Jaime Hymel told detectives that she woke up face-down on the concrete after a near-overdose March 2, only to discover that her longtime friend Richard Keller Jr. had stopped breathing at his Destrehan home from his own drug use.
Despite her frantic efforts, she could not wake him. So she called 911.
She was still in the hospital when she agreed to act as an informant to help arrest the Kenner man who authorities allege sold her the combination of heroin and fentanyl that killed Keller, 38, and nearly took her life.
Because of her cooperation, Roderick “Lucky” Hackett, 40, was arrested later the same day.
But in a strange twist in the case, the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office on Monday booked both Hymel, 39, and Hackett, who already has been convicted of attempted heroin distribution in the case, on second-degree murder counts in Keller’s death.
Sheriff Greg Champagne employed a section of Louisiana’s criminal code that allows people who sell or provide illegal drugs to be charged with murder after an overdose death. If convicted, both Hymel and Hackett face life in prison.
Champagne touted the arrests as a warning to both drug dealers and users. But Hackett’s lawyer is crying foul, calling his rebooking a blatant case of double jeopardy. And another critic says Hymel’s arrest could scare drug users away from calling 911 when help is needed most.
The second-degree murder statute is increasingly being used at a time when officials seek to curb a troubling increase in deaths linked to heroin.
This is not the first time that the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office has used the overdose murder statute. Champagne pointed to the case of Matthew Savoie, who was booked on murder in connection with his girlfriend’s death and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
“People are dying from heroin overdoses, so we’ve got to take a stand,” Champagne said. “It’s second-degree murder, so we’re going to charge it.”
But the law he is relying on has stern critics among groups that argue for less punitive approaches toward preventing drug deaths.
Logan Kinamore, the founder of the group No Overdose Baton Rouge, said Hymel’s arrest is an instance of “cowboy policing” that risks keeping overdose victims like Hymel from calling 911 in the first place. The same law is increasingly being used in Baton Rouge, Kinamore said, and “it’s very frustrating to see this spreading.”
“We have two overdose victims. One survives and one dies. The one that survives is then prosecuted for second-degree murder?” Kinamore said. “It’s so punitive, and it’s so counter-productive, and it sends absolutely the wrong message to the entire community. It’s astounding.”
Champagne acknowledged that Hymel’s case presents unusual complexities, given that she both called 911 and aided investigators. “The prosecutors can certainly take those things into consideration,” he said. “The courts can take all of those things into consideration.”
The twists and turns in the case are laid out in a 56-page document filed with the 29th Judicial District Court, much of which relies on Hymel’s statements to investigators.
Hymel said that on the night of March 1, she and Keller exchanged a series of text messages about their “bad days.”
“He said he wanted to get in touch with Lucky, which is my dealer,” Hymel said, according to a transcript of her March 3 statement to detectives. “(Keller) wanted to get in touch with him to get some heroin from him.”
But “Lucky” — the dealer whom deputies later identified as Hackett — trusted only Hymel. So in the parking lot of an old Domino’s store, she said, she gave Hackett $75 for a half-gram of heroin.
“He warned me and told me it was really good stuff, that it had never been stepped on — meaning it is really pure,” Hymel said.
Hymel said she went back to Keller’s house in the 100 block of Commercial Lane, underneath the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge in Destrehan. Both snorted heroin, she said, and the next thing she knew she passed out feet away from Keller. When she awoke, he was sitting in a chair on his porch. He had stopped breathing, so she called 911.
Deputies said Hymel passed out several times after they arrived, an apparent result of the same drugs that the Coroner’s Office said killed Keller. “She was probably lucky she lived,” Champagne said.
Keller was pronounced dead at the scene. Detectives said they quickly began searching for the man who had sold Hymel the heroin.
Kenner police told their counterparts that “Lucky” was the nickname for Hackett, whom they described as a well-known drug dealer, and Hymel identified him from a photo.
At that point, according to a Sheriff’s Office incident report, investigators asked Hymel if she would be willing to contact Hackett and “barter a deal for additional quantities of heroin.” Deputies said she agreed.
Hymel called Hackett and arranged for him to come to her house in Norco. Hackett “appeared to be nervous and was looking frantically over both shoulders” as he walked up to Hymel’s door, deputies said. It was then that investigators pounced.
Hackett swallowed the packet of heroin meant for Hymel and took off running, deputies said. He ran several hundred feet before he fell in loose gravel. Deputies said they had to punch him in his legs and arms to force him to stop resisting, then arrested him on an outstanding warrant.
Hackett was charged with distribution of heroin and possession of a controlled dangerous substance on April 26.
His case took another turn when 29th Judicial District Judge Emile St. Pierre, who had been overseeing the case, recused himself on May 2.
St. Pierre wrote that the character of Keller, the dead man, “had become an issue in this case,” and that he had a “close personal relationship” with Keller, who was his wife’s cousin. The case was reassigned to Judge M. Lauren Lemmon.
Under a deal with prosecutors, Hackett pleaded guilty to an amended charge of attempted heroin distribution on June 9.
But the deal appears not to have extended to the Sheriff’s Office. Officials there said that during the week of June 13 they received a copy of the coroner’s report that attributed Keller’s death to a combination of heroin, fentanyl and alcohol. That spurred them to rebook Hackett on second-degree murder.
His defense attorney, Maria Chaisson, said she was shocked by the move. “In addition to the new arrest violating the terms of the plea bargain, it also constitutes double jeopardy,” Chaisson said in a statement.
“There was, and is, insufficient evidence to convict Mr. Hackett of second-degree murder, even if the state wasn’t barred from doing so. In fact, there wasn’t that much evidence to justify the plea to attempted distribution, but Mr. Hackett did so to put an end to the matter,” the lawyer said.
Hymel, meanwhile, turned herself in on a warrant for her arrest on April 24. She was charged with distribution of heroin on June 9, for giving Keller the drug, before being rebooked on the murder count.
Hymel is being represented by Public Defenders Office attorney David Moyer. He declined to comment on the case.