Four people who apparently claim allegiance to a black “sovereign citizen” group were arrested inside and near a Bywater house Tuesday, roughly a week after a homeowner said they moved in and occupied his property without permission.
Police said a SWAT team and State Police took part in the arrest Tuesday afternoon of three men and a woman on counts of criminal trespassing in the 3400 block of North Rampart Street. Three of them were taken into custody inside the house; one man was stopped on a bike nearby.
Fredrick Hines said the quartet had occupied his longtime vacation home without his permission.
Devin Garner, 24, and Danamaria Thornton, 18, were among those arrested. The other two squatters refused to divulge their names, police said.
Some neighbors had complained that it took days for police to act against the four.
New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said the first officer who went to the property left after the occupants showed him a fake property ownership document.
“There was no further information to suggest that it was not authentic. The officer followed police protocol,” Harrison said.
After that encounter, Harrison said, police sought the advice of the city attorney and determined the document was fraudulent.
A “no trespassing” sign posted in front of the house while the four people were living inside made reference to the “Washitah Mu’ur.”
Members of the group refused to talk to reporters, but the Southern Poverty Law Center said a Louisiana-based group called the Washitaw Nation is made up of black separatists who claim to be descended from pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America and who assert they are independent from the authority of local, state and federal laws.
Harrison said the New Orleans Police Department consulted with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI before entering the house. All four arrests were made without incident, he said.
Hines, the owner, was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and smiling broadly after the arrests. He said he was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s a beautiful thing that the police did,” he said.
He said he had been most upset by the disruption the occupiers caused to the neighborhood.
“The fear they put in my neighbors is not fair to them. It’s not fair to me. It’s not fair to any other homeowner,” Hines said. “We shouldn’t have to go through this trying to beautify the neighborhood.”
Hines lives in Inglewood, California, and bought the property before Hurricane Katrina as a vacation home. He had put the house up for sale before the four people moved in.
One neighbor said she was pleased with the arrests but frustrated that it took police so long to move. “The police refused to do anything,” said Robyn Halvorsen, a real estate agent who lives nearby.
When asked what changed to bring about the arrests Tuesday, Halvorsen said one word: “Media.” Several local media outlets had run stories about the squatters.
Harrison said he would have liked for police to be able to act instantly, but officers had to thoroughly investigate the property’s disputed ownership.
“The message is clear: No one should be able to move into someone else’s house and take it over,” Harrison said. “We’re not going to allow anybody to terrorize any citizen in this city.”