St. Bernard Sheriff car cruiser SBPSO

ADVOCATE FILE PHOTO

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that a girl was subjected to repeated sexual abuse by a St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy during a seven-month stint in a juvenile tier of the parish jail that ended in January.

According to the suit, filed by the girl’s mother, Deputy Eddie Williams subjected the girl to constant harassment, ordering her to take her clothes off and to sit in suggestive poses and encouraging her to masturbate. On multiple occasions, Williams also ordered her to disrobe in specific places so that he could look at her via a remote camera, according to the suit, filed by lawyer Gary Bizal.

In a phone interview, Bizal said the girl was 15 at the time of her incarceration, which began in June 2015 and ended in January 2016. Both the girl and her mother are referred to by their initials throughout the suit.

Williams and Sheriff James Pohlmann are named as defendants in the suit. Pohlmann did not return a phone message from The Advocate on Thursday. Williams could not be reached.

Steve Cannizaro, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said that Williams, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office since November 2007, was placed on administrative leave in December 2015 pending an investigation of the sexual harassment claim. 

Cannizaro quoted Pohlmann as saying the office’s "Internal Affairs specialist investigated the allegation but found no evidence to substantiate a charge."

However, Pohlmann said, "new allegations involving the same girl have been made and Williams has been transferred to work in the parish’s adult prison pending an Internal Affairs investigation."

The lawsuit filed Thursday claims that Williams’ behavior “became more and more sexually suggestive and explicit” during the girl’s incarceration. The deputy also threatened to hurt the girl’s mother if the girl did not obey his orders, the suit says.

The lawsuit alleges Williams’ actions violated at least two state laws — those prohibiting indecent behavior with juveniles and prohibiting the molestation of juveniles. Pohlmann, according to the suit, "knew or should have known that the defendant ... had a history of inappropriate sexual contact with inmates, yet he negligently failed to take action."

The suit also faults the sheriff for providing male deputies an environment in which they could freely harass and abuse juvenile female inmates.

Bizal said he believes Williams is still working at the jail but that he is not certain.

He said he contacted St. Bernard Parish District Attorney Perry Nicosia’s office before filing his suit and was told that prosecutors are still exploring the allegations.

“My understanding is they haven’t convened a grand jury, but they indicated they’re still pursuing it,” he said.

Michael Morales of the DA's office said office policy is not to comment on matters under investigation.

The civil lawsuit comes a year after federal prosecutors filed criminal charges in an unrelated case against four correctional officers working in the St. Bernard lockup. Those officers are charged with violating a female inmate’s civil rights by “deliberately ignoring medical needs that led to her death.”

That case remains pending. Trial is set for May.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.