State corrections officers accidentally allowed a convicted killer to go free — and the agency’s top officials had no idea it happened until residents of Iberville Parish notified the sheriff.
Officials are still searching for Benjueil Johnson, 32, who was sentenced to 40 years after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the 2010 fatal shooting of a Plaquemine man in Iberville Parish.
Johnson, described by an Iberville prosecutor as “a dangerous man,” was accidentally released from the East Feliciana Parish jail on Sept. 22.
“We got a call Monday from someone saying they saw him and asking us why he was free,” Iberville Sheriff Brett Stassi said.
It was Stassi’s call to the state’s Department of Corrections about Johnson that launched the current manhunt.
“It was a staff error; I’m not even going to try and excuse it,” Pam Laborde, a DOC spokeswoman, said Tuesday. “It should have been caught, simple as that.”
Johnson had been transferred from state custody at Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson to the East Feliciana Parish jail to be booked on a misdemeanor count of battery of a correctional officer — a count unrelated to the murder.
Laborde said Johnson was able to bond out of custody in East Feliciana on Sept. 22 because his DOC file lacked information about his 2013 conviction in Iberville Parish for the murder of Cordies Gales.
Johnson in January 2013 pleaded guilty to manslaughter and attempted possession of a firearm by a convicted felon for shooting Gales, 31, after the two men were involved in a fight over a gambling game.
Johnson was to serve the 40-year concurrent sentences in addition to sentences for several other charges he already had been convicted of in another parish.
“Whenever he was convicted (in Iberville) in 2013, that information never came to us,” Laborde said. “So, last week, when he finished an early release program he was involved with related to his previous charges, we started the release process.”
In normal circumstances, Laborde said, when criminals are sentenced into DOC custody, the state gets paperwork from either the sheriff’s or district attorney’s office in the parish where the conviction occurred.
That paperwork contains the information DOC uses to calculate the release date when the inmate is admitted.
In Iberville Parish, the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for getting that conviction information to the DOC.
Sheriff Stassi on Tuesday disputed Laborde’s claim that his office did not file Johnson’s conviction information.
And even if they hadn’t, Stassi asserts his office was still not responsible for Johnson’s early release because Johnson’s rap sheet with the State Police includes the convictions in Gales’ murder.
“Because we sometimes don’t receive the paperwork from parishes, we do pull their State Police rap sheet,” Laborde said. “There was information on it that should have made our employee call Iberville first to determine the status on those particular charges before he was released.”
Laborde pointed out DOC handles more than 16,000 admission records annually and at least 17,000 releases a year.
“But I’m not trying to blame Iberville, because we should have caught it,” she added.
Laborde said authorities tried to keep Johnson’s release under wraps so they could work several leads in hopes of finding him.
Stassi said Johnson has family in Iberville Parish, but deputies had been unable to locate him in the area as of Tuesday.
“We’ve already looked in all of the places he should have been,” Stassi said.
Gales’ family members declined to comment Tuesday about Johnson’s accidental release, claiming they were still trying to process what happened.
Tony Clayton, assistant district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, called Johnson “a dangerous man” who needs to be back in jail as soon as possible.
“We have all the mechanisms in place to catch him,” Clayton said. “If he was smart, which clearly he’s not, looking at the trouble he got himself into, he would turn himself in.”
Laborde said authorities are handling the search for Johnson the same way they would a prison escapee.
“We do apologize to the victim’s family,” she said. “He’s going to be serving the time he’s supposed to when we get him back in custody.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.