Reversal of Fortune?_lowres


Over the last 20 years, Houma businessman Arlen "Benny" Cenac Jr. gained a reputation as a millionaire philanthropist who uses his money to do good. Two years ago, he donated more than half a million dollars to his alma mater Nicholls State University; last year, he donated $20,000 to Gov. Mike Foster's Sept. 11th fire truck fund. Over the years, the 47-year-old Cenac has helped fund protection of southeast Louisiana's coastline. The most negative public allegation ever leveled against Cenac until recently? He was arrested in 1987 for poaching, taking 14 ducks over the daily limit.

Now, in criminal and civil cases, Cenac, whose Terrebonne Parish company employs more than 400 people with gross sales in excess of $50 million, stands accused of raping a former employee's then 4-year-old boy at least seven times. Further, civil lawyers for the child allege in court documents that Cenac used his money and power -- and high-level managers at Cenac Towing Co. -- to cover up molestations of other juvenile victims and sexual harassment of an unspecified number of adult male employees.

In addition, authorities charge that two weeks before law enforcement personnel descended on Cenac's ranch in the small Lafourche Parish community of Gheens to arrest him on the sexual assault charges, the multi-millionaire struck and killed a Houma man, then fled home and washed his Toyota Sequoia in an effort to hide any trace of human remains. He currently faces one count of felony hit and run in connection with that incident.

No one knows if Cenac will be convicted of the charges he now faces, but one thing is certain: the charges against him have roiled the bayou communities of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes.

In 1927, the Cenac family got its start in the oil business when Ovide "Jock" Cenac began towing oil rigs for an oil company that would later become known as Texaco. Over the years, the senior Cenac expanded the company's reach across the Gulf Coast. Arlen "Benny" Cenac Jr., a 1979 graduate of Nicholls State University, took the helm of his grandfather's company, Cenac Towing Co., in 1983. He was 27. Today, the company has barges all along the Mississippi River, from St. Louis to the Intracoastal Waterway in south Louisiana.

Those were the highlights of the Cenac story until the afternoon of Feb. 28. While most people in south Louisiana were gearing up for a long Mardi Gras weekend, a team of law enforcement personnel -- with a sniper and agents dressed in camouflage, armed with M-16s -- descended on Arlen Cenac's 50,000-plus acre ranch in Gheens. At least one deputy fired a shot into Cenac's home, according to court documents.

That was the first sign that police and investigators would treat Cenac differently than most suspects, says Cenac's lead defense attorney, Michael Ellis of New Orleans -- a charge Ellis says reaches into both the civil and criminal cases. Ellis filed motions in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes trying to quash what he called "strong-arm tactics" used in the criminal investigation. Ellis said that investigators were, among other things, threatening to "out" men who may have had sexual relationships with Cenac.

"You're obviously dealing with an individual of unlimited resources who has unleashed a group of legal attack dogs in an attempt to divert attention away from the matter at hand," Lafourche Sheriff Craig Webre told the Houma Courier. "If I was being investigated for a crime, I would want to restrain the investigating officers, too."

Terrebonne Sheriff Jerry Larpenter hired Houma attorney Bill Dodd to oppose Ellis' claims. Dodd told Lafourche Parish Judge Jerome Barbera that detectives followed proper procedure throughout the investigation. On April 1, Barbera dismissed Ellis' motion; a similar objection was withdrawn in Terrebonne Parish.

In addition to claims of prosecutorial misconduct, Ellis says that St. Martin and Williams, the law firm representing the alleged victim's family in the civil suit, is systematically out to get as much money from Cenac as possible. St. Martin's firm has sued Cenac or his companies 17 times in the last 25 years. Most of those cases involved personal injury claims. Cenac says he feels the firm has unfairly targeted him.

"Anybody in my position or in the community I live in that has my [wealth] can be a target," Cenac says.

Ellis says it's clear the plaintiff lawyers see dollar signs in Cenac and his company, Cenac Towing. "Let's put it this way, if Arlen Cenac lived in a doublewide, do you think they'd be suing him [17] times?" Ellis asks.

Williams responds to Ellis' charge with one of his own: "Most people who live in a doublewide down on the bayou don't engage in this kind of behavior to begin with. ... It's got nothing to do with how much money he has. That suggestion is preposterous."

Without a doubt, Cenac's wealth has afforded him an able team of attorneys to defend him and his company from financial liability in connection with the civil suits, a blue chip lawyer to defend him in criminal court, and a bevy of private investigators. "This guy is worth [millions] and he's going to spare no expense -- not only to beat the criminal rap but to bury us in this civil case," Williams says.

The law firm of Duval Funderburk Sundbery Lovell & Watkins is representing Cenac Towing Co. Berwick Duval, the brother of U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., is the lead attorney for Cenac Towing.

Cenac is charged with seven counts of aggravated rape of the boy, who is now 5, in two parishes and a single count of felony hit and run. Prosecutors say their investigations are ongoing.

Documents filed in connection with the alleged criminal sexual assault, as well as a civil suit filed March 6 by the family of the alleged victim, claim that in November 2002 the child, who allegedly spent considerable time with Cenac (including sleeping at his home), complained to his parents that his "butt" hurt.

Soon after, the boy's parents contacted Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. A staff psychologist at the local Child Advocacy Center twice interviewed the boy, who neither confirmed nor denied that Cenac abused him, according to an affidavit that forms the basis of the criminal charges. But a short time later, according to the affidavit, the boy told his parents and his teen-aged sister that Cenac "licked" his genitals. The affidavit also states that in February, the boy told a sex abuse therapist that Cenac regularly performed oral sex on him.

For years, the boy's family lived next door to Cenac in Houma, on property owned by Cenac. Soon after the allegations surfaced, the family moved; the boy's father, who was employed by Cenac Towing Co. for about 14 years, quit his job and now works elsewhere.

According to the criminal case affidavit, Cenac took "an unusually overbearing interest in the upbringing" of the boy and often bathed him. "The victim also slept in Cenac's home regularly," the affidavit states. "On nearly every weekend of the victim's life, the ... family would accompany Cenac to his ranch in Lafourche Parish. The victim always slept in Cenac's room at the ranch."

The affidavit further states that Cenac, known to the victim as "Uncle Benny," performed oral sex on the boy at least five times in Terrebonne Parish and twice in Lafourche Parish. Cenac regularly engaged the boy in sexual activity at Cenac's Houma residence, in a private bedroom at the corporate offices of Cenac Towing, and at the child's home next to Cenac's in Houma. The boy also told investigators that Cenac often took him into the men's room in public places "even if I didn't have to pee" and said Cenac molested him in the restroom of a K-Mart store and a Houma supermarket.

Cenac also threatened to kill the boy's mother if the boy ever told anyone what happened, according to the affidavit. "Who would be left to take care of you and your daddy?" Cenac allegedly told the boy.

Cenac, speaking publicly about the charges for the first time, told Gambit Weekly two weeks ago that all the allegations are completely unfounded. His lawyers are even more pointed, claiming the boy's parents are gold diggers looking to exploit a wealthy man who generously helped the family for years.

"I absolutely did not do this to this child. This is a very false accusation. I am innocent of this and I think all of that will come out when all the dust settles," Cenac says.

Cenac says that when he learned of the allegations, "I fell to my knees. I was just flabbergasted. I would never have believed in a thousand years this would happen."

Investigators claim in the criminal affidavit that they've located at least two other men whom Cenac allegedly molested as juveniles. According to the affidavit, Cenac silenced one of them when he "threatened to harm the subject's father if anyone found out about the incident." The other alleged victim "received a large cash settlement from Cenac to not file suit or reveal that Cenac had also sexually abused him as a child," the affidavit states. The document then adds, "There are other indications that Cenac has previously sexually abused children."

The civil suit likewise alleges that Cenac has sexually abused others, including some employees of his company -- and that Cenac has used the resources of his company to cover up his actions. Cenac has denied all the allegations.

One of the two alleged victims cited in the criminal affidavit is a Bayou Blue man who says Cenac molested him once when he was 12 years old. The man, now 35, told Gambit Weekly that Cenac offered to let him use his fishing boat, then tried to force him to submit to oral sex in a bedroom in Cenac's Bayou Blue home.

"I turned my back to him and he grabbed me from behind, and he started playing with me," the alleged victim says. "He had me with one arm around my chest and he was fondling me with the other. Then, he was able to get my pants down, came around to the front and began to have oral sex with me. We started to struggle and I wound up hitting him and getting away."

The accuser says when he confronted Cenac the next day, Cenac threatened to kill his father if he told anyone. "I told him, 'I'm gonna go and tell my dad.' He stopped what he was doing and he looked at me and said, 'If you ever tell anybody I'll have your daddy killed. I got enough money I can do anything I want to do, besides who are they gonna believe? Me or a punk like you?'"

The alleged victim says he told close friends about the incident years ago, but never contacted law enforcement. He says he decided to come forward after hearing that Cenac was being investigated in connection with the new charges. "When they told me a 4-year-old boy was molested I thought ... this man has to be stopped."

Cenac answered through his attorney, Mike Ellis. "There have been a couple of occasions where people have tried to shake down Mr. Cenac and this appears to be one of those cases," Ellis says. "I don't believe [the alleged abuse] ever happened."

According to the March 6 civil lawsuit against Cenac, high-level managers of Cenac Towing helped the millionaire cover up sexual harassment of adult men and molestations of minor children -- a charge Cenac denies.

"They had no knowledge of any of my private business whatsoever," says Cenac. "That is a total mistruth. Absolutely not."

Berwick Duval, who represents Cenac Towing Co. in the civil suit, says such charges are "quasi-criminal." In a preliminary court hearing he asked Williams' firm to furnish a list of names of those who covered up Cenac's alleged improprieties. A judge said such details could wait until discovery motions were filed.

In early March, Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Waitz recused his office from prosecuting the rape charges, asking state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub's office to handle it. A number of Waitz's employees are said to have had prior dealings with Cenac through his business holdings, including Cenac Towing.

Ieyoub's office has referred the Terrebonne charges to Lafourche District Attorney Cam Morvant, whose office had filed two of the seven original charges against Cenac. Cenac is currently free on $350,000 bond for the aggravated rape charges. He also posted a $30,000 bond for the hit-and-run charge. Lawyers continue to file motions in the civil suit. No trial date has been set for Cenac's criminal charges.