Derrick Sellers gets Botox injections in his scalp and wears specially tinted glasses to dull the insufferable glare of a normal day.
He calls it “noise.”
“Light, being a type of noise. Chaos. Kids screaming. People talking. It’s all things I have trouble filtering,” he said. “To find the words and to focus, I have to have silence, or it’s maddening. Sometimes I'll have a panic attack. Or just vacate.”
The pain in Sellers' head never goes away. Sometimes it's bearable; sometimes it shuts him down. It’s been like that for more than five years, he said, since the attack that left his face busted and his brain stuck in low gear.
When his attackers broke his left cheekbone up to his eye socket, Sellers said, the eyeball shifted outward. To train his focus forward, his darkened frames are cupped around the sides, like blinkers on a racehorse.
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Sellers has accidentally flooded hotel rooms, left stove burners on and stood oblivious to his young children’s cries for food. His short-term memory is “shot,” said his wife, DeeDra. A few weeks ago, she found her husband sleepwalking, “dead-eyed and wandering the neighborhood” in his underwear, she said.
At 33, the former U.S. Marine from Abbeville exhibits a slew of symptoms often associated with troops returning home from combat. But the violent attack that derailed Sellers' military career, leaving him unable to tie his own shoes, didn’t happen during his two deployments overseas.
It came later, stateside, in the Iberia Parish jail, where late on a September night in 2013, four sheriff’s deputies escorted Sellers down a hallway alone. He was shoved up against a wall. Then they beat the daylights out of him.
They smashed his face with fists, knees and a black metal object that unleashed a gush of blood. A deputy stomped on his already-broken face, Sellers alleged. He was pepper-sprayed twice, once while he was in the fetal position.
The heaviest licks came in the first few minutes, captured on video from a camera down the hall. When the pummeling stops, a scrum of deputies peels off him.
A campaign of violence meted out by a squad of Iberia Parish drug deputies landed many of them in the federal pen and left the fate of Sheriff…
Episodes of violence
The beatdown received little public notice, overshadowed as it was by other episodes of violence that led a dozen Iberia Parish deputies to admit to civil-rights crimes — while Sheriff Louis Ackal, accused of overseeing the whole operation, walked free after being acquitted in a 2016 trial.
The federal probe largely focused on the racial animus behind many of the beatings of black residents and inmates. Sellers is white.
But his treatment at the hands of Ackal’s deputies may prove the costliest episode of them all.
Ackal’s office recently agreed to a $2.5 million settlement to resolve the lawsuit that Sellers filed over the beating. It is by far the largest documented payout among several settlements of civil rights lawsuits filed in the wake of a scandal that made national headlines.
The payout to Sellers was among a handful to emerge from three days of negotiations late last year involving 16 cases that were pending against Ackal’s office. Another $275,000 went to settle a lawsuit filed by Marcus Robicheaux, who was beaten by a deputy and attacked by a police dog during a jail shakedown in 2012.
The payout to Robicheaux ended the suit over an incident that drew a national spotlight on policing in Iberia Parish and helped spark the federal prosecution against Ackal and his deputies. A video, uncovered in 2015, shows a prone Robicheaux under assault by a deputy and a police dog as he lay face-down in a jail recreation yard.
David Prejean, the canine sergeant seen in the video, pleaded guilty and is now serving a 30-month sentence in a low-security federal prison in Florida.
A few other cases against Ackal’s office were settled at the same time for smaller amounts.
Still unknown is how much Ackal's office agreed to pay the minor child of Victor White III, who died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back seat of an Iberia Parish patrol car in 2014. That settlement remains under court seal, though The Advocate is asking a federal appeals court to reverse a judge's order sealing the amount.
The newspaper obtained the other settlement figures through a public-records request with the Louisiana Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Program, which made the payouts on behalf of Ackal’s office. The insurance pool covers more than three-fourths of the sheriffs' offices in the state, though Ackal's office is no longer among them. He was booted from the program in 2016 for costing it too much.
The pool remains on the hook for earlier claims against Ackal’s office, however, and has now paid about $6 million on Iberia Parish claims over Ackal's decade in office. Nearly half of it went to Sellers.
The stories of abuse that unfurled from the witness stand were horrendous.
“I’m not saying the sheriff’s egregious conduct in this case is any worse than he did with other people who suffered major injuries,” said Blake David, Sellers' attorney. "It settled for that much because the losses were that great."
Ackal wasn’t implicated directly in Sellers’ beating. But David argued that the culture that infested the jail under Ackal’s watch gave license to the deputies.
“If it’s a different parish, there’s no opportunity to attack someone for no reason or little reason or whatever else it may be,” he said. “The culture allowed for exactly these types of attacks.”
One deputy, Eric Blanchard, kneed Sellers repeatedly, pepper-sprayed him and may have hit him in the head with a spray can. Sellers claims he never fought back, fearing he'd be killed if he did.
Blanchard recalled the incident differently in a sworn deposition in 2015. Blanchard said Sellers had been resisting and began to veer off in the hallway as Deputy Warren Alpha tried to corral him.
Blanchard, a night-shift lieutenant, said Sellers “walked into the wall” and then rushed at him, holding Blanchard's leg and being "actively aggressive."
"I remember (Alpha) trying to get like in control of (Sellers), and they started curving toward the wall," he said.
A spokesman for Ackal's office declined to comment on the settlement, saying sheriff's officials "cannot discuss the case as ordered by the federal magistrate."
Even now, after the settlement, Blanchard remains employed as an Iberia Parish deputy, still working in the jail.
“That’s gross,” Sellers said.
Gunshots pierced the daylight outside her front door, so Loretta Henry dove to her kitchen floor.
Speaking in fragments
Sitting in a Denham Springs coffee shop last week, Sellers spoke in fragments about his military career, the attack and the state of his brain.
A device hung from a lanyard around his neck, pulsing electricity to his cranium through a pair of white wires clipped to his earlobes. Another machine, a neurostimulator, sat nearby, ready to attach to his forehead.
Sellers wears a back brace for three ruptured discs, injuries he says he received during the beating. Unstable, he falls often. Small tasks confound him. He keeps his pills in a padlocked tackle box. Driving a car is out.
“I can’t ride a bike,” he said. “I have a tricycle.”
Sellers often stops talking in the middle of a thought. He closes his mouth and stares ahead behind his darkened lenses, waiting for the words. Several seconds pass. Half a minute sometimes. He is buffering.
“I have difficulty processing now. Processing speed is slow,” he said.
Sellers is working, slowly, on a piece of autobiographical fiction. He calls it “Non-Conscious.” His protagonist, Sebastian, is a man “on top of his game. Everything was perfect,” until it wasn’t.
“He thought, ‘I used to run for miles and miles … 15 miles a week,'” Sellers writes. “Hell, now I can’t even pick up trash in my kitchen without falling, or wonder if all of the memories that I do have actually happened.”
His long-term memory is stronger.
Sellers recalled the moment he decided to join the Marines. He was in math class at Abbeville High, a week before his 16th birthday and more interested in sports, welding and chorus than academics, when planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Sellers decided to join the Air Force after graduation in 2004 but pivoted to the Marine Corps and headed off to Parris Island.
“No one out-competed me,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be a pilot. A flyboy. Top Gun.”
Sellers was deployed to Japan and later to the Mediterranean and Africa, where “we blew up a couple Somali pirate ships,” he said.
A federal magistrate judge in Lafayette on Friday denied a request by The Advocate and television partner KATC to unseal the amount that Iberi…
'A stellar Marine'
In 2010, he was accepted into a highly competitive Marine training program that promised an officer commission. Once he was accepted, it was a glidepath to a full military career. Sellers was stationed in the ROTC program in Baton Rouge as an active-duty Marine while attending classes at LSU.
“You can’t get into the program without being a stellar Marine,” said Beau Bergeron, who was in the program with Sellers. “Derrick was no different as far as his approach to leadership, his day-to-day performance. Nothing but exemplary.”
Sellers talks proudly about it.
“I spent years getting prepared for it, and I was a single father,” he said, referring to his son from his first wife, who left. “When all of my peers in the military were bar-hopping, I was taking classes. World history, anything. That’s what I did. That was my fun.”
He was rolling through the officer program, earning A’s and B’s at LSU, when problems outside work began to mount. Sellers and his second wife, with whom he’d also had a son, were in the midst of a contentious split.
She was a nurse who had worked in the Iberia Parish jail and had accused him of kicking her out of a car — an allegation Sellers denied.
He began to struggle mentally. He had a history of depression and, at one point, admitted himself into a hospital. Soon afterward, he was booked on a domestic criminal charge that would later be dropped.
The night of his beating, another inmate had provoked a female deputy over a jail intercom. Angry, she forced several inmates, including Sellers, into a visiting room to place their hands behind their backs and stand with their noses against a wall.
Sellers said he had back pain from a recent car accident and slid to the floor after about 90 minutes. A deputy barked and he got back up.
The rest, Sellers thinks, was selective. His then-estranged wife had been trading racy texts with a sheriff’s deputy she was dating, and Sellers thinks the walk down the hallway, on a trip to a lockdown tier, was a setup. Deputies left his hands free of cuffs. He thinks they wanted him to fight back.
“All I really was trying to do was convince them to stop,” he said. “If I’d have hit back, that was open season.”
Sellers’ cheekbone was broken and his left eye socket was cracked. At a hospital, doctors stapled a gash in his head and prescribed him antibiotics and painkillers. Sellers claimed jail officials refused to give him the drugs and left him crawling across the floor of his cell.
His life went downhill from there. He began failing classes and struggling to meet physical and other benchmarks in the Marines. When he first met DeeDra several months after the jail attack, he was still on active duty but living out of his 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis.
Sellers’ legal troubles led to a military trial in 2015 and later a review by a military separation board. In neither case was he found guilty, according to records from Sellers.
A neuropsychologist in 2016 found that Sellers’ history of depression and attention deficit disorder didn't explain a worsening condition.
“It does appear that motor dexterity, memory, processing speed and bowel continence have deteriorated,” she wrote. “Work tasks take him a long time, and he forgets what he is doing in the middle of a task. He has to take a lot of notes.”
By June of that year psychiatrists had been deemed him non-deployable and barred him from handling weapons.
Sellers had been prescribed medications for depression and seizures before the incident. Until the settlement, it appeared the sheriff's office would argue that Sellers' military decline predated the jail fight, and that his unceremonious exit from the Marines wasn't its fault.
To Sellers, it's a different ballgame now. His attorneys have noted that only after the beating was he prescribed medications like Prozac, Zyprexa for psychotic symptoms and Clonazepam for panic attacks.
When the headaches and anxiety overwhelm him, Sellers is apt to lash out, DeeDra said. Scratches on a window of her SUV are from Sellers jumping on her car and trying to break into it during one blowup, she said.
The Marines reassigned Sellers to South Carolina in 2016. He was anything but ready, toggling from one doctor to the next. He was slow to complete tasks and occasionally late for duty. He began to rack up infractions.
He had gone from a “water walker,” a term for Marines who earn top marks, to “just a problem,” he said. He was being seen at Walter Reed Medical Center when a federal jury in Shreveport acquitted Ackal in late 2016.
Sellers' military career ended in August 2017 with an administrative discharge attributed to “unsatisfactory performance,” documents he provided show. He and his wife are fighting to change that designation to a medical discharge based on post-traumatic stress, which would make him eligible for benefits.
Bergeron, his fellow Marine, said he visited Sellers in jail a day after the beating and found him “barely recognizable.” The difference now is stark, said Bergeron, a retired gunnery sergeant.
“He was a Marine at the top of his game. He is now much more slow, much more methodical in answering the simplest of questions. You can kind of see the gears working,” said Bergeron, 35. “It’s just being tortured while incarcerated. It’s not what you would expect on U.S. soil. His whole path in life took a much darker turn because of what was done to him.”
An expert hired by his attorneys estimated that Sellers’ injuries would eventually cost him $3.7 million in lost military earnings and benefits.
Sellers paused when asked his hopes for the future. He closed his lips and stared ahead.
“To heal,” he finally said.