GONZALES — Standing in court Friday in shackles and a standard orange jumpsuit, Kenneth Lavigne turned to the family of Jeanie Lavigne — the St. Amant woman and relative he kidnapped, sexually abused and killed 25 years ago — and said what he had never told them before.
Weeping and trembling with emotion to the point that his words were difficult to make out, Kenneth Lavigne still communicated his point: an apology for her slaying and a request for forgiveness, one day.
“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Lavigne said.
Lavigne, 50, gave the apology after the family of Jeanie Lavigne told the court of their years of pain over her nighttime abduction and homicide in December 1990.
Kenneth Lavigne, whom Ascension Parish sheriff’s investigators linked to the cold case nearly three years ago through DNA analysis, had just pleaded guilty to reduced charges of manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping.
Once everyone had their say, 23rd Judicial District Judge Jessie LeBlanc handed down part of Lavigne’s sentence at the Ascension Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales before nearly two dozen deputies, Sheriff Jeff Wiley and family members on both sides of the slaying.
LeBlanc gave Lavigne 21 years on the manslaughter charge, the maximum under state law in 1990, but deferred his sentence on the second-degree kidnapping count until April 18, pending a pre-sentence investigation.
Lavigne, then of 14491 Harry Savoy Road, St. Amant, had faced a mandatory life sentence with conviction on the second-degree murder count with which he originally had been charged, but he still could have what would amount to a life sentence, depending on how LeBlanc rules in April.
Three hunters found 38-year-old Jeanie Lavigne’s partially nude body, with her throat slashed, in a wooded area near La. 431 and the Amite River on the afternoon of Dec. 17, 1990.
In court Friday, Kenneth Lavigne admitted to kidnapping Jeanie Lavigne, his uncle’s ex-wife, from her home the night of Dec. 16, 1990.
Kenneth Lavigne, then 25, took her to the Summerfield area of Ascension Parish, sexually abused her and killed her in the course of committing a battery against her with a knife.
After Judge LeBlanc read out those facts during the plea phase of the proceeding Friday, she asked Lavigne if that is what he had done.
“Yes, ma’am,” he responded as members of Jeanie Lavigne’s family could be heard weeping.
In a familiar pattern of old, rural Ascension, the Lavigne and Templet families — Jeanie Lavigne was a Templet — lived among one another off Harry Savoy Road and grew up together.
Jeanie Lavigne’s slaying and the arrest of Kenneth Lavigne so many years later, in 2013, shocked the families. With Jeanie Lavigne’s murder unsolved for so long, some in her family also lived with years of stress and worry that cut short their lives, family members testified Friday during the victim impact phase of the proceeding.
Prosecutor Robin O’Bannon read out a statement from Jerika Linville, 34, of Baton Rouge, who was 9 the night of the abduction and sleeping over at Jeanie Lavigne’s home on Harry Savoy Road.
Linville described waking up with Lavigne’s then 11-year-old son, Ryan, and realizing his mother, and Linville’s aunt, was gone.
They found a window in the house open, the curtain flowing back and forth in the nighttime breeze and a Christmas candle in front of the window broken.
Linville wrote that night has stayed with her and left her with the idea that a lock on the door is not enough to keep the “evil away.”
“You quickly realize you are not always safe,” O’Bannon said, reading from Linville’s statement.
Dwayne Sevier, 50, Jeanie Lavigne’s half-brother who was raised with her, looked directly at Kenneth Lavigne from the witness box and reminded him that they played and ate bologna sandwiches together as children.
Sevier, now of Mooresville, North Carolina, added it was hard to believe Kenneth Lavigne had committed the crime but was glad he finally admitted it.
For years after Jeanie Lavigne’s slaying, sheriff’s deputies had pursued several suspects.
Kenneth Lavigne, with his past criminal history, was a person of interest then, but the case remained unsolved.
In late 2012, deputies tried new DNA technology along with the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab to solve cold cases like Jeanie Lavigne’s.
Kenneth Lavigne refused to give his DNA then, but investigators were able to show DNA they had collected from the crime was from a Lavigne through a paternal DNA test. They had compared the collected DNA with DNA from Jeanie Lavigne’s son, Ryan Lavigne.
That link allowed investigators to get a warrant for Kenneth Lavigne’s DNA. Lavigne fled St. Amant for Mississippi after he gave investigators his DNA.
With the DNA match, sheriff’s deputies found him at the Chameleon Motel in McComb, Mississippi, in late March 2013 and arrested him on counts of first-degree murder, aggravated rape and kidnapping.
Sevier said in a later interview Friday that the family members have been discussing how to forgive Lavigne, though not forget.
Sevier said “everybody feels good” about the proceedings Friday but were worried about Lavigne receiving a reduced sentence that could allow him to be released from prison one day.
Under 1990 law, conviction for second-degree kidnapping brings between 5 and 40 years. Under the plea deal, LeBlanc cannot sentence Lavigne to less than 21 years.
But she must decide whether the sentences for the manslaughter and second-degree kidnapping convictions should be concurrent or consecutive. A consecutive sentence would add at least 21 more years to Lavigne’s prison time without the benefit of probation, parole of suspension of sentence.
With the sentence pending, Assistant District Attorney O’Bannon declined to say Friday why prosecutors pursued the plea deal when they had DNA evidence against Lavigne, noting only that the case is 25 years old.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.