Mark Heberthad one last chance to take a deal: 25 years in federal prison, as long as he produced Albert Bloch.
The former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy declined, so testimony began Monday in an unusual hearing in which federal prosecutors want Hebert to pay for a killing that nobody can be certain ever happened.
What they do know, as Hebert admitted in a November guilty plea, is that the traffic-control deputy bought racing car parts, GPS units and other high-priced gear using Bloch’s bank card and checks, before and after the Metairie barfly vanished after a last trip to the ATM at his favorite watering hole, Joe’s Caddy Corner, on Oct. 1, 2007.
During searches of Hebert’s home, his car and a storage shed, authorities found the purchased items, along with Bloch’s driver’s license, receipts and bank statements. But they never found Bloch, or any evidence of trauma.
At stake for Hebert is a prison term that could range from less than four years for his admitted crimes to as much as life in prison if U.S. District Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo agrees that he’s responsible for Bloch’s death.
Federal prosecutors never charged Hebert with Bloch’s murder. But in a 60-count indictment last year, a federal grand jury said the former deputy “did kill, or participate in conduct that caused” Bloch’s death, as part of a scheme to wrest a replacement bank card that Bloch had ordered and to keep from getting caught for his fraud.
Hebert pleaded guilty to seven of the felony counts related to the allegations, but he refused to admit to murder or even acknowledge that Bloch went missing.
According to testimony at Hebert’s sentencing hearing Monday from family members and others, Bloch was a Vietnam veteran and chronic alcoholic who had gone homeless after a one-two punch: the loss of his common-law wife in 2004 then Hurricane Katrina a year later.
The former printer was living off Social Security, veterans’ benefits and a lump-sum settlement, staying alone in a trash-strewn apartment near the Oakwood Mall, in housing provided by Responsibility House, a homeless-services group.
“He was not a neat freak,” testified Bloch’s caseworker, Brenda Lewis.
Bloch’s estranged older brother put it less gently, describing the scene he came upon when he was called in to handle his brother’s affairs after his disappearance.
“What he left behind was just a lot of garbage piled up in the corners, stuff scattered all over the kitchen. Very unsanitary,” Vernon Bloch said. “Just exactly the way we grew up.”
Bloch, 61, had a history of arrests for driving under the influence. He drank beer from morning to night but never to the point of stumbling, said his daughter-in-law, Bridgett Saylor.
Days before Bloch’s last ATM withdrawal at Joe’s Caddy Corner, caseworkers with Responsibility House paid him a visit. Bloch told them “he was depressed and said that it may be due to the death of his wife in 2004. Case manager asked (if) he had any intention of hurting himself. He said that he did not now have that desire nor has he ever,” their case notes read.
Bloch had money in the bank, and he’d proudly bought a new Saturn sedan in June 2007, which he promptly rolled in a single-vehicle crash in the early morning of Aug. 2.
Hebert was the lead investigator on the scene. As Bloch headed for the hospital, Hebert took his wallet and, according to court records, went to town.
A racing car enthusiast, he bought pricey car parts on Bloch’s bank account and often withdrew cash from ATM machines while punching the clock as a traffic cop.
The crooked purchases and withdrawals — including a gas grill, an impact wrench and a stove he would later remove to a storage locker — started hours after Hebert responded to Bloch’s accident and continued steadily for the next two months, including fraudulent activity on a replacement card sent after Bloch reported phony charges to the bank about a week after the wreck.
Hebert transferred more than $10,000 from Bloch’s savings to his checking account, draining the former and loading up on cash withdrawals and purchases, according to bank documents and the “factual basis” behind his guilty plea. At the same time, in some cases, he was filling up his tank on his Sheriff’s Office gas card.
During a search of Hebert’s father’s home in St. Tammany Parish, investigators found some race car products hidden under a pile of leaves in a nearby wooded area.
Hebert paid more than $1,300 for a pair of GPS units at a Circuit City store in Covington on Bloch’s card. He gave his wife of 22 years one of the devices for her birthday.
Now divorced, Diane Matherne testified that when detectives were headed to search the house, Hebert called ahead. He said he had hidden several driver’s licenses culled from his years of police work in a shed and wanted them gone. She ditched them in a wooded area across the street.
“A lot of times if he brought one home and I asked, he’d say, ‘They forgot to get their license back,’ ” she testified.
“A lot of forgetful people,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Parker quipped.
Before signing on with Jefferson Parish in 1998, Hebert held a few other law enforcement jobs that ended badly. He started out with the Covington Police Department before moving to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office for a pay raise, but he was asked to leave that job for double-dipping on an off-duty detail, she testified.
He later joined the Folsom police but left there “because he started doing some kind of undercover work with Wildlife and Fisheries (on) night hunting, got a little obsessed with it” and got caught while himself illegally hunting, she said.
He was demoted from sergeant in Jefferson Parish after keeping a gun turned over for safety by a resident during Hurricane Katrina.
Hebert was obsessive, she said, first with bodybuilding then with race cars. Matherne said she wondered how he got all the money for the new stuff. After authorities searched the house, she asked him about Bloch.
He said “that he was friends with this man and that this man was, like, going to be a sponsor for him for his racing, so he had given (Hebert) some credit cards,” Matherne said. “He said the man was very nice, and the man would meet him at the coffee shop on his night shift, and he liked to talk to him.”
Hebert nodded slightly from the defense table. He had a shaggy, salt-and-pepper beard and long hair pulled back in a pony tail. He wore orange jail scrubs, and the judge allowed him to be free of shackles so he could take notes.
He was arrested at his Covington home in December 2007 on suspicion of burglarizing the Ford pickup of another man he had arrested in Jefferson Parish. Investigators picked up the connection to Bloch’s disappearance only after looking into that burglary, along with a theft from Ray Brandt Infiniti in Metairie.
Hebert was charged in 2008 with various thefts from at least three people in Jefferson. He pleaded guilty to simple burglary and two counts of malfeasance in office. He also was convicted of obstructing justice, access-device fraud and possession of stolen property in St. Tammany in 2009.
Retired Jefferson Parish sheriff’s Maj. Kenneth Meynard, who oversaw the investigation, said detectives believe Bloch was killed shortly after his card was used for the last time, at 2:13 p.m. Oct. 1, 2007, at Joe’s Caddy Corner.
Bloch had been out of the hospital and driving his backup vehicle, a 1995 Volvo. Police later found it in a tow yard, where it had been taken after sitting for weeks about three blocks from Bloch’s house. The license plate had been removed and the vehicle identification number obscured.
Detectives found a window broken and, inside, a note that referred to a popular off-duty detail for Coca-Cola, with a number for the deputy who coordinated the detail, Meynard said.
Hebert’s attorney, Davidson Ehle III, suggested that detectives dismissed far too readily some reported sightings of Bloch after his supposed disappearance, by a half-dozen people who claimed they had spotted him. Most were fellow bar-dwellers.
“These were not just strangers plucked from the street. These were folks who had seen Albert Bloch before and knew who he was, correct?” Ehle asked Meynard.
“Yes,” Meynard replied, adding that several later recanted.
A Responsibility House caseworker, Jeremy Horn, reported Bloch missing in November after several unreturned phone calls and visits to Bloch’s empty apartment. Horn said he left notes for Bloch that he later found gone, along with a TV.
“The television was gone, which did stick out,” Horn testified. “I don’t know if I was concerned or just relieved that somebody was coming in and out of the apartment, (thinking) hopefully it was Albert.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.