Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal said he is confident he will escape unscathed from a federal investigation of inmate abuse and alleged cover-ups that so far has netted eight guilty pleas and the indictment this week of the sheriff and one of his top lieutenants.
But it remains unclear whether the full extent of the probe is known, and Ackal is already at a bit of a disadvantage: Seven of his former deputies have made plea deals to cooperate with federal authorities, and the plea agreement of an eighth is still sealed from public view.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has been unusually quiet given the stature of the case, issuing only one terse response to media inquiries since the first round of deputies pleaded guilty in late February.
“This is an ongoing investigation. We have no comment,” U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley said in an emailed statement this week.
Ackal, a State Police veteran re-elected to a third term last year, has made limited public comments, but in a statement released late Thursday, the sheriff said he has no plans to step down.
“In spite of recent allegations made against me, I am confident I will be vindicated,” Ackal wrote in the prepared statement e mailed to KATC TV-3. “I also speak on the behalf of my current employees when saying I am positive they are dedicated to protecting the citizens of Iberia Parish. For my entire professional career I have had faith in our judicial system. I continue to believe in our system and that history will show I have always stood on the side of good.”
The federal indictment of Ackal and Lt. Col. Gerald Savoy on Wednesday on civil rights violations covers allegations related to an April 29, 2011, contraband sweep at the Iberia Parish Jail where five inmates were allegedly taken one by one for beatings in the jail’s chapel, a location federal prosecutors say was chosen because there were no video surveillance cameras to capture the abuse.
Prosecutors allege Ackal directed deputies to assault the inmates — three in connection with a lewd comment to a deputy, one for writing letters complaining about jail conditions and a fifth for no stated reason — and was present in the chapel for at least one of the beatings.
Most of the other guilty pleas in the case are related to the same April sweep, and the timing of the charges could be tied to a five-year statute of limitations on criminal prosecution for some civil rights violations. That deadline would be up next month for allegations related to the contraband sweep.
Federal prosecutors have acknowledged the time constraint in court filings, and all the deputies who have pleaded guilty in the 2011 beatings have signed waivers giving up their right to an appeal based on the statute of limitations.
But federal prosecutors have the luxury of time to consider any other possible charges against Ackal or Sheriff’s Office employees for more recent incidents.
One former deputy, David Hines, has already pleaded guilty to a March 14, 2014, incident in which he said an unnamed “high-ranking” Sheriff’s Office official told him and another unidentified deputy to “take care” of a man accused of assaulting one of the official’s relatives.
Hines, based on his prior experience at the Sheriff’s Office, knew the official wanted him to go find, beat up and arrest the man, according to his guilty plea.
Hines also admitted falsifying a police report to justify his use of excessive force in the arrest.
The “high-ranking” official in Hines’ case has yet to be accounted for in the federal charges filed so far.
Also unaccounted for is a person identified in court filings only as a senior employee of the Sheriff’s Office who allegedly told deputies to lie about abuse at the jail in depositions given in a lawsuit filed by one of the inmates who was beaten.
The senior employee was present during the depositions, according to prosecutors.
Federal authorities have also subpoenaed records for two other incidents of alleged abuse at the jail for which no one has been charged.
“I suspect there will be more casualties before the investigations are complete,” said Roberta Boudreaux , who served as jail warden under Ackal’s predecessor, Sid Hebert, and ran unsuccessfully against Ackal last year.
But Boudreaux said she did not want to pre-judge the outcome of the criminal case and, despite the recent allegations, feels there are still many good employees at the Sheriff’s Office.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, I don’t want to interject personal opinions or cast judgment, because as a community we need to heal. It’s important that we focus on stabilizing the relationship between the community and the officers and vice-versa,” she said.
In some respects, Ackal has already laid the groundwork for what could be a legal defense.
In prior interviews and in court filings responding to lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Office, Ackal pointed the finger at former jail Warden Wesley Hayes, arguing that if there were problems at the jail, Hayes never made them known to him.
Hayes is among those who have pleaded guilty in the investigation in a deal calling for his cooperation.
The former warden filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Ackal in 2014 alleging he was fired for complaining about inmate abuse, including the beatings in April 2011, but Hayes did not disclose in the lawsuit an incident a few months later in which he struck a handcuffed inmate in the secrecy of the jail chapel.
Hayes pleaded guilty to that assault last month, along with pleading guilty to watching but not intervening as inmates were beaten during the April 2011 sweep.
The current investigation is not the first time federal authorities have taken an interest in the Iberia Parish jail.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office in 1996, years before Ackal was sheriff, over the practice of disciplining inmates by restraining them in a chair with straps and handcuffs and gagging them with duct tape, sometimes leaving inmates there so long they would be forced to urinate or defecate on themselves.
The Sheriff’s Office settled the lawsuit shortly after it was filed with an agreement to submit to monitoring of jail practices and to institute new policies on the use of restraints and force.