Prosecutors have scuttled a multi-agency investigation into a notorious strip club in St. Helena Parish, saying an undercover agent crossed the line – and may have committed a crime – by digitally penetrating a woman during two private dances.
The month-long sting operation included another officer asking a dancer at The Mansion to lactate on him "because he was curious," according to court documents filed by authorities.
The repeated penetration of the dancer was described in a lengthy affidavit signed in December by Scott Jarreau, a Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office deputy who recounted the undercover agents' actions in graphic detail but did not name the officers. It's unclear from the document what role Jarreau played in the investigation.
The affidavit was filed in support of a civil asset forfeiture case against the club's owner that was ultimately dismissed.
The agents' questionable conduct was among the reasons prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against 13 people arrested in the raid, including the club's proprietor.
"There was some unusual conduct, unusual methods in conducting this raid and investigation," 21st Judicial District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said in an interview. "At the end of the day, there wasn't a whole lot of substantive criminal charges to go forward on."
A half-dozen current and former law enforcement officials said in interviews that the agents' tactics not only ran afoul of policing standards, but may have violated state law. Undercover officers often arrest dancers and prostitutes for solicitation, but they are not permitted to engage in sex acts during the course of their investigation.
"Not only did this cross the line, it lost sight of the line," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group. "It’s so far beyond the pale of what’s acceptable."
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Perrilloux said he will consider referring the agents' conduct to local and state law enforcement for criminal investigation, listing State Police, the Attorney General's Office or the sheriffs' offices in St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes as possibilities.
Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards initially defended his deputies, telling The Advocate that the tactics used by the agents are the right ones for an undercover prostitution sting.
"You have to act like one of the customers, like a civilian and you're cool and you're not the police," Edwards said. "Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to do."
The sheriff, in a subsequent interview Saturday, said he regrets "that any agents involved touched any dancers." He said he intends to retrain his deputies so they do not engage in similar conduct.
"They should have been instructed to have as little physical contact as possible," Edwards said. "I accept full responsibility for that."
An undercover probe
Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control organized the sting following a series of complaints of drugs and prostitution inside the rundown gentleman's club located along La. 16, west of Amite City. The Mansion is one of two strip clubs in the rural parish of 10,000 people that for years have been the subject of scandal and public debate.
A group of religious leaders sought to get rid of them around 2012, but the clubs' owners persisted by securing exemptions from new regulations.
The investigation included undercover agents visiting the nightclub on four occasions between Nov. 15 and Dec. 1, according to the affidavit. It involved agents from the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office, Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the Shreveport Police Department.
Edwards said ATC "asked if I could loan them some undercover help."
"It was obvious that this establishment was running a prostitution and drug business with management not just complicit but actively involved," the sheriff said.
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It's not clear why Shreveport, which is more than four hours away, lent officers to the effort.
The agents posed as boorish club-goers, tipping the dancers and putting themselves in a position to be offered sex or drugs.
During one of the visits, an unnamed agent agreed to pay a dancer $80 for a private dance in a back room. The agent handed the woman an additional tip, the affidavit says, and then "began to enter her vagina with his fingers in a rotating manner."
The document includes other salacious details about the encounter and the dancer's appearance, such as her "matching" white top and thong underwear, and her shaved pubic area.
It's unclear why Jarreau included such graphic details, but the descriptions are presented as incriminating.
The same agent performed that routine with the dancer for another $80 two hours later.
A week later, an undercover agent returned to the club and asked the same dancer for "a hand job or a blowjob, and she replied by whispering in the undercover agent's ear she can do more than that," according to the affidavit.
Although the agent was using recording equipment, it picked up none of the alleged solicitation, according to the affidavit.
Agents attempted to ask two other dancers about their "limits," and both told the officers sexual activity was against the rules.
In a separate encounter, an undercover agent purchased a $200 private dance with another woman. She removed her top and placed herself "within the 'immediate control' of the undercover agent," the affidavit says. "The undercover agent was able to embrace, touch, grab, caress the topless performer."
The woman said she had given birth three months earlier and that her breasts still had milk in them.
The agent asked the woman to demonstrate that, the affidavit says, "because he was curious to see if it was true." She obliged, spraying milk on his face.
The affidavit cited that encounter as an example of the strip club violating the terms of its state license, which requires that dancers wear "pasties" over their nipples and forbids them from exposing their genitalia.
"Agents found that these rules were not enforced or followed," Jarreau wrote, "and a simple request could be given to have anything you desired."
After visiting the strip club three times, the undercover squad raided The Mansion the night of Dec. 1. Armed with a search warrant, they called in backup from the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office and Louisiana State Police.
In total, 13 employees and guests were booked on counts that included possession of marijuana and Adderall, prostitution by massage and possession of a stolen firearm.
The owner of the business, Tyrone Butler, was booked with "letting a disorderly place" and malfeasance in office. Manager John Catalano Jr. was also wearing a "duty weapon" and was booked with possessing illegal narcotics, "letting a disorderly place" and malfeasance in office, the affidavit says.
Butler and Catalano were both found to be carrying badges issued by the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office. That may have served as the basis for the malfeasance charges, which generally may only be lodged against public officials.
Chester Pritchett, the chief criminal deputy for the St. Helena Parish Sheriff's Office, said in an interview that Butler had an honorary commission because he was serving as an informant. He said the commission had been suspended two months before the raid, but he neglected to retrieve it.
Pritchett said Catalano had an honorary commission because he had assisted a sheriff's detective. The chief deputy said the commission was revoked after the arrest.
Butler declined to comment for this story. When a reporter visited his establishment, he simply said: "Get off my property."
Butler was recently rearrested for allegedly beating a student reporter at Southeastern Louisiana University who tried to film video of the exterior of the club.
Catalano did not return a message seeking comment.
Perrilloux, the district attorney, said his prosecutor assigned to St. Helena Parish decided not to pursue charges after the raid. The case was dropped, he said, due to the questionable conduct of the agents, the length of time it took to get reports from the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office and the strength of the evidence.
"We didn’t think it was good idea to have this conduct aired publicly in a prosecution," Perrilloux added.
Edwards, the sheriff, said it did not "sit well" with him that he learned from The Advocate that Perrilloux had declined to prosecute the case.
"If none of the charges were deemed worthy of prosecution, it seems quite inconsistent that the DA sought to have the $13,000 in cash seized forfeited," Edwards said. "I wish that undercover officers had not gone as far as they did, but I do not believe they committed a crime."
It's unclear whether Jarreau participated in the undercover sting, or if he merely wrote the affidavit. The document names only one other officer, Maurice Rodriguez, an undercover narcotics detective with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office.
Rodriguez was one of the officers who visited the nightclub on Nov. 15, but it's unclear what specific role he played.
Attempts to reach Jarreau and Rodriguez were unsuccessful.
Pritchett faxed a statement to The Advocate that said the December raid "exposed several weaknesses in dealing with 'extra duty side jobs' and communications problems with task force and outside agencies by my department." He did not elaborate.
He said the agency's involvement was limited to the final raid.
A State Police spokesman said his agency was not involved in the undercover operations and only assisted in the execution of the search warrant. A Shreveport Police Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Assigned to federal task force
Jarreau, the officer who wrote the affidavit, previously investigated juvenile crimes for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office. He was assigned to narcotics after returning to the Sheriff's Office in late 2015.
A month or two after the raid, Jarreau was named to a multiagency task force led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said Special Agent Debbie Webber, a DEA spokeswoman. Before that appointment, the DEA task force had been without a Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office representative since the U.S. Justice Department in 2016 charged two former task force members with distributing drugs and stealing cash during federal drug raids.
Both deputies, Karl E. Newman and Johnny Domingue, had been Tangipahoa Parish deputies who worked alongside Chad Scott, a longtime DEA agent who remains under federal indictment.
Goyeneche, of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the DEA should take "a long look" at whether Jarreau should remain on the federal task force. He said the agent's actions in the strip club case — and his failure to recognize misconduct — call his training into question.
Webber said Jarreau underwent a thorough background check before his appointment to the task force. The DEA declined to comment on the conduct that Jarreau described in the warrant, noting the feds were not involved in the investigation of the strip club.
Ernest P. Legier Jr., the deputy ATC commissioner, said that prosecutors did not contact the ATC before deciding not to pursue charges. He said the owner of the strip club pleaded guilty to administrative charges filed by the ATC, which resulted in a suspension of the club's license, probation and a "consent agreement" that requires changes recommended by ATC.
"I can say unequivocally that ATC undercovers are trained to avoid encounters which could jeopardize the investigation," Legier said.
'You don’t do that kind of s--t'
The episode comes at a time when the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office has come under intense scrutiny: It's a focus of at least three ongoing federal probes led by the FBI.
But Edwards, the sheriff, insists his officers did nothing wrong in this case. He compared the exchanges to a law enforcement drug bust.
"When setting up a dope transaction, we buy drugs all the time," Edwards said. "You have to have some discretion to your undercover agent. You have to see what is offered or allowed."
Edwards, whose brother is Gov. John Bel Edwards and whose father was also the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, said he would not condone his officers "having intercourse to completion" in the service of a prostitution case.
He stressed that the investigation revealed illegal activity inside the club.
But Goyeneche, a former prosecutor, called for an investigation into the supervision of the undercover operation. He said Jarreau appears to have "had no clue and no training as to what is appropriate."
"Not only did this officer who wrote the warrant not realize that what he was writing was inappropriate, but neither did his supervisors," he said. "They didn’t do their job either, and that is equally disturbing."
Tim Bayard, a former longtime New Orleans Police Department captain who led that agency’s vice and narcotics squad, said that an officer penetrating a dancer is "definitely not what should have happened."
He said undercover officers can arrest a dancer or prostitute based solely on a verbal offer for a sex act.
"As far as inserting anything, that was a no-no for us for damn sure,” Bayard said. “You don’t do that kind of s--t."