MARKSVILLE — About three months ago, Marksville Marshal Floyd Voinche’s office bought a pair of used Crown Victoria police cruisers, hired a few cops to work part-time and began patrolling the city’s streets like never before, writing citations and looking for speeding motorists.
Two of those officers now face murder counts after State Police say a brief nighttime chase on Nov. 3 ended with both firing at least 18 rounds into a vehicle deputy marshals had pinned in near the gates of a shuttered state park. The shooting left 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis dead and wounded his father, 25-year-old Christopher Few.
The killing of the child has thrown the small Avoyelles Parish town into the news at a time when many police-involved deaths draw national media scrutiny. But the fatal shooting also has stirred up a long-simmering political feud, spotlighting a budget and turf battle between two arms of Marksville’s government that some say prompted the marshal to transform his agency — typically one that focused on delivering subpoenas and serving warrants — into a small but active force on the streets.
The slaying has cast the running conflicts between Marksville Mayor John Lemoine and City Court Judge Angelo Piazza III into sharp relief, laying bare what many in town had considered petty political squabbling that dates back to shortly after Lemoine first took office in 2009.
In interviews since the shooting, Lemoine has questioned the marshal’s decision to expand his operations. Voinche never consulted the city before expanding his force and hiring two full-time Marksville officers — including Lt. Derrick Stafford, one of the two arrested in Jeremy’s death — without permission, he said.
The mayor had questioned Voinche’s decision before, writing to the state Attorney General’s Office on Sept. 1 to ask whether the Marshal’s Office had legal authority to issues tickets within Marksville’s city limits.
“We just couldn’t understand why they wanted three cops to duplicate the same thing we’re doing in the city,” Lemoine said after a City Council meeting last Thursday.
But others in Marksville say the clashes between Lemoine and city court officials, including Voinche, run much deeper — and is more complicated than how it’s been portrayed by the mayor in interviews with statewide and national media.
On one side is a mayor who argues his city has shouldered too much of the cost of operating the court. On the other side is city court, led by Piazza, a 57-year-old judge who’s held his seat on the bench since 1990 and criticizes the mayor’s focus on court revenue. What may have begun as a purely political showdown over budgets, many in Marksville now say, has also become an intensely personal battle between the former friends.
Few blame the feud directly for Jeremy’s death last week — both officers booked on counts of murder were fully certified and both also have worked for the Marksville Police Department — but the shooting and its fallout has cast the conflict into sharp relief.
The small Avoyelles Parish town of about 5,700 people is the sort of place where nearly everyone knows each other — and locals described the politics as particularly intense and personal. Perhaps best known as the hometown of former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the economy is dominated by the Paragon Casino Resort, built on the adjacent Tunica-Biloxi Indian Reservation, and by a medium-security state prison in nearby Cottonport. About half white and 43 percent black, the town’s economy is far from vibrant, with almost a third of residents living below the poverty line.
Town residents and politicos have different assessments of disagreements between Piazza and Lemoine.
“I guess it’s just a vendetta this mayor has against the judge,” said Elliot “Pete 3 Pete” Jordan Jr., a former city councilman and Lemoine critic who recently lost his bid for re-election.
“It’s really childish politics,” said Daniel Daquier, a former city councilman and police commissioner who said he resigned from office in 2013 because of the tempestuous infighting. “It’s a little-bitty town where everybody’s related to everyone else. It’d take a complete wipe to straighten it out.
“Nobody’s right,” Daquier added.
The conflict started shortly after Lemoine was elected, when he ordered several audits of city court, none of which turned up any significant issues. Then in June, Marksville’s City Council — at Lemoine’s recommendation — voted to dramatically slash the court’s budget, including the salaries of both Voinche and Piazza.
The judge told the Marksville Weekly News at that time that the move was a “purely political” attack.
Piazza responded to the funding cuts by filing a still-pending lawsuit against the city and the Avoyelles Parish Police Jury. The Police Jury quickly settled, agreeing to step in and cover just over half of the court’s budget. The city, though, is fighting the lawsuit.
Speaking from his Marksville law office last week, Piazza said the mayor’s dollars-and-cents approach to city court discounted the judge’s responsibility to consider each case on its merits and dole out appropriate punishments.
“It’s not a business,” Piazza said. “It’s not just about making money for the town.”
Lemoine, a 63-year-old lifelong Marksville resident who owns a wrecker service and auto shop and was a longtime parish School Board member, said the decision to cut the budget came after years of losses in city court, where expenses far outstripped fine revenue.
“There’s not a year that went by where we were making money,” Lemoine said.
Some here — including most of Lemoine’s political rivals — allege the mayor pressured the Marksville cops to quit writing tickets in a bid to starve the court of revenue, charges the mayor and current police chief, Elster Smith Jr., deny.
Nonetheless, the marshal’s stepped-up patrols in Marksville coincide with a dramatic drop in the number of traffic tickets issued in the town. In 2013, City Court handled nearly 2,000 total traffic tickets. In 2014, that figure plunged to just 829, according to Louisiana Supreme Court data. At a City Council meeting last week, Marksville Police Chief Elster Smith Jr. reported that his department had issued just 30 tickets — 20 for state offenses and 10 for violating municipal ordinances — in the month of October.
Into that gap stepped Voinche and his previously tiny office. Though historically the office has largely limited itself to serving court papers, state statute gives ward marshals broad-ranging authority to enforce the law within their jurisdictions. That could include patrolling the streets and issuing tickets.
“One day, I pulled up and there they were, decals and all,” said Smith, the current chief, who said he’d been unaware of Voinche’s plans.
Voinche did not return messages seeking comment for this story, but the marshal — a longtime Avoyelles Parish school bus driver and onetime sheriff’s employee who recently was re-elected unopposed after 12 years in the office — has previously defended his decision to put deputies out on patrol.
Lemoine also has had running conflicts with the Marksville Police Department, which had three different chiefs during his five years in office. Lemoine has complained in interviews since the shooting that he’s tried to reform the department and fire bad cops from the force but has been hampered by the town’s civil service board. The mayor described the department as divided, with only a portion of the officers loyal to the current chief, whom Lemoine hired in 2013, and told CNN that the town struggles with corruption.
Since the shooting, Lemoine has been pointedly critical of Stafford, one of the arrested officers.
The arrest of Stafford on Nov. 6 was not the officer’s first brush with the law. A lieutenant and shift supervisor for the Marksville Police Department, Stafford had been indicted by a grand jury in 2011 on two counts of aggravated rape in neighboring Rapides Parish. Those charges were later dropped, though it remains unclear why. Court documents in the case list Piazza, the city court judge, as Stafford’s defense attorney at the time. Piazza declined to comment on the case.
Stafford is also named in at least five pending lawsuits in Avoyelles Parish. Among the accusations against Stafford in the civil suits are that he broke a 15-year-old girl’s arm on a school bus, used a stun gun on a handcuffed woman in the back of a police cruiser and used a stun gun on Marksville man while questioning him about a neighbor’s dog. Norris Greenhouse Jr., a former Marksville police officer who is the second deputy marshal booked in the shooting, is named in two of those suits, both stemming from an incident during a 2013 Fourth of July celebration in Marksville. Both suits allege that another officer indiscriminately used a chemical spray on the crowd while other officers — including Stafford and Greenhouse — stood by. One of the suits alleges that both men joined in on a beating of one man.
Despite these allegations of problems, others in town said Lemoine’s criticisms have as much to do with the mayor’s attempts to bend the department to his will as with any efforts to clean up a troubled agency.
Marksville City Councilman Mike Gremillion, who retired from Angola State Penitentiary and now works in security for the Paragon Indian casino just outside of Marksville, said Lemoine relentlessly tried to meddle in the department during Gremillion’s brief tenure as police commissioner.
“He wants it his way or no way,” Gremillion said. “The mayor felt that I and the chief should do whatever he wanted — right or wrong, legal or illegal — and we wouldn’t do it.”
The Rev. Allen Holmes, a Baptist preacher and the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said the issues in Marksville go beyond any one elected official. But Holmes criticized Lemoine’s comments decrying the corruption of the police department.
“He has this ongoing battle with the police department and then he hollers that they’re corrupt,” said Holmes. “The political system is corrupt. That’s what’s corrupt.”
Daquier, the former police commissioner, said that the town’s issues have historically been “swept under the rug” by town leaders. With intense scrutiny in the wake of the tragic shooting, Daquier said that might soon change.
“It’s a chance now to put it out in the open,” Daquier said.