A Zachary firefighter and reserve police officer was killed Monday night after he was run over by a man he was trying to arrest, becoming the police department’s first officer killed in the line of duty, officials said Tuesday.
Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Lawton, 41, died after he was hit by a U-Haul truck in the parking lot of the Baker Walmart, officials said. He and another unnamed Zachary police officer were working undercover to arrest the driver of the U-Haul after he was accused days earlier of using an AR-15 to hit his girlfriend in the face, said Zachary Police Chief David McDavid.
The driver, 33-year-old Albert Franklin, was later booked in Parish Prison on first-degree murder and other counts from both that incident and the alleged attack on his girlfriend, documents show. Ashley Brooke Chaney, 30, was also arrested on obstruction of justice in the Monday night incident.
Lawton joined the fire department in March 1996 as a volunteer and then became a full-time firefighter in March 1998, Zachary Fire Chief Danny Kimble said. He had been a deputy chief for the last few years and was an arson investigator.
"Chris was a hard worker and a dedicated fireman," Kimble said Tuesday morning. "And a family man, he believed very much in his family."
Lawton leaves behind his wife Shannon, son Marshall and daughter Claire, as well as numerous other family members, Kimble said.
Lawton became a reserve officer — a volunteer position — with the Zachary Police Department in 2008, where he worked part-time and without pay for the last decade, McDavid said. However, McDavid said Lawton was a fully certified officer, who received the same training as full-time officers and was a trusted veteran of their force.
"In my book, he's a double hero," McDavid said. "He served his community."
McDavid said Lawton, who was “always wanting to learn,” worked with detectives on what the police chief characterized as “a lot of high-risk stuff,” including a recent drug roundup.
Lawton won a medical lifesaver award from the fire department in 2014 after he rendered aid to a man while on vacation with family in Mexico, according to previous reports from The Advocate. He received numerous other awards, Kimble said.
He was a founding member of the Zachary Firefighter Association, Local 4644, Kimble said.
Lawton also graduated in 2016 from the Leadership North program, which is a training for local leaders organized by the Zachary Chamber of Commerce.
"Chris was a leader to the men below him, he was a leader for the fire service," Kimble said. "Chris was very dependable, if he told you he was going to do something, you could count on it going to happen."
Zachary Mayor David Amrhein said Lawton also consistently volunteered at city events, showing up for fish fries or charity events. He recently volunteered through his church, the Zachary United Methodist Church, to build a wheelchair ramp at a home, according to previous reports.
"Chris is the epitome is what it means to be a part of this community," Amrhein said. "Chris was a giver."
Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome ordered all flags at city-parish buildings and grounds be flown at half-staff to honor Lawton.
Lawton's cubby in the fire department was cleaned out Tuesday morning so firefighters could wash his gear to prepare it to be used in his funeral. Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced.
McDavid said Tuesday that Lawton and another unnamed officer had attempted to apprehend Franklin after receiving information about his location Monday night. The Zachary Police Department had filed an arrest warrant for Franklin on counts of aggravated second-degree battery, felon in possession of a firearm and aggravated assault with a firearm.
Witnesses told East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s deputies who were called to investigate Lawton’s death that the Zachary police officers had approached people inside a U-Haul truck parked in the Walmart parking lot at 14507 Plank Road, according to Franklin’s arrest report. The U-Haul truck was seen “fleeing the scene at a high rate of speed” while one of the officers hung on to the passenger side of the vehicle. The officer was seen falling from the moving vehicle and being struck by its rear tires, deputies wrote in the report.
Surveillance video from the scene showed one officer going to the passenger side of the vehicle and a second officer approaching the driver side. The driver of the U-Haul accelerated forward and turned the vehicle “in an invasive manner,” striking the police officer on the passenger side, the arrest report states.
The U-Haul was later located on Comite Road, where Franklin and Chaney had allegedly fled into the woods nearby. They were taken into custody without incident, their arrest reports said.
Franklin, 4979 St. Louis St., Zachary, was booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on counts of first-degree murder, hit and run, simple criminal damage to property, aggravated second-degree battery, felon in possession of a firearm and aggravated assault with a firearm. Chaney, 2424 Toledo St., Baker, was booked on obstruction of justice.
McDavid said Chaney was not the woman who accused Franklin of assaulting her with the weapon. He declined to release Franklin’s initial arrest warrant on Tuesday surrounding the alleged assault.
According to his arrest report from Monday’s fatal hit and run, Franklin told deputies he knew he was wanted by Zachary police and that he was driving the U-Haul at the time of the incident.
Chaney allegedly told deputies that Franklin recognized the Zachary police officers who approached the vehicle and specifically identified one of the officers by name. She also said that after abandoning the U-Haul truck, she dumped Franklin’s clothes and other personal items in the woods, according to her arrest report.
'Extensive criminal history'
The arrest report issued by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office noted Franklin has an “extensive criminal history,” which include two previous felony convictions. McDavid on Tuesday said he is concerned how Franklin was again out of jail, despite multiple arrests over the past year. Franklin also has pending charges in St. Helena Parish.
In 2017 in East Baton Rouge Parish, Franklin was arrested five separate times, posting bond each time, clerk of court records show.
On Nov. 13, Franklin was arrested by Zachary Police after drugs and a gun were found in his vehicle, records show. Following that incident, where he had also tried to flee police, his bail was initially set by 19th Judicial District Court Commissioner Nicole Robinson at $88,000. However, Judge Trudy White amended the bail the following day, setting it at $9,000 and Franklin posted bond, court records show.
"The system failed Chris Lawton, this guy shouldn't have been on the street," McDavid said.
When asked more about Franklin and how he’d been able to post bond, McDavid held back, saying he wanted to focus more on Lawton.
White did not respond to calls for comment on Tuesday.
In April, he was arrested on possession of cocaine, posting a $5,000 bond set by Judge Richard Anderson. Then in June, he was booked on theft and possession of stolen things, posting a $7,000 bond also set by Robinson. He was arrested in September on possession of schedule II drugs, failure to have tail lights and failure to have insurance, posting a $3,500 bond also set by White, court records show.
Court records also show Franklin was arrested in late November on a count of illegal possession of a stolen firearm. He posted his $5,000 bond, which was also set by Anderson.
Of his 2017 arrests, court records show Franklin has so far only been charged by East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III's office in the Nov. 13 arrest.
In that incident, an arrest report shows officers conducted a traffic stop when they saw a vehicle driving erratically, finding Franklin behind the wheel. After smelling drugs, the officers found cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and a loaded gun in the vehicle, the report says. Franklin was booked on possession with intent to distribute Schedule I and Schedule II drugs, possession of a firearm with controlled substances, felon in possession of a firearm, possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting an officer improper lane usage and failure to signal, court records show.
That case is still pending.
After Franklin’s arrest in the Monday night incident, St. Helena Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux filed a motion to revoke Franklin’s bond in a series of charges he faces in St. Helena. Franklin was arrested and charged most recently in St. Helena on Aug. 17, 2016 on looting, according to that bond revocation document. Between Feb. 2015 and April 2015 he was arrested four separate times and faces charges including multiple counts of aggravated assault with a firearm, second degree battery and illegal possession of stolen things, according to St. Helena court filings.
Franklin has also been convicted of possession of cocaine in 2005 and in 2007 of attempted unauthorized entry of an inhabited building for incidents in St. Helena Parish, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. Franklin left prison custody in 2009, and then finished serving parole for the crimes in 2012, Pastorick said.
In January 2016, he pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia in East Baton Rouge Parish, when he was sentenced to six months probation, court records show.
His bond agent, Winter Johnson, of Come Get Me Bail Bonding, said she has never known Franklin to have a personal lawyer, instead being represented by the public defender’s office.
Chief District Defender Michael Mitchell said Tuesday afternoon that his office has not been appointed to represent Franklin, but that could happen on Wednesday. He declined to comment on previous cases involving Franklin.
Baton Rouge-based attorney Kwame Asante is representing Franklin in some of the St. Helena Parish cases, but declined to comment on any of the allegations against his client.