You could forgive the people of Grand Isle for becoming fatalistic.
There have been several drownings there this year, and if the number of recent arrests is any indication, there is a serious drug problem.
Rock-bottom oil prices have hurt business on this barrier island of fishing camps and vacation rentals. People in the local seafood industry insist the BP oil spill has something to do with the shrimp they’ve been catching, which they say are smaller than they’ve ever seen.
On the town’s Wikipedia page, the section titled “history” is actually just a list of hurricanes that have threatened to wash the whole place out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Lately, it is the town’s miniature Police Department that seems to have run into no end of trouble.
Back in March, the department was raided by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which suspected some of the local cops were interfering with drug investigations. Cash and marijuana from the evidence room turned out to be missing. Then this month, the sheriff arrested three of the department’s six officers and booked them on counts ranging from malfeasance to extortion.
In the middle of all this, the department’s No. 2 cop accidentally ran over a sunbather on the beach.
Among islanders, the reaction seems to fall somewhere between embarrassed and bemused. One particular detail that emerged from the sheriff’s raid seems to have really tickled the locals.
“You heard they were keeping the key to the cash box in a barbecue pit?” asked Mark Andollina, a retired car salesman from Metairie who owns a hotel on the beach.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said, grinning. “It’s that kind of place.”
Shelly Jambon, who owns the Sureway Supermarket down the street, put a sign on one of the barbecue pits she has for sale out front: “Price reduced. Keys not included.” Everyone’s been coming by to take pictures with it.
Jambon has lived in Grand Isle since she moved there with her father in 1976. She’s been through ups and downs in the local economy: the oil companies shedding workers in favor of new technology; Port Fourchon, a half-hour drive down La. 1, booming into a busy hub for offshore drilling rigs; and more recently, the collapse of the oil patch.
Jambon sat in the front office at the supermarket the other day next to two enormous TV screens full of live surveillance feeds from around the building, complaining about the local police force. She said drugs have been a problem, and fishing camps are getting broken into. “It’s supposed to be a safe place to raise your children,” she said.
The town’s police chief, Euris DuBois, has not been allowed to set foot in Jambon’s store for eight years, which must be tough because it is the only grocery on the island. She did not go into details about exactly how the chief crossed her, but she said it had something to do with members of his family vandalizing her store and getting away with it.
The story seems to get to the heart of the matter on Grand Isle. This is a town with the population of a typical high school, tethered to the rest of the state by a two-lane highway that covers a good deal of open water.
The line between the cops and the residents they police is sometimes vague. As Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand complained after the raid in March: “Everybody knows everybody; everybody’s related to everybody.”
It’s been a recurring problem. There was the time in 1998 when the former police chief was accused of beating two suspects in his custody after they got in a fight with his sister. And the occasion in 2003 when a sergeant was accused — though ultimately acquitted — of settling a bar fight some of his relatives had been involved in by tracking down the other man and shooting him to death outside his family’s home.
Just this year the town settled a lawsuit brought by an anonymous mother who said DuBois intentionally botched a child molestation case because the suspect and the suspect’s stepson, who is also Grand Isle’s mayor, David Camardelle, are both close friends of his.
A former sergeant who worked for DuBois, Stacey Eschete, gave a sworn statement in the case which did not reflect well on the department. During her entire tenure on the force, about six years, “we did not have an operations manual,” she said. DuBois, she said, wasn’t much help. “If I had questions about police procedure,” she said, “Chief DuBois could not answer them ... and seemed to have no training to be a police officer.”
DuBois, who is scheduled to leave office next month, declined to be interviewed. “I’ve already said enough,” he explained.
His department’s recent collision with the Sheriff’s Office has to do with the drug problem that has cropped up over the past few years. Normand has been looking into drug dealing on the island since 2014. Among the dozens of suspects he has arrested have been the head of the island’s volunteer fire company and one of his firefighters.
And though he’s been stingy with details, the sheriff hinted at a news conference after the raid that some of the local cops have been more of a hindrance than a help. Normand’s spokesman, Col. John Fortunato, would not elaborate on the charges brought against three of Grand Isle’s police officers, saying it might endanger an ongoing investigation on the island.
But most people here seem to expect another shoe will drop at some point.
Dean Blanchard, owner of Dean Blanchard Seafood Inc. on the bay side of the island, has an inkling that the sheriff just wanted to question the men and see who might be interfering with his undercover operations. Blanchard sat in his office the other day, smoking a cigarette while an “Andy Griffith Show” rerun played silently and men outside unloaded several tons worth of shrimp and redfish into waiting trucks.
Blanchard blames nearly all the town’s woes on BP. He’s been a fisherman all his life — his parents put him in “a shrimp box, not a cradle” — and he said the shrimp he’s catching lately are half the size they should be.
On top of that, Blanchard said, all the cash BP has been pumping through local communities as a part of the cleanup and restitution has caused the drug problem to explode. “It used to be guys had a drug habit, but they would run out of money and had to go back to work,” he said. So a few years ago, he buttonholed Normand at Grand Isle’s annual tarpon rodeo and pleaded with him to do something about it.
He doesn’t blame DuBois for letting the problem get out of hand, given the resources of such a small department. “It’s slim pickings,” he said. “Not many people who grow up in New York say, ‘I want to move to Grand Isle and be a policeman.’ ”
Still, he’s optimistic about DuBois’ replacement, Laine Landry, who owns a gas station on the island. “He’s the kind of guy who can work with Newell,” he said, referring to the sheriff, whereas DuBois “maybe thought that Newell was trying to hurt him.”