GONZALES — Former Sorrento Mayor Wilson Longanecker Jr. pleaded guilty to 42 counts of child pornography Tuesday in a plea bargain that resulted in a 40-year prison sentence and brought an end to a shocking chapter in the Ascension Parish town’s tumultuous history.
Authorities swarmed Longanecker’s columned home on Main Street on Oct. 23, 2014, and revealed in the days and weeks afterward that a state task force found Sorrento’s mayor from mid-2011 to mid-2013 in possession of child pornography and videos of abuse and torture of kittens.
State District Judge Jessie LeBlanc, who sentenced Longanecker on Tuesday, told him that his actions have caused suffering for his family and community. She added that possessing the child pornography videos, even though he did not engage in those acts depicted, promotes the exploitation of children.
“Your actions have affected many, many people across a broad spectrum,” LeBlanc said.
“I understand,” responded Longanecker, sporting a long blond ponytail.
In all, Longanecker, 43, pleaded guilty to 47 criminal counts. In addition to the child pornography counts, he pleaded guilty to four counts of aggravated animal cruelty and one count of obstruction of justice.
Some in the courtroom gasped in disbelief, with one man saying “Man,” when LeBlanc, of the 23rd Judicial District, read out the description of the child pornography and animal torture videos in Longanecker’s plea agreement.
“No comments, please,” LeBlanc quickly instructed the crowd gathered in Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales.
LeBlanc had said the child pornography included young children having sex, being raped and being involved in acts of bestiality. Thirty of the child pornography counts were for videos of children younger than 13.
After LeBlanc read out the entire description, she asked Longanecker if he agreed with those facts. After a long pause, Longanecker said, “Yes, your Honor.”
Then the 47 counts, grouped in four categories, were read out and, each time Longanecker responded, “Guilty.”
Longanecker’s parents silently watched from the courtroom audience.
The factual basis says an agent with the Louisiana Attorney General’s Cyber Crime Unit spotted Longanecker’s Internet address viewing child pornography on Sept. 22, 2014. The search of his home a month later turned up child pornography videos on a computer hard drive, two flash drives and a phone seized from a safe in his bedroom.
Longanecker’s father, Wilson Longanecker Sr., a well-regarded two-term mayor of Sorrento in the 1990s, gave authorities the safe’s combination after his son refused.
Later forensic analysis turned up videos and images of cat torture and abuse on those electronic devices as well, leading to his arrest again on aggravated animal cruelty charges in late December 2014, an affidavit of probable cause says.
Longanecker has remained in jail since his arrest on a bail of $1.025 million. LeBlanc returned Longanecker to the Sheriff’s Office custody.
Charlotte Guedry, 23rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman, said after the plea that prosecutors were “very, very ready to go to trial.”
She said the office set up a special prosecution unit made up of state and parish law enforcement officials, Baton Rouge-area animal welfare groups and forensic veterinarian Dr. Melinda Merck, who worked on current Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Michael Vick’s animal abuse prosecution.
“So once the evidence was presented to Mr. Longanecker’s attorney, he really had no other option than taking the plea deal. Going to court really was going to be worse for him,” Guedry said.
Longanecker had previously pleaded not guilty and his former defense attorney had notified the court he would be exploring an insanity defense.
When questioned, Guedry declined to speculate on the reasons for the plea agreement but said a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity was not a concern for prosecutors.
“But I do believe this was a case that needed to end. This is something that had been going for an incredibly long time,” she said.
As part of the agreement, prosecutors dropped three counts of aggravated animal cruelty.
Longanecker’s current defense attorney, Andre Belanger, called Tuesday a regrettable day, one for which he had been working with prosecutors for several months. He said his client was remorseful.
“Mr. Longanecker has obviously failed his children, his wife and his parents, and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to restoring his name and reputation,” Belanger said.
The arrest of the former mayor in October 2014 came out of nowhere following a year and a half of turmoil in Sorrento: unexplained spending by the former administration while Longanecker was on medical leave, questions about the viability of the town’s now defunct police department and accusations the then-police chief sexually assaulted an intoxicated woman.
The chief has pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to an FBI agent about the alleged assault and voters got rid of the department in favor the parish Sheriff’s Office.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.
Editor's note: This story was revised on Jan. 20, 2016, to correct that Michael Vick is a current player with the Pittsburgh Steelers.