A federal appeals court panel this week upheld an unusual 92-year prison sentence that a judge last year handed to a former Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy in connection with an apparent killing for which he was never charged.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo had good reason to throw the book at Mark Hebert, holding him responsible for the death of Albert Bloch, who disappeared in 2007.
Hebert pleaded guilty only to charges related to stealing Bloch’s bank cards and racking up huge bills on them around the time the Vietnam veteran and Metairie barfly went missing.
However, after a four-day sentencing hearing last year in which federal prosecutors presented circumstantial evidence that Hebert killed Bloch, describing it as “the perfect crime,” Milazzo agreed.
She cited Bloch’s apparent murder as a “relevant act” in sentencing Hebert well beyond what he might have received based only on his guilty pleas to seven counts of bank fraud, aggravated identity theft and depriving Bloch of his rights under color of law.
Unlike at a murder trial, in which a jury or judge would have needed to find Hebert guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, Milazzo was required only to find by a “preponderance of the evidence” that Hebert killed Bloch in order to use it against him at sentencing.
Milazzo, in fact, went beyond that standard, saying she found “clear and convincing” evidence of Hebert’s guilt in Bloch’s murder.
“I have no doubt that Mr. Hebert killed Mr. Bloch and disposed of his body for personal financial gain,” the judge said during sentencing. “You wanted everything that belonged to Albert Bloch, even his life.”
Hebert appealed, arguing that the evidence didn’t bear out that decision, that Milazzo went outside the bounds of federal law in attaching the purported murder to his sentence, and that the 92-year sentence amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
A panel of 5th Circuit judges — Chief Judge Carl Stewart, Carolyn Dineen King and Stephen Higginson — found that Milazzo’s reasoning held up.
“On this evidence, we cannot say that the district court’s finding of second-degree murder was ‘illogical or implausible,’ ” the panel said in a 23-page ruling Wednesday.
Hebert, a Jefferson Parish traffic deputy at the time, had responded to a single-vehicle crash on Aug. 2, 2007, in which Bloch, a chronic alcoholic, was injured and hospitalized. Hebert took Bloch’s wallet and cellphone and quickly went to town.
He used Bloch’s cards to buy car parts, a stove, welding equipment, GPS units and other devices, giving one GPS unit to his then-wife for her birthday, she testified.
Hebert later told police that Bloch was a friend who bankrolled his car-racing pursuits.
But federal prosecutors said Hebert grew alarmed after Bloch spotted the fraud, canceled his debit card and got a replacement. Hebert got hold of Bloch’s checks and replacement card and started charging hefty purchases shortly after Bloch’s last cash withdrawal at his favorite watering hole, Joe’s Caddy Corner.
Milazzo rejected a handful of purported sightings of Bloch after that. The last true sighting, she found, was a day later, when a patron at Joe’s saw him sitting at the end of the bar.
“See you tomorrow, darlin’,” he told her.
A search of Hebert’s Covington house later turned up Bloch’s TV. The key to Bloch’s abandoned Volvo was found in Hebert’s patrol car.
Hebert, 50, a law enforcement veteran for 19 years, steadfastly denied killing Bloch but acknowledged the fraud, saying the chaotic aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita sent him into “a progression that led me out of bounds.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.