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Maudess Sandra Douglas, left, mother of Port Allen's Josef Richardson, 38, who was shot and killed in July, 2019 by a West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office deputy, speaks during a rally calling for the removal of a statue of Henry Watkins Allen, the former Louisiana Confederate governor and general, Sunday, June 28, 2020, in a courtyard of the West Baton Rouge Parish Library. At right is Jessica Ellen Clouatre, who was with Richardson when he was shot.

Almost a year after a West Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy shot and killed Josef Richardson while executing a "no-knock" warrant at his motel room, the officer has been cleared following an internal affairs investigation and has returned to regular law enforcement duties.

The sheriff's office released its full internal affairs report to the West Side Journal earlier this week and that newspaper shared the report with The Advocate. It shows that Deputy Vance Matranga Jr. was cleared of wrongdoing, a decision that came after prosecutors announced in March that they wouldn't press charges against the officer.

The shooting was controversial for several reasons — most notably the nature of the search warrant and the fact that that Richardson was shot in the back of the head and Matranga's gun had been modified with a lighter trigger. The incident prompted a handful of protests as citizens demanded answers about the July 2019 fatal encounter at the motel on U.S. 190, a few miles north of Port Allen.

A spokesman with the sheriff's office confirmed Thursday that Matranga had returned to work several weeks ago after the report was finalized. He had been placed on leave and later assigned to desk duty pending results of the criminal and administrative investigations. 

Many details about the encounter had already been made public since the Louisiana Attorney General's office released their findings earlier this year. But the internal investigation sheds some new light on what happened that night at the motel.

Matranga and the other deputy involved in the fatal struggle with Richardson both told investigators that they had reason to believe the suspect was armed. A confidential informant had just purchased drugs from Richardson and told deputies the man kept a gun tucked into his waistband, according to the report. Matranga also said he was familiar with Richardson from past encounters and anticipated he would "either fight and run away, or run away and then fight."

Deputies have said they obtained a no-knock search warrant — which allows officers to enter a building unannounced — because they wanted to prevent suspects from destroying possible evidence, in this case drugs and a gun. The technique has been widely questioned amid nationwide demonstrations following the police shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, who was killed after officers stormed her apartment while she was sleeping. Taylor died several months after Richardson.

When deputies entered Richardson's motel room, the suspect refused to comply with multiple orders to show his hands, according to the report. He first walked toward officers "with a straight face, with no emotion and with an aggressive posture," deputies said. Then he turned away from them, at which point Lt. Brett Cavalier started struggling with Richardson in an attempt to secure his hands.

Matranga said he saw Richardson reach his left hand into his pants, then remove it in a clenched fist. The officer said he saw "a dark object" in Richardson's fist and assumed it was a gun, which caused him to fear for Cavalier's life.

"Matranga stated at that point he could not see Mr. Richardson's hands, and there were no other options that he could have taken. He deliberately removed his finger from the frame of the gun on to the trigger, and fired a shot into Mr. Richardson's upper back near his neck."

The report doesn't include information about whether a gun was ever found at the scene, but attorneys for Richardson's family have argued in a federal wrongful death lawsuit that the shooting constitutes excessive force because Richardson was not armed. They also questioned whether Matranga accidentally fired his weapon after finding out the gun may have been modified with a lighter trigger pull.

Matranga has served about a decade with the West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office. He's had extensive gun safety training, earned a prestigious award for saving a state trooper's life in 2011 and worked as the department's firearms instructor, records show.

He was also carrying his personal gun — not a department-issued firearm — on the night he shot and killed Richardson, according to the internal affairs report.

That didn't violate department policies because he had approval to use the weapon and had qualified with it in recent firearms certification training, Matranga told investigators. The gun in question was outfitted with a trigger connector that "allows for a smoother trigger squeeze" but Matranga said none of the safeties were disabled and "the trigger pull was not shorter."

Richardson was pronounced dead on the scene. Investigators found drugs in the motel room and arrested his girlfriend, Jessica Clouatre, who had witnessed the shooting.

Richardson's family and their attorneys have condemned law enforcement for taking his life over alleged drug sales. Bodycam footage of the encounter doesn't exist because West Baton Rouge sheriff's deputies don't wear them.

In response to recent outrage over the incident in Louisville that led to Taylor's death, the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously last month to ban no-knock search warrants, which are still permissible almost everywhere else in the country.

Staff writer Youssef Rddad contributed to this report.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.