Bridgette Mentz came to the St. Tammany Parish Justice Center on Dec. 3, her 8-month-old baby in tow, to record a mortgage document and serve a summons and complaint on an assistant district attorney — tasks she had undertaken for Legal Wings Inc., a legal process/filing service co-owned by her father.
But Mentz found herself detained by a deputy as she tried to leave the courthouse, an experience that intimidated her and made her frightened for herself and her infant son, she said in a pleading filed in federal court earlier this month.
The assistant district attorney she was trying to serve, Julie Knight, had been named as a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that, ironically, is being pursued by another process server, http://www.theneworleansadvocate.com/news/sttammany/11698362-172/wwltv-report-cell-phone-video/">Douglas Dendinger.
Dendinger was arrested in 2012 and booked with simple battery, intimidation of a witness and obstruction of justice. Those charges, which were ultimately thrown out, were based partly on statements made to the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office by Knight and another assistant district attorney in the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, Leigh Anne Wall. Warren Montgomery, who succeeded Walter Reed as DA for St. Tammany and Washington parishes, said that Wall is no longer with the office after resigning this week.
Knight, a defendant in Dendinger’s suit along with Reed, Wall and others, refused to accept the paperwork from Mentz, according to Mentz’s statement, at one point demanding that the date on the summons be changed. Mentz said she consulted her father and attempted what she called a “drop-serve,” leaving the papers on the desk of Knight’s secretary.
But as Mentz was leaving the courthouse, the deputy at the security checkpoint told her he could not let her go.
“I soon realized ... I was being held and could not leave,” Mentz said in the statement. “I felt a very unsettling fear for myself and my baby. I began to cry, pleading with the deputy that I had done ‘nothing wrong.’ ”
Then Knight’s secretary rushed up and “slammed down, with force, on my baby’s stroller the papers” that she had left in the office, Mentz said.
A supervisor with Reed’s office told Mentz she had done nothing wrong, but he handed the papers back to her, she said.
“In all my experience, I have never been told that I was not free and held captive,” said Mentz, who has worked for Legal Wings for five years. “I have never been turned away, assaulted, and treated in the manner I was on December 3rd at the St. Tammany Parish Courthouse. I also felt a troublesome fear that I have never experienced before and that I hope I never experience again.”
But while that encounter was unusual for Mentz, it was not the first time a process server ran into trouble at the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office under Walter Reed.
In fact, on the final day of Reed’s administration, Jan. 9, process server http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/11296097-148/walter-reeds-final-day-as">Papillon Anderson, who is also a bail bondsman, described a similar experience, including a threat that he would be detained by deputies.
Anderson was attempting to serve a subpoena for Reed in a http://theadvocate.com/news/neworleans/neworleansnews/10418195-123/walter-reed-business-partner-accused">federal suit that had been filed by a former gold shop owner who accused Reed and his business partner, Yancie “Bubba” Moseley, of racketeering.
Anderson said he left the subpoena at the desk, and a female employee ran after him, saying he would be detained by deputies if he didn’t take it back. Then, he said, Assistant District Attorney Ronald Gracianette repeated the threat that he would be detained if he didn’t leave with the subpoena.
Anderson said he ultimately left without taking the subpoena back.
But he said he had found it difficult to leave subpoenas at Reed’s office in the past. A source familiar with the DA’s office said that during Reed’s administration, there was a sign on the wall instructing staff not to accept subpoenas for the then-district attorney.
But while Mentz and Anderson ran into difficulties and the threat of being detained, their experience pales in comparison to that of Dendinger. He was acting as a process server when he approached Chad Cassard, a former Bogalusa police officer, outside the Washington Parish Courthouse on Aug. 20, 2012, serving a brutality lawsuit filed by Logan Mills, Dendinger’s nephew.
Dendinger’s lawsuit says that the decision was made to serve Cassard outside the courthouse because he was going to be in court for Mills’ criminal trial and was otherwise difficult to serve because he worked offshore.
Shortly after he served Cassard, police showed up at Dendinger’s house and arrested him, booking him with simple battery, a misdemeanor, and two felonies: obstruction of justice and intimidating a witness.
In a statement to deputies, Knight said, “We could hear the slap as he hit Cassard’s chest with an envelope of papers ... This was done in a manner to threaten and intimidate everyone involved.”
The statement from Wall, the other prosecutor, indicated that Dendinger had spent the day in the courtroom where Cassard was testifying and where Judge August Hand had ordered Mills’ mother, who originally tried to serve the papers, to stay away from witnesses under subpoena.
Dendinger denies that he was ever in the courtroom during Mills’ criminal trial. He had been instructed to serve the papers after the trial but before Cassard left the vicinity of the courthouse, his suit says.
In all, seven witnesses, including Knight and Wall, gave statements that painted Dendinger’s actions in a negative light. But two cellphone videos, one taken by Dendinger’s wife and the other by another nephew, show something far different: Dendinger never touched Cassard, who took the envelope and walked back to the courthouse, handing it to Wall.
A bill of information charging Dendinger was filed by Reed about a year after the incident, according to the lawsuit. Dendinger’s lawyer asked that Reed’s office be recused because of the involvement of two of his assistant district attorneys. Reed eventually did so, but not until March 2014.
The state Attorney General’s office refused the charges in June.
Mentz’s statement was filed as part of Dendinger’s lawsuit, which the federal court has consolidated with the Cassard brutality suit.
Phil Kaplan, who is representing the plaintiffs in both cases, said that Mentz’s experience shows a pattern and practice by the District Attorney’s Office with regard to process servers.
Montgomery could not be reached for comment Thursday. Reed’s attorney has said he “didn’t see anything in particular that Mr. Reed did” in regard to the Dendinger case.
This story was altered on Feb. 27 to reflect the circumstances of Leigh Anne Wall’s departure from the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.