Orleans Parish jury convicts man in 2012 stickup that left Kentucky man paralyzed _lowres

Iren Cooper

A bullet that lodged in his spine sent Mark Wright back home to Kentucky from New Orleans in late 2012, paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair for life.

After a trial that ended late Friday in Orleans Parish, the same bullet will send 24-year-old Iren Cooper to prison for 15 to 55 years.

A Criminal District Court jury found Cooper guilty of attempted murder and attempted armed robbery in the parking lot of a motel on Chef Menteur Highway.

Judge Benedict Willard set sentencing for April 19.

New Orleans detectives keyed on Cooper early on, after he arrived at Tulane Medical Center with a bullet wound through his leg, 20 minutes after an ambulance had rushed Wright, a former skydiving instructor, to Interim LSU Hospital.

Wright, now 49, said he “coded” twice, losing his heartbeat. His two children rushed to his bedside, anticipating his death.

Wright sat before the jury Wednesday, his voice quavering at times as he described a harrowing robbery attempt and shootout Oct. 19, 2012, in New Orleans East.

He said he’d left a 21-year career at Procter & Gamble Co. a few years earlier to launch a business grinding concrete slabs into stones for gravel and oyster beds.

His office was a seven-acre quarry on France Road by the Industrial Canal. Working long hours, he gravitated to Frenchmen Street and Checkpoint Charlie’s bar on his off time. He slept at Family Inns of America, an easy five-minute commute across the Danziger Bridge from the quarry.

Wright testified that he’d parked his Chevy Trailblazer that evening outside the motel and was gathering his stuff to take upstairs to his room.

“As soon as I opened my door, somebody’s standing in my peripheral vision with a gun bouncing off my head, saying, ‘Give me all the money,’ ” he said.

“I thought I was gonna get shot in the head. I thought my life was over. You hear stories about people who feel like they’re getting ready to die, what goes through your head. It’s hard to guess. But my first thought was letting my kids down, you know?”

The robber yelled again for the money, and Wright said he caught a glimpse as the man “kind of bit his lip and snarled.”

“I said, ‘I’m getting the money, getting the money.’ It was $84. It was in my wallet in my back pocket.”

The robber got anxious, he said, and snatched at the backpack that held Wright’s silver .357 Smith and Wesson revolver, which he said he kept to guard against coyotes, alligators and feral dogs at the quarry.

“I didn’t turn loose of the backpack, but I was able to get my hand on the gun. ‘Pow, pow!’ He shot me two times,” in the arm and side, he said.

Wright said he managed to fire back with his gun resting flat on his lap in the driver’s seat, sending the other man fleeing. He ran toward the rear of the vehicle, only to find his assailant on the ground, legs outstretched, shot. Wright said he turned and ran the other way, firing behind him, when he saw a white flash, then felt nothing.

“Like a split-second flash of light. I don’t know where it came from, why it happened,” he said. “EMS was (asking), ‘Can you feel this? Can you feel this?’ The answer was always no.”

That was “the last time I took a step,” Wright said.

“Never walked a day after that?” Assistant District Attorney Reed Poole asked.

“I never will.”

As Wright fell into a coma, prosecutors said, Cooper was telling police at Tulane Medical Center that he’d just been victimized by an armed robber near Mandeville and North Derbigny streets, according to a recording played in court Friday.

Grudgingly, after first invoking his right to silence, he told an elaborate story about chasing a girl and getting caught up in a robbery.

Elements of his story — including that his supposed assailant said, ‘Give me all the money’ — matched what Wright would tell police about the man who shot him. Cooper, in describing his supposed assailant, was talking about himself, Poole argued.

Detectives said they turned up Cooper’s DNA on droplets of blood more than a block from the scene of Wright’s shooting and, more recently, found his skin cells on a hat recovered alongside the vehicle.

“That man is no victim. He’s a coward. He’s a damn near killer. He’s a robber,” said Poole, who prosecuted the case alongside Assistant District Attorneys Kevin Guillory and Arthur Mitchell.

“He’s so guilty as charged, it’s gleaming. It’s so abundantly clear.”

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office charged Cooper in a bill of information five months after the botched stickup.

Cooper’s attorney, Mimi Van Horn, argued that police planted evidence to bolster their theory of him as the shooter.

Wright never identified Cooper in a photo lineup, instead pointing to another man, and Van Horn said police took a swab of Cooper’s DNA without his consent, made their case fit the theory and lied about it. She described a “blue wall of silence” at play.

“We all know from the moment they got the call from the hospital that somebody was there for a gunshot wound, everybody is looking at Mr. Cooper. Easy, open and shut. No ‘48 Hours.’ No big deal. He’s making a lineup by midnight that night,” she said.

The jury disagreed, deliberating for about 2½ hours before finding Cooper guilty as charged.

Van Horn told the judge that Cooper had considered pleading guilty but decided that the sentence prosecutors had offered him — 30 years — was too much to give up his rights to appeal a conviction.

Wright, who said he started working in Kentucky tobacco fields as a teenager, described a feeling of terror at the lack of feeling in his body when the bullet lodged in his spine.

“Somebody who worked since they were 14 years old. I never asked anything from anybody. I didn’t have to,” he said. But now, “I was helpless as a newborn baby.”

The slug remains there, he said.

“About three inches above my nipple line is the only feeling I have,” he said.

After a lengthy hospital stay and several surgeries, Wright said, he headed back to Lexington.

“There was nothing there for me anymore in New Orleans,” he said.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.