In Ascension Parish, the most rapidly growing crime category is burglaries of unlocked vehicles, but the Sheriff’s Office is finding itself dealing with a new, more dangerous trend.
The number of homicides in Ascension remains in the single digits — and the rate of murder is below the state and national averages — but authorities say that behind some of the killings in recent years is the kind of criminal operations more common in larger cities and not expected in a suburban parish.
“There’s not hard data to suggest we’re having a crisis, but we’re having a different kind of crime and we’re having a different kind of criminal,” Sheriff Jeff Wiley said. “It’s crime that is very, very violent, with disregard for the value of life.”
The crime is gang- and drug-related and much of it, investigators have found, is linked to cities outside the parish, Wiley said.
District Attorney Ricky Babin, whose 23rd Judicial District office includes Ascension, successfully prosecuted three men in May on second-degree murder charges for the execution-style slaying of a man in Sorrento last year.
“All three were from Baton Rouge,” Babin said of the defendants who in July were each sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Gerald Wilkins. The victim, who also was from Baton Rouge, was shot three times in the head as he urinated by the side of a wooded road in January 2013.
“I think our total crime numbers have been down and are remaining fairly low,” Babin said of the crime in Ascension Parish. “In violent crime, there’s been a slight increase.”
Overall, property crime remains the biggest crime problem in the parish, but public concern and media coverage have been riveted this year by several shocking killings.
Killings in Ascension Parish have fluctuated in recent years with law enforcement sometimes seeing just four murders in a year to a low point of only one murder in 2010. But the numbers have been higher the past two years, with seven murders in 2013 and nine victims so far this year. Wiley, who’s served as sheriff for close to 20 years, conceded that the killings this year have been the kind of jarring cases that attract notice.
The Sheriff’s Office is investigating the murder of 15-year-old Brandon Augusta, of Donaldsonville, who was beaten to death last month, his body found on a Mississippi River levee.
Of the other murders this year, they were roughly split between domestic violence cases and what Wiley termed “drug-related, violator on violator.” Arrests have been made in all of these killings except in two of the domestic cases where arrests aren’t possible: The alleged killer is either hospitalized after attempting suicide or believed to be dead.
“The domestic side of this thing, it’s horrible. Idle threats, everyone has to take that seriously,” Wiley said. “Law enforcement has to take every one of those spats (between domestic partners) seriously.”
The drug-related killings, marked by “wanton violence,” are the “same kind of thing that the inner city is getting, and it’s now affecting suburbia,” Wiley said. Both Wiley and Babin emphasized that they’ve found many of the perpetrators are commuting into Ascension to commit crimes.
“We’re 23 miles from downtown Baton Rouge,” Wiley said, adding, “We have our own homegrown” criminals, too.
One change in Ascension Parish is the introduction of the kind of small gangs — often called “neighborhood groups” or cliques by law enforcement — common on the streets of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
“They are groups of people typically from a confined neighborhood, who started out as ‘boys in the hood’ ” then started selling drugs, often running afoul of other drug dealers, he said.
“Now it’s settled with street justice. Part of it is driven by that. Part of it places no value on human life,” Wiley said.
Arrests made by the Sheriff’s Office in the drug-related killings are coming from “bulldog, tenacious enforcement. Some of it is good fortune. Less and less, the public is helping us. People are scared,” Wiley said.
The sheriff hopes to better tackle the changing nature of crime in the parish through ongoing training for deputies and detectives. The Sheriff’s Office also recently updated its computer system to make it more efficient and soon will be getting new equipment that detectives can use to film a crime scene and create a virtual recreation of the crime as reported by the victim.
One month of this year was particularly shocking. Four people were killed within days of one another in three April incidents.
- On April 3, Gerardo Lua in Gonzales shot and killed his wife, then shot himself in the head; he remains in a medical facility.
- On April 17, Ronald Green Sr. shot and killed his wife and son in Gonzales, then appeared to jump to his death from a Mississippi River bridge. His body was never recovered, and the case remains open.
- On April 24, Isaac Prestley was killed in what detectives called a gang-style shootout in Darrow. Seven men were arrested, and Wiley held a news conference in the aftermath of the crime, decrying the brazen, daylight slaying.
In other gang-style shootings this year, three people were arrested in the Jan. 31 shooting of Fred Martin in St. Amant. Another domestic-related incident occurred in July when, police said, Hilario Monterrossa was fatally stabbed by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend at a trailer park outside Gonzales.
Several of the homicides occurred in Donaldsonville, a particular focus for law enforcement and community efforts. Along with Augusta’s beating death, the cases include Adoriji Wilson, who was shot on a porch in June in what detectives believe to be a hit — five men were arrested in the case — and the shooting of Shella “Shay” Howard, allegedly by her husband in July.
Tamiko Francis Garrison, organizer of a community group called Answer the Call, said group members were spurred to action earlier this year because they were alarmed by violent crime in Donaldsonville.
“It’s not the majority, it’s the minority,” she said about the people committing the crime.
They began visiting different streets in the city in recent months, playing gospel music and meeting with residents.
The group held public events in August and in September with city and parish leaders to brainstorm about how to bolster the positive civic offerings in the area, Garrison said.
One of the group’s first goals is to build a community calendar of events and then to come up with a master plan for new programs for children and youth, she said.
Garrison said the crime in Donaldsonville is particularly disturbing “because we’re so small. It seems all encompassing, and it’s so overwhelming.”
But she has hope that residents can make a difference.
“Donaldsonville is too loving and kind and gentle of a community not to come together and change it,” Garrison said.
The city of Gonzales, with a population of approximately 10,000, is the only incorporated area in the parish with law enforcement provided by its own Police Department. The other incorporated municipalities, Sorrento and Donaldsonville, are served by the Sheriff’s Office.
Gonzales saw two homicides in 2012, none last year and none so far this year, said Police Chief Sherman Jackson.
The Police Department is dealing with a jump in a certain type of property crime. Theft, particularly the stealing of items from the outside of homes and businesses, has risen — 469 incidents through August of this year, compared to 268 thefts all of last year — Jackson said.
People are taking bikes, lawn mowers and tools from homes, and lumber and other materials from construction sites, he said.
Wiley also noted that crime statistics show that property crime is the biggest problem in the parish, which is home to about 114,000 residents. In 2012, the largest number of offenses in the parish were in the categories of burglaries and thefts — approximately 700 burglaries and 2,000 thefts, according to information provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
“The public might need to be reminded that most of our day to day (police work is for) burglary, theft and shoplifting,” Wiley said.