Edie Triche leapt up from her seat in the back row of a courtroom in Edgard and ran outside. She looked up to the sky, and she screamed.
For hours, for days on end, she had sat there, listening to dozens of witnesses recount how her son, St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Triche, was shot dead at a LaPlace trailer park last summer.
But in that one moment, as she heard how he’d tried to run from assault-rifle fire, Edie Triche was broken by grief.
Her whole world had changed that day, Aug. 16, 2012, a date that will be forever seared into the parish’s collective memory.
It wasn’t yet dawn, and two deputies, Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche, both fathers and husbands, lay dead in the gravel of the Scenic Riverview Mobile Home Park in LaPlace. Two other deputies were grievously injured.
In the year since the shooting, the wounded deputies have returned home from the hospital, but with permanent disabilities and constant reminders of the horrors they faced that morning.
The widows of the two dead, strangers before, have become best friends. They call each other nearly every day, to cry, or to shout, or to lament all of the things that their husbands have missed: birthdays and first fishing trips; dance recitals and skinned knees.
“You wouldn’t think it would take an entire year to realize that he’s never coming home,” said Nielsen’s wife, Daniell. “It’s unbelievable that it’s been a year. Sometimes it feels like I saw him last week. Sometimes it feels like forever.”
The community continues to mourn with them; a ceremony marking the anniversary is scheduled for Friday.
The details of the shootings have been pieced together through a half-dozen hearings and testimony from other officers, the killers’ accomplices and innocents who witnessed some of the events.
But the families still struggle to comprehend what might have provoked a group of strangers to gun down four good men. There is just one word they all can come up with: evil.
As they sat in jail cells for a year, the family accused in the killings have written various manifestos maintaining their allegiance as Sovereign Citizens, a loose but volatile group of anti-government extremists. They are described by the FBI as domestic terrorists and their encounters with authority, particularly police, routinely turn violent.
“They proclaim me anti-government. Bitch, I’m a Sovereign Citizen,” one of the accused wrote in a rap found scribbled on the back of a police report in his jail cell.
“You approach me ya better be ready to get in, to wear a badge is a sin, you will be put to death, my bullets cuttin through ya vest.”
Seven people were originally charged in the massacre.
Avowed Sovereign Citizen Terry Smith had inculcated his deep distrust in government with his two sons, Brian and Derrick. The Smith family, originally from northern Louisiana, has stuck together, moving from state to state, trailer park to trailer park, picking up jobs as welders and day laborers at construction sites. Terry Smith’s wife, Chanel Skains, and Brian Smith’s girlfriend, Britney Keith, traveled with them.
In Tennessee, months before the shooting in LaPlace, they met a like-minded Nebraska outlaw named Kyle Joekel, who’d fled his home state in a high-speed chase after threatening to kill any cop who tried to control him.
Joekel and the Smith family had a few things in common: both were on the run from the law, and both shared a profound hatred for law enforcement.
Brian Smith and Joekel would months later become the accused gunmen in the LaPlace killings.
But prosecutors suggest in court filings that the family had planned to slaughter officers long before they moved into the back of the LaPlace trailer park.
Derrick Smith, during one of his many prior incarcerations, wrote his brother a letter from jail. “Dad said he wanted to go to war with the police, well I’m gona see if he bout that,” he scribbled. “I aint got nothing to live for any more, so I’m gona take everyone to hell with me. I found out where my old P.O. lives. I’m gona get his wife and kids, let him live in pain.”
That letter, found in one of the sons’ trailers after the LaPlace massacre, has become evidence in the case against them. Prosecutors point to it as proof that the father not only knew of his son’s murderous intentions, but encouraged them.
Of the seven charged, only three still await trial.
One, 22-year-old Teniecha Bright, was released from custody when authorities decided she was telling the truth — she’d merely hitched a ride home with the Smith clan and got caught in the fray.
The two other women, Skains and Keith, have pleaded guilty as accessories and agreed to testify against their former family.
And Derrick Smith, too, pleaded guilty as an accessory and agreed to a five-year sentence, plus a 12-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He is scheduled to be paroled in June 2017, according to the Department of Corrections.
He showed less remorse than the women. “5 years for fillin a cop full of lead, no evidence only he said she said,” he wrote in the rap deputies found in his jail cell. “Looked at the DA with a smile on my face, now I’m sittin here waiting to catch my next murder case. Only gota do 5 so I’ll be straight. Goin home on parole but I’m leavin the state.”
His father, Terry, remains charged as principal to attempted first-degree murder.
Brian Smith and Joekel, the two accused shooters, are each charged with capital murder, facing the possibility of execution if convicted.
Edie Triche has taken her place in the back row of the courtroom each and every time they appear for a hearing. If she got too close, she said, she’s not sure of what she might do.
“All I can do is stare them down,” she said. “They’ll get what they deserve — if it’s the death penalty, if it’s life in prison. Either way, I’ll never have my son back.”
The shooting last summer began with a scene reminiscent of other violent episodes involving Sovereign Citizens. Terry Smith refused to carry a driver’s license. Sovereigns espouse a complicated conspiracy theory, involving a federal government that enslaves its citizens, tricking them into signing away their freedom on licenses and Social Security cards.
He’d trained his boys to believe the same, according to testimony.
The Smith family, along with Joekel, were working the graveyard shift for a contractor at a Valero refinery. They were leaving the employee parking lot before dawn on Aug. 16, 2012, when an off-duty St. John the Baptist Parish deputy, working a detail at the lot, tried to pull Terry Smith over. He asked for Smith’s driver’s license.
And the routine morning quickly turned to chaos.
Smith gunned his truck, kicking up dust, and sped away. The officer gave chase. Brian Smith, described by his loved ones as a a paranoid schizophrenic, allegedly pointed an AK-47 out of the window of the car and fired at the deputy in pursuit.
Deputy Michael Scott Boyington was hit four times with high-velocity rounds, twice in the arm and twice in the sides. Smith, meanwhile, fled to the nearby trailer park where the family had been staying.
Edie Triche lives in a house 100 yards from that trailer park. Her son called her, she said. He told her that an officer had been shot nearby and to stay inside.
He was going out to the trailer park, he told her.
Jeremy Triche soon arrived there with deputies Brandon Nielsen, Jason Triche and Anthony Bullock. Jeremy and Jason Triche are not related.
The group scuffled with Kyle Joekel, eventually pinning him to the ground and handcuffing his arms behind his back, according to testimony.
Bright, hiding in a bathroom, heard someone outside scream: “Help! Brian! Kill them all!”
Brian Smith carried his assault rifle to the trailer’s front door and looked out, his girlfriend, Britney Keith, testified at a hearing. He handed her a pistol.
“You shoot, too,” he told her.
“Please don’t do this,” she said she implored him. “Just run.”
But Brian Smith opened the door, stepped out and started firing.
Edie Triche heard the shots. She knew her son was there. She screamed. She waited by the phone for him to call. He never did.
As Keith described that moment during a hearing in May, Edie Triche could take no more.
Keith told the court that one officer fell quickly, and another tried to run for cover.
The latter, Edie Triche knew, was her son. He had been afraid. He had tried to run when they cut him down.
“That destroyed me,” she said.
Jeremy Triche and Brandon Nielsen were both killed. Jason Triche was shot through the back, but survived.
Neither Jason Triche nor Michael Boyington are expected ever to be able to return to their work in law enforcement.
Boyington, who’d worked four years with the Sheriff’s Office, lost count of the number of surgeries he underwent. Maybe seven, maybe eight, he testified.
Jason Triche, an 11-year veteran of the department, recalled from the witness stand how he found his way, bleeding, to a patrol car. He drove himself to the hospital, radioing in his location along the way. He felt himself growing weak, breathing in cold air.
“I told them over the radio, I said I don’t know if I will make it,” he said.
But he did. He spent two weeks at the hospital, then a month in a medically induced coma.
He woke up to learn all he’d lost. “That’s when I realized I don’t have a gall bladder anymore, a spleen,” he said at a hearing. “My right kidney was gone. And then that’s when I realized I was on dialysis. And that’s when I realized that Jeremy Triche passed away in the incident. And Brandon Nielsen.”
Edie Triche still catches herself waiting for her 27-year-old son to walk through the door. He stopped by often, just to say hello, drink a Coke and snack on a Hershey bar. It took months before she stopped buying his favorite treats. He was married to Misty Triche, and they had a toddler together named Kade, who just turned 3.
“Jeremy has missed all the everyday things, tucking him into bed, teaching him how to fish. Kade doesn’t have that anymore,” she said. “When he comes here, we talk about his father. We go through pictures. He will remember his dad.”
Dozens of family and fellow officers pack the back rows of the courtroom whenever the Smiths and Joekel are set to appear.
But Daniell Nielsen tries to avoid the hearings. She likes to remember the things she loved about her husband — how he changed the words to songs to make her laugh while they drove in the car, how he made funny faces when his picture was taken, how much he loved his two daughters and three stepsons.
“We were a team,” she said. “He was my best friend.”
The only part of him she wants to forget is how he died.
She doesn’t go to every hearing, so she can manage to get up in the morning and be strong for their youngest daughter, now getting ready to start third grade.
“I’m all she’s got now. I’ve got to be strong, I’ve got to take care of us, give her the sense of security we had when he was here,” she said. “That’s all on me now. And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else.”
She has woken up 359 mornings without him.
But all the firsts have now passed for her: the first Christmas, first birthdays, the first days of school, graduations, the first Thanksgiving alone. She hopes that now, without the constant tide of milestones, she might finally find some peace.