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Update, 8 a.m. Wednesday: The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has arrested inmate Wilbert Robinson on seven counts of simple escape, OPSO said in a news release Wednesday morning.

Employee Gregory Jacques has also been booked on seven counts of principal to simple escape and one count of malfeasance in office, OPSO said.

During an investigation, Jacques told investigators that he escorted Robinson to a residence in Gentilly, OPSO said.

Original story:

A state prisoner who was serving part of a 20-year sentence at Orleans Parish Prison illegally visited his girlfriend at a house several miles away from the jail — a rendezvous facilitated by a Sheriff’s Office employee who had been assigned to work alongside the convict.

The security breach, discovered about two weeks before Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman opened a new $150 million jail, prompted the suspension of the employee and a criminal investigation that one former deputy said was bungled by a Sheriff’s Office more concerned with avoiding embarrassment than rooting out misconduct, according to interviews and Sheriff’s Office records.

It also spawned an inquiry by the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a local watchdog organization that referred the matter to the FBI, although it is unclear whether that agency is looking into it.

Authorities suspect that the prisoner, Wilbert J. Robinson, a convicted arsonist and armed robber, made repeated trips to his girlfriend’s house in Gentilly Terrace to have sex when he was supposed to be working for the Sheriff’s Office, the records show.

Robinson had been serving time in New Orleans since 2012 as what the Sheriff’s Office described as a “cost-saving move,” working without pay on generators and other maintenance tasks that required he be shuttled among various Sheriff’s Office facilities.

But officials pulled the plug on a sting operation intended to catch Robinson and any accomplices in the act — an investigation that involved the court-approved installation of tracking devices on at least three Sheriff’s Office vehicles. They also recently returned Robinson to state custody and suspended a sergeant assigned to the investigation who claims his superiors initially sought to whitewash the allegations.

“We were told to suspend the investigation,” said the sergeant, John D. Ladd, who recently retired from the Sheriff’s Office amid claims that he improperly altered an investigative report in the case. “We were trying to get in front of this.”

Robinson’s girlfriend, Sharon Richards, admitted in an interview that she met with Robinson in her home, acknowledging the encounter was against the rules and was a potential public safety risk. However, she insisted it was a one-time occurrence and denied ever having sex with Robinson. She claimed Robinson and a Sheriff’s Office electrician, Gregory Jacques, merely delivered a stove to her home that day — an appliance she needed after a kitchen fire.

“He’s never physically had contact with me besides a wink of the eye,” Richards said.

She acknowledged that Robinson “was not supposed to be out in the community” but blamed the Sheriff’s Office for lax oversight. “It was wrongdoing,” she said, “But who’s to say?”

Conflicting accounts

The girlfriend’s account conflicts with that of a woman who called in an anonymous tip to the Sheriff’s Office. That woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told The New Orleans Advocate that she personally saw Robinson at Richards' home on four separate occasions, most recently over the summer. The woman’s son, meanwhile, claimed to have seen the prisoner at the home at least a dozen times.

The case raises new questions about the supervision of inmates in New Orleans at a time when Mayor Mitch Landrieu and some City Council members have demanded that Gusman return several hundred state prisoners to the state Department of Corrections, including dozens of men wrapping up their sentences in a re-entry program. Robinson was not a participant in that program.

Gusman has refused to end that program and instead transferred nearly 200 pretrial inmates to jails in northeastern Louisiana, saying they would not fit in the new 1,438-bed jail that replaced OPP in September. The sheriff has repeatedly stressed what he says is the value of housing state prisoners, saying they perform a number of tasks, including kitchen work, that save taxpayer dollars.

The sheriff declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the pending investigation.

A spokeswoman, Amy Barrios, said that Robinson, a mechanic trained to work on generators, was always “signed out and accompanied by a (Sheriff’s Office) employee whenever he needed to leave his housing building to perform work at another building.”

The office “received information that Mr. Robinson might be visiting a private residence during the times when he was supposed to be performing maintenance work at other jail buildings,” Barrios said in a statement. She added that the Sheriff’s Office quickly launched an investigation and “immediately restricted Mr. Robinson to his housing building and did not allow him to move between buildings.”

Ladd, the former Sheriff’s Office sergeant, said in an interview that he had been most alarmed not by the prisoner’s alleged trysts but by the security implications of letting a man like Robinson roam around the community.

Robinson, 32, is far from a nonviolent offender, and he is not eligible for work-release in the state correctional system because of the crimes he committed and the amount of time remaining on his sentence.

A Jefferson Parish jury convicted him in 2007 of a string of armed robberies and trying to torch a pair of stolen vehicles — igniting a blaze that engulfed his own body in flames. (He sought treatment at Charity Hospital, which under state law was required to report his suspicious injuries.)

Now at St. Gabriel

According to the Department of Corrections, Robinson’s earliest possible release date is September 2020. Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Robinson is “not eligible for parole consideration.” She said he was recently transferred to a state prison in St. Gabriel.

At Orleans Parish Prison, where Robinson had been held since April 2012, he was allowed out of jail several days a week to work on maintenance jobs, often remaining out of his cell for 12 hours or more at a time. Records show Robinson would change out of his orange prison garb into a blue Sheriff’s Office uniform before reporting to those jobs.

Before Gusman opened the new jail, a move that centralized inmate housing, Robinson had been held at the Conchetta facility on Tulane Avenue. Investigators reviewed log books there and learned that he would be picked up for work between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and dropped off between 10 p.m. and midnight.

“He wasn’t getting paid a cent, but he liked it,” said Richards, the girlfriend. “He liked to be out in the community.”

Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, declined to comment on the matter, saying it remains under investigation.

The criminal investigation began with the anonymous tip called into the Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Affairs Division on Sept. 2. The woman caller said Robinson had been having a romantic relationship with Richards despite his incarceration and that she had seen a Sheriff’s Office truck “on numerous occasions” drop Robinson at his girlfriend’s house before returning hours later to pick him up.

The following day, Agent Lance Wade, of the Sheriff’s Office, decided to conduct a “spot check” of the residence and saw Robinson and Jacques, the Sheriff’s Office electrician, parked at the home, according to an internal memo sent to Maj. Edwin Hosli, a high-ranking official at the Sheriff’s Office.

On a second drive-by that day, the investigator spotted the men “traveling away from the residence” in a Sheriff’s Office pickup, the document says. Wade was told not to follow the pickup or take further action until Gusman could be briefed, internal records show.

Ladd, the former sergeant, said Gusman ordered investigators to get to the bottom of the Robinson case. Deputies devised an “operational plan” in which they obtained search warrants authorizing them to install monitoring devices on three Sheriff’s Office maintenance vehicles.

‘Potential embarrassment’

All the while, investigators took pains to keep the details of the probe from leaking, documents show, citing what Ladd called “the potential embarrassment to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Gusman.” In one memo, Ladd wrote that he had conferred with a lieutenant about “the best way to protect the sheriff and the Sheriff’s Office,” asking whether “an initial report with very limited information would suffice with the records room.”

Gusman’s lawyers decided several weeks ago that not even an initial report of the investigation would be made public, denying a public records request filed by The New Orleans Advocate. The newspaper later obtained the investigative reports through other means.

Investigators reviewed jailhouse phone records and determined Robinson had been in “constant contact” with Richards for well over a year. In late September, after the city’s inmates had been transferred into the new jail, Richards and Robinson were recorded talking about why Robinson was no longer being allowed to go to work. In one call, Richards asked Robinson if he had enjoyed their recent visit — a comment Ladd described as “suggestive.”

Richards insisted that remark had referred to one of her regular Sunday “contact visits” to Robinson. She said those visits occurred at a facility on South Broad Street and had been officially sanctioned by the Sheriff’s Office.

Ladd alleged that Carmen DeSadier, Gusman’s chief corrections deputy, ended the investigation prematurely as part of a broader effort to steer the agency away from negative publicity.

Sheriff’s Office records show DeSadier deemed Robinson a flight risk and decided he should not be allowed to continue working outside the jail. The investigation was suspended at that point, Ladd said, and the tracking devices were removed from the vehicles.

Barrios, the Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said the agency has forwarded its findings to the District Attorney’s Office. She added that Jacques, the Sheriff’s Office electrician, remains suspended without pay.

“We’ve acted on it,” she said. “And deny that anything has been swept under the rug.”

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.