two years. Correctional staff are supposed to receive six weeks of training.
Ackal sought to shift some of the blame to Hayes, the former warden turned whistleblower.
“Who’s responsible for seeing that people were trained?” Ackal asked rhetorically. “Me, ultimately. Why didn’t the warden say, ‘Hey, this guy has been here for two years and he hasn’t had any training?’ ”
In an email to The Advocate, Doral Ransonet, Sonnier’s daughter, said there are many “unanswered questions” in her father’s case. “That so many departments of authority can look at these cases and find no wrongdoing is beyond my comprehension,” she said.
Advocate staff writers Jim Mustian and Richard Burgess contributed to this report.