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John Billiot Jr.

John Adam Billiot Jr., 39, a resident of Scott and the founder of America's Cajun Navy, a group that uses boats and high-water vehicles to respond to natural disasters, was arrested Tuesday for felony theft.

According to Lt. John Mowell, spokesman for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office, the criminal investigation division on Sept. 30 began an investigation of an alleged theft involving Billiot.

The victim, he said, advised investigators that Billiot allegedly started a GoFundMe account soliciting donations to help with the care of specific foster children and their foster parents and to buy Christmas presents for the children. But only a portion of the money was used to benefit the foster children, he said.

Mowell said most of the money was kept by Billiot, who was charged with felony theft by fraud and misappropriation of funds.

Billiot denied the theft Tuesday evening in an interview with The Acadiana Advocate.

In December 2018, Billiot and the America's Cajun Navy joined the search in Evangeline Parish for a 9-year-old missing boy. He was found a day after disappearing, at the house of neighbors. Child and family services was called because the boy was malnourished and living conditions at the home were poor. They removed the boy and a sister from the home. Their parents were charged with cruelty to juveniles.

Billiot said the neighbors at whose house the boy was found took the children in. He said he wanted to help the family with Christmas gifts for the children and other items, so he started a GoFundMe page for America's Cajun Navy and the family. More than $7,000 was donated through the page. Billiot said more than $2,000 was spent on beds and other items for the family. He also gave the parents cash, he said.

The remaining money, he said, he used to repay himself for personal funds he spent on fuel and supplies for the boy's search and future searches and rescues. 

A GoFundMe account still active Tuesday was created by Billiot in February with the goal of raising $10,000 in donations for America's Cajun Navy. Just over $1,000 was raised, it shows. 

Billiot said the GoFundMe account for the family was part of America's Cajun Navy's account and was removed after the money and items were given to the family.

America's Cajun Navy is listed as a limited liability company on the Secretary of State website, not a nonprofit group, a fact Billiot pointed out in a previous interview.

Records with the Louisiana Secretary of State Office show Billiot created America's Cajun Navy in September 2017, days after he and others from Acadiana responded to the Houston area where flooding from Hurricane Harvey trapped hundreds in their homes. Billiot and others used their own boats to rescue those trapped. They responded to other natural disasters after that, including at least one hurricane in Florida.

America's Cajun Navy is one of about a half-dozen rescue groups, all with some version of Cajun Navy in their name. They grew out of a grassroots response to massive flooding in New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and a month later in southwest Louisiana during Hurricane Rita.

The group's Facebook page was taken down Tuesday evening.

Billiot previously served on the board of the St. Martin Iberia Lafayette (SMILE) Community Action Agency until he was removed in 2018 for missing too many meetings. He claimed his removal was race related.

He previously sued SMILE over public records and sued a former SMILE president who would not relinquish his seat on the board after Billiot was appointed.

Billiot pleaded guilty in 2007 to one felony count of bank fraud, according to records with the Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Office. Records show in April 2006 he allegedly executed a scheme to defraud Iberia Bank. He was sentenced to seven years at hard labor and four years of probation.

Billiot bonded out of the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center Tuesday on a $7,500 bond.

Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.