An imprisoned former New Orleans Police Department homicide detective repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination Friday at a hearing on allegations that he steered a wounded witness to identify a cousin of Uptown crime kingpin Telly Hankton as the witness’ assailant.
Desmond Pratt, who played a key role in the investigation of Hankton for several killings — including a 2008 murder that landed Hankton a life prison term — took the witness stand and promptly refused to answer questions, beginning with what year he started working in the NOPD’s Homicide Division.
“At this time, with the advice of my counsel, I’m going to plead my Fifth Amendment rights,” Pratt said for the first of nine times.
U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman then denied attorneys for Thomas “Squirt” Hankton a chance to question Pratt about allegations that he coached witnesses in several cases and once offered cash and a rifle to a witness who provided information on a different murder tied to Telly Hankton.
The allegations have turned the former detective into a target of a federal civil rights probe that is ongoing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Privitera said Friday.
Pratt is serving a three-year prison stint after pleading guilty in early 2014 to sexual battery and carnal knowledge of a juvenile.
Meanwhile, his allegedly dirty police work has caused trouble for federal prosecutors as they prepare for a June trial for Telly Hankton, Thomas Hankton and 11 other family members and associates in a federal gang racketeering case alleging bloodshed and drug crimes spanning decades.
Central to the indictment are four killings and an attempted killing allegedly committed by Telly Hankton, or at his behest, against rivals or witnesses who stepped forward to identify him.
Former NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley was the first to label Hankton as New Orleans’ “most dangerous” criminal, relying in no small part on a narrative built by Pratt.
Hankton was convicted in 2011 in the brazen murder of Darnell Stewart on South Claiborne Avenue in 2008. A year after that killing, while free on $1 million bond, he was accused of gunning down a Stewart associate, Jessie “TuTu” Reed, on Terpsichore Street in Central City.
Pratt was assigned to both cases, and he reported three witnesses had identified Hankton in Reed’s murder. One of them, Hasan “Hockie” Williams, was killed two weeks later in what authorities describe as a hit ordered by Hankton, who by then was back behind bars.
The two other witnesses who identified Hankton and another man, Edward “Skinny” Allen, in Reed’s killing now claim Pratt coerced their identifications — at least that of Allen, who spent nearly three years in jail before prosecutors dropped the murder charge against him.
At issue Friday was whether Pratt’s alleged corruption extended to the identification of Thomas Hankton as one of two gunmen who blasted their way into the New Orleans East home of daiquiri shop owner John Matthews in October 2010.
Matthews was the star eyewitness who had identified Telly Hankton as the man who stood over Darnell Stewart and fired into his face outside Jazz Daiquiris, a shop Matthews owned at South Claiborne and Louisiana avenues.
Matthews would survive the gun attack to testify at Hankton’s trial, leading to his conviction for murder. Within a week of Hankton’s sentencing, someone fatally shot Matthews’ brother, Curtis Matthews, in front of the daiquiri store. Prosecutors claim it was a retaliatory strike by alleged hit man Walter Porter.
On the witness stand Friday, Matthews described a harrowing scene at his home on Oct. 23, 2010, when a blast ripped through his front door and he was struck by numerous shotgun pellets before another assailant fired on him numerous times.
He said he looked up from the floor and saw a man standing in the doorway, holding a shotgun. The man was “round-faced, good-looking dresser, well-manicured. He was just neat-looking.”
Except he wore a sneer.
“He piped, ‘I missed your bitch-ass Wednesday,’ ” Matthews said. “I listened to him while he piped and sang his little song, and I measured him against the door. ... He dropped his eyes to drop another shell in the shotgun. I raised up, and I was able to fire one shot” from his derringer double-barrel pistol, sending the man running and yelling.
As Matthews spent several weeks in the hospital, Pratt came around with photos. Matthews said he twice identified Thomas Hankton as the man with the shotgun.
“I’ll remember him the rest of my life,” Matthews said.
But Seth Shute, a former Orleans Parish prosecutor who tried Telly Hankton for Stewart’s murder, described joining Pratt on a hospital visit when Matthews was falling asleep and wouldn’t choose between a pair of photos.
Claims that Pratt, 45, spoon-fed witnesses or suppressed their statements over his 16-year career have complicated at least a few cases at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. And federal prosecutors have said they won’t be relying on the two witnesses who say Pratt coerced their identifications in Reed’s murder. In any case, prosecutors now claim Telly Hankton was joined in that murder by Porter and another man, Kevin Jackson.
Rachel Conner, one of Thomas Hankton’s attorneys, argued Friday that Pratt shouldn’t be shielded from testifying, citing a 30-page letter that Pratt wrote last year to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite. The letter prompted a meeting between Pratt and FBI agents in September at Wade Correctional Center, during which Pratt waived his rights and spoke with agents, according to Conner.
Feldman placed the letter under seal.
Feldman said he didn’t see any proof that Pratt coerced Matthews’ identification of his attacker, but the judge didn’t formally rule on a motion to suppress his identification of Thomas Hankton.
None of the 13 defendants in the 22-count racketeering case — including Telly Hankton’s mother, Shirley Hankton — have pleaded guilty. Their trial is scheduled to start June 6.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.