A package of guilty pleas last month in a federal investigation of inmate beatings at the Iberia Parish Jail could be the first step in a growing probe into a pattern of abuse at the facility.
Left unanswered is whether Sheriff Louis Ackal — whose name has yet to be uttered by federal prosecutors — will be caught up in an investigation that seems far from over.
Three inmates whom deputies have admitted beating and the former jail warden all say Ackal was present during a 2011 contraband sweep at the center of the case, though none put him at the jail chapel where the beatings took place.
Federal authorities have been mum on all aspects of the investigation, which netted six guilty pleas last month from deputies who either participated or observed without intervening in the abuse of four inmates at the jail. Three of those inmates were beaten during an April 29, 2011, search for contraband, while a fourth inmate was struck by at least three guards on Sept. 27, 2011.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office has acknowledged that federal investigators are interested in at least two other incidents of alleged abuse involving additional deputies.
Five of the deputies have made plea agreements to cooperate with prosecutors, and the details of a sixth plea agreement have been sealed from public view.
“We don’t know what that means, but we think it means there is more to come,” said Baton Rouge attorney Donna Grodner, who represents two inmates whose abuse is at the heart of the federal case.
Most of the guilty pleas so far are related to the April 2011 beatings, where three inmates were taken one by one to the jail’s chapel, an isolated location the deputies said was chosen because there were no security cameras.
One of those inmates, Curtis Ozenne, said in an interview Thursday that it was Ackal himself who directed deputies to take him to the chapel.
“He told the deputies and the warden to bring me to a secluded area and teach me a lesson,” Ozenne said. “He’s the head. He’s the one the finger should be pointed at. He’s the orchestrator and dictator of what was going on at the jail.”
Ozenne also made those claims in a 2012 lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, which was settled for $15,000.
His allegations about Ackal, who has declined several requests for comment on the investigation, mirror those made by Anthony Daye, another inmate deputies admitted beating during the April sweep. The inmates the Iberia deputies admitted abusing are identified in the federal court filings only by their initials, but The Advocate matched those initials with the names of prisoners who filed lawsuits alleging the same details and dates of the beatings outlined in the criminal case.
Daye said in a 2011 lawsuit that Ackal was at the jail the day before the April 29 sweep. With a group of inmates lined up, the sheriff approached Daye with a dog and whispered to him, “Please, move, because the dog has not bitten anyone in some time.”
Ackal returned with a team of deputies the next day and oversaw the contraband sweep, according to Daye’s lawsuit.
Two former deputies, Robert Burns and Byron Benjamin Lassalle, have pleaded guilty to civil rights charges for standing by and doing nothing while at least one other deputy assaulted Daye in the chapel.
Federal authorities have not announced charges against anyone accused of actually striking Daye, whose lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office is pending.
“Of course, any settlement offer we had on the table is gone,” said Grodner, Daye’s attorney.
Lassalle also pleaded guilty to striking Ozenne with a baton, as well as forcing a third inmate to mimic oral sex on his baton before striking the man.
The third inmate, who spoke to The Advocate last year on the condition he not be identified, also said Ackal was at the jail overseeing the April 2011 sweep.
The allegations of the three inmates about Ackal’s presence during the April sweep are supported by former Iberia Parish jail Warden Wesley Hayes.
He has said in court documents filed in lawsuits over the incidents that Ackal was helping oversee the jail sweep and was present during discussions about taking Ozenne to the chapel.
Hayes pleaded guilty to civil rights charges last month for watching the beatings of Ozenne and another inmate but not intervening, and he admitted beating a different inmate in September 2011 after the inmate allegedly struck a jail guard.
Hayes’ brother, Jesse Hayes, who at the time served as assistant warden, pleaded guilty to participating in the September assault.
Wesley Hayes filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Ackal in 2014, alleging he was fired for complaining about inmate beatings.
Ackal, in a interview last year, said the former warden generally did not keep him informed about any problems at the jail. But the sheriff has not specifically addressed questions of whether he was present during the April 2011 sweep.
In addition to the statements of three inmates and the former warden putting Ackal at the scene, Lassalle, in a deposition he gave in a lawsuit over Daye’s attack, said Ackal likely was present during the sweep.
Asked whether Ackal was at the jail, Lassalle responded: “I assume he was there. Do I specifically remember seeing him? No.”
Asked for clarification, Lassalle continued: “Because, you know, he comes to every major event. You know, anything major that happens, he’s 95 percent of the time on the scene.”
In the deposition, taken six months after that April search, Lassalle claimed he could not remember specifics about what happened. But he said he was certain that no beatings took place.
The deputy, in addition to pleading guilty last month in the beatings, also admitted lying about them in depositions he gave in lawsuits filed by inmates.
Lassalle recalls a different set of facts in his federal guilty plea. He signed off on a detailed written account of the April 29 sweep, admitting to observing the beating of one inmate and participating in the abuse of two others.
In the written account, Lassalle said a person identified in the document only as a “supervisor” pointed to Ozenne and said, “Take care of him, baby,” after the inmate allegedly made a lewd comment to another deputy.
Lassalle knew what the supervisor meant, according the stipulation, and took Ozenne to the chapel, “a place at the jail that he knew had been used to assault inmates before.” There, he repeatedly hit Ozenne with a baton while the inmate “was compliant, kneeling on the chapel floor and not presenting a threat.”
Still unclear is where the federal probe might lead.
Wesley Hayes, in his whistleblower lawsuit, names four other Sheriff’s Office administrators in addition to Ackal who were at the jail during the April 2011 sweep, and the “supervisor” named in the recent court filings has not been charged.
Federal authorities also have an interest in at least two other incidents of alleged abuse at the jail.
Sheriff’s Office attorney Steve Elledge said in court documents filed last month that the U.S. Department of Justice, which also handled the guilty plea cases, is investigating the alleged abuse of inmate Whitney Paul Lee Jr. in October 2014.
In a federal lawsuit, Lee alleges one deputy struck him with a baton and another shot him in the leg with a “bean bag round,” a nonlethal shotgun load similar to a rubber bullet.
Elledge, in an attempt to have the lawsuit paused pending the federal investigation, wrote in court documents that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed all records related to the incident.
A federal grand jury already had subpoenaed a jail surveillance video from December 2012 showing an inmate being attacked by a dog and then a deputy joining in to stomp and kick the man.
The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged in an interview last year that federal authorities were investigating that incident, which was one of several detailed in a report by The Advocate on inmate deaths and claims of abuse since Ackal took office in 2008.
“We’ve known the Iberia jail has been a hotbed of problems for a long time, so none of this is a surprise for us,” said ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Marjorie Esman.