In a resounding ruling in the case of long-missing Metairie barfly Albert Bloch, a federal judge found Tuesday that former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy Mark Hebert killed Bloch in a bid to cover up an ongoing bank fraud, then stole Bloch’s TV from his apartment in one “final blow.”
U.S. District Judge Jane Triche-Milazzo found “clear and convincing evidence” that the 49-year-old ex-deputy committed second-degree murder, despite the facts that Bloch’s body never turned up and authorities never found any evidence of trauma or other sign of his demise.
Her ruling sets the stage for a Sept. 18 sentencing, at which Hebert faces a possible life term after pleading guilty in November to seven counts of fraud, identity theft and violations of Bloch’s civil rights related to the misuse of his bank card and checks.
Hebert never was charged with murder. But in a 60-count indictment handed up in March 2013, a federal grand jury found that he “did kill, or participate in conduct that caused” Bloch’s death, as part of a scheme to get Bloch’s replacement debit card and keep him from reporting the fraud.
Triche-Milazzo agreed, rejecting a handful of purported sightings of Bloch after he last used his new card at 2:13 p.m. Oct. 1, 2007, at his favorite watering hole, Joe’s Caddy Corner.
Bloch’s last true sighting, the judge found, was a day later when a patron at Joe’s saw him sitting at the end of the bar as she left. “See you tomorrow, darlin’,” he told her.
“The victim in this case, Albert Bloch, lived a hard life,” the judge said. She chronicled his ragged years, from a childhood as the youngest of eight children in a “cramped, unsanitary and occasionally violent” home with an alcoholic father, to service in Vietnam, to the death of his common-law wife in 2004 and the loss of his home in Hurricane Katrina a year later.
Bloch, himself a chronic alcoholic who drank Budweiser from morning to night, spent short periods on the street, but he had found a place to live with the help of Responsibility House. “The evidence indicates he never failed to seek help,” the judge said.
In the months before his disappearance, Bloch was drawing $2,100 per month in veterans and Social Security benefits and had just recently landed a $42,000 lump-sum settlement for past veterans benefits. He spent some of it in June 2007 on a new Saturn, which he crashed a few weeks later.
Hebert, a traffic deputy, responded to the single-vehicle accident that landed Bloch, 61, briefly in the hospital, while his wallet and cellphone ended up in Hebert’s hands.
In pleading guilty last year, Hebert admitted using Bloch’s cards and checks before and after Bloch vanished, but he refused to acknowledge any role in his disappearance, or even to concede that Bloch was missing.
Hebert charged more than $10,000 in racing-car parts, a stove, welding equipment, GPS units and other devices on Bloch’s cards and checks. He gave one GPS unit to his then-wife for her birthday, she testified last week. He told police that he had befriended Bloch, and that the older man was bankrolling his car-racing pursuits.
But federal prosecutors said Hebert grew alarmed after Bloch, out of the hospital following his wreck, spotted the fraud, canceled his debit card and got a replacement.
Hebert somehow got hold of Bloch’s checks, and he ran Bloch’s backup car, an old Volvo wagon, through a federal law enforcement database, according to testimony last week.
He also ended up with Bloch’s replacement Chase card and started charging big-ticket purchases shortly after Bloch’s last cash withdrawal at Joe’s Caddy Corner.
How Hebert got hold of the card was unclear, the judge said in her ruling. However, “There is substantial circumstantial evidence indicating Mark Hebert committed this murder,” the judge said. “I could not find a doubt to which I could assign reason.”
Without a body or a confession, “Exactly how Mark Hebert murdered Mr. Bloch we may ever know,” the judge said. But she theorized that Hebert waited for Bloch outside of Joe’s Caddy Corner late on Oct. 2, arrested him on a traffic stop, handcuffed him and took him somewhere to kill him, then drove his old Volvo wagon to a secluded parking lot. The key to the Volvo was later found in Hebert’s patrol car.
“Under all scenarios, it is clear Mark Hebert killed Albert Bloch,” Triche-Milazzo said. She said there was no persuasive evidence that Bloch, who would be 68 now and who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is alive.
“Mr. Bloch had no car, no money, no clothes, no medication, and he has not been seen by anyone despite a remarkably thorough search by both the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and the FBI,” she said.
Hebert showed no emotion during the ruling as he sat with his attorney, Davidson Ehle III, who did not comment afterward. Neither lead prosecutor Stephen Parker nor U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office would comment on the ruling.
At stake at last week’s hearing was a far higher sentence for Hebert on the counts to which he pleaded guilty. Had the judge not found by a “preponderance of the evidence” that he killed Bloch, he could have faced as little as four years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. With the judge finding that Hebert committed second-degree murder in “relevant conduct” to the fraud, he could face a sentence of more than 150 years.
A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision freed federal judges from strict sentencing guidelines and allowed them to consider a wider range of other acts without the need for a jury to find the defendants guilty of those acts beyond a reasonable doubt.
Last week’s sentencing hearing played out as a mini-murder trial, but with Triche-Milazzo needing only to find it more likely than not that Hebert killed Bloch. Parker insisted the government had in fact proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but that level of proof wasn’t required.
Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University and an expert on sentencing guidelines, said the change can lead to absurd outcomes, with the related acts far more serious than the crimes for which a defendant is convicted.
“It’s the idea that the suspicion he committed murder makes the fraud worse, makes you a really bad guy,” Weisberg said. “Or you’re jaywalking, and you knock over a nun and kill her — that makes you a really bad jaywalker.”
“ ‘Relevant conduct’ is in some ways a fancy name for the fact the sentencing guidelines allow for a fair amount of unreviewable discretion by judges, within certain limits,” he said.
Weisberg called the lower, preponderance-of-evidence standard “ridiculously easy.”
Still, such prosecutions — essentially trying a murder without the explicit charge — remain unusual, arising in just a handful of local cases, according to Polite’s office.
Hebert turned down a deal from federal prosecutors for a 25-year sentence, with the condition that he lead them to Bloch’s body.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.