FRANKLIN — The man accused of killing his 78-year-old neighbor and then fatally shooting a police officer and wounding two deputies had a history of mental problems but was never known to be violent, relatives of the elderly victim said Monday.
Wilbert Thibodeaux’s only known run-in with local police was last week, when he was cited for disturbing the peace by the same officer he is accused of killing on Saturday, said Chitimacha Tribal Police Chief Blaise Smith.
Thibodeaux, 48, of Charenton, has been booked on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of arson in the Saturday morning incident.
He is accused of shooting Eddie Lyons, 78, and burning down the man’s house before firing on three law enforcement officers who responded to reports of a man walking down Flat Town Road in Charenton with a shotgun.
Thibodeaux allegedly shot and killed Chitimacha Tribal police Sgt. Rick Riggenbach, 52, a 15-year veteran of law enforcement from the Morgan City area who had worked at the Chitimacha department for the past four years, according to information from State Police and Chitimacha Tribal Police.
Riggenbach leaves behind a wife, three daughters and a son, Smith said.
Two St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s deputies were wounded: Jason Javier, 23, who has worked for the Sheriff’s Office about two years, and Matthew Strickland, 24, who worked briefly for the Sheriff’s Office in 2011 and had just rejoined earlier this month, according to information from the Sheriff’s Office.
“They seem to be recovering right along; however, they are still in the hospital,” St. Mary Parish Sheriff Mark Hebert said Monday.
He said it appeared the deputies were wounded by buckshot.
The police officer and deputies were hailed as heroes at a news conference Monday at the St. Mary Parish Courthouse.
Smith said Thibodeaux had “pocketfuls” of ammunition and surely would have hurt others.
“You had a man walking down the street with a shotgun with enough ammunition to do whatever he wanted to do,” Smith said.
Thibodeaux lived a few houses down from Lyons on Flat Town Road on the outskirts of Chitimacha tribal lands near the Cypress Bayou Casino.
Antony Toussaint, a cousin of Lyons who lives nearby, said Thibodeaux was raised in the area and was well liked and friendly, despite a history of mental problems.
“As long as he was on his medications, he was the sweetest person you would know,” Toussaint said. “He never hurt anybody. He never even had a traffic ticket.”
Lyons’ younger brother, Curley Lyons, said Thibodeaux grew up with the Lyons family.
“He was in and out of our house all the time. He was a nice kid in the neighborhood,” Lyons said.
Thibodeaux began struggling with schizophrenia in his 20s but had seemed to have the mental illness in check, Lyons said.
Lyons said he feels no animosity toward Thibodeaux and believes he fell through the cracks of the state’s mental health system.
“Somebody dropped the ball,” Lyons said.
Smith, the Chitimacha police chief, said he had often seen Thibodeaux walking in the area and had even given him a ride a few times when the weather was bad.
There were no records of criminal charges against Thibodeaux for at least the past 20 years at the St. Mary Parish Courthouse, and Smith said Thibodeaux’s only known run-in with Chitimacha police had been last week, when Riggenbach and others had arrested him for disturbing the peace.
Smith declined to give specifics on the arrest.
Lyons said it was for an incident at the casino near Thibodeaux’s home.
“He was at the casino claiming he was God and threatening people,” Lyons said.
Smith said Thibodeaux was not violent with the officers and did nothing to indicate he was a real danger.
The police chief said he does not believe the incident last week has any connection with the shooting of Riggenbach on Saturday.
Toussaint said he and other people who knew Thibodeaux had become concerned over the past two weeks about the man’s seemingly deteriorating mental state and had called the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Traci Landry declined to comment on specifics but said that if there were calls, the Sheriff’s Office would have responded.
Smith said he knew nothing about Thibodeaux’s mental issues until they were raised after the shooting on Saturday.
Investigators have not commented on a possible motive in the shootings or the specifics of what happened after law enforcement officers encountered Thibodeaux.
“We still have a lot of things we need to focus on,” said State Police spokesman Trooper Stephen Hammons.
He said investigators are also still unsure whether Lyons died from a gunshot wound or in the fire.
Detectives suspect Lyons was shot before the fire was set, but it is not clear whether that wound was fatal, Hammons said.
State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said it appears multiple fires were set at Lyons’ home, with flames damaging his house, a shed, a truck and an SUV parked nearby.
Some form of liquid was used to ignite the fires, but lab tests have not confirmed whether that liquid was gasoline, Browning said.