Burl Cain, the legendary warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, entered into business partnerships a few years ago with two men who had close ties with state inmates, despite Department of Public Safety and Corrections policies designed to limit relationships between prison officials and relatives and friends of the offenders they oversee.
Cain, 73, was trying to develop a subdivision in West Feliciana Parish, near his home in Jackson and about 30 miles from the nation’s largest maximum-security prison, which he has overseen as warden for two decades. He transacted with two businessmen, one the stepfather of a double-murderer and the other a friend of a killer who helped underwrite the convict’s appeals.
State law does not specifically address whether wardens can do business with family and friends of inmates.
But personnel rules for corrections officials ban “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ families or friends.” The rules frown on even minor interactions, like writing letters or making phone calls to such people. They require that “mail or phone calls received from offenders or their families outside the normal course and scope of the employee’s job duties must be reported at the earliest opportunity to the employee’s supervisor.”
Cain’s boss, state corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, did not respond to a question about whether Cain reported his financial entanglements with the two businessmen during the time they were his partners in the real-estate development, between 2007 and 2014.
“All (DPSC) employees are expected to conduct themselves in a professional and ethical manner. If, after reviewing a more complete set of facts, it is determined that Warden Cain did not meet this standard, then the Department will take appropriate action,” department spokeswoman Pam Laborde said in an email response.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the state corrections department, said it is clear to him the rule was written precisely to prohibit scenarios like Cain’s real-estate dealings.
“Obviously, the intent of the rule is that if you’re a warden, you don’t fraternize with people who are friends or relatives of inmates,” Morrell said. “Obviously, this should never be allowed to happen again.”
Morrell said if state corrections officials somehow determine that Cain didn’t violate the rule, he’ll sponsor legislation that clarifies the regulation so that there can be no wiggle room.
An ambitious project
Cain began buying land for his subdivision, outside Jackson, in March 2006. By early 2007, he had amassed more than 150 acres, for which he paid just over $2.1 million, according to land records. Most of it was in the name of a firm Cain had recently incorporated, Bluffs North LLC, while about a fifth of it was in Cain’s own name.
In September 2007, Cain’s corporation, Bluffs North, sold two big chunks of its land to developer William Ourso, of Baton Rouge, for $700,000.
Two weeks later, at Ourso’s request, Cain provided an unusual boost to Ourso’s friend, an inmate named Leonard “Lenny” Nicholas. The warden coaxed a deathbed confession from another state prisoner, who claimed he was responsible for the 1980 barroom murder for which Nicholas was serving a life sentence. Nicholas used the confession — which got details of the killing wrong — in an unsuccessful appeal that Ourso helped orchestrate and at least partially bankrolled.
Another man who bought into Cain’s venture was Charles Chatelain, a prominent Carencro businessman whose stepson had arrived at Angola in 1999 to begin serving life in prison for an execution-style double murder. The inmate, Jason Lormand, was selected in 2007 for a coveted spot as a trusty at the Governor’s Mansion, considered the best perch from which to launch a bid for clemency. But according to his mother, Jessica Landry Chatelain, her son was abruptly removed from the mansion in 2011 and sent to another prison. She believes the transfer was due to a federal investigation into Cain’s business dealings. FBI officials declined comment on the probe, which never produced charges.
When The Advocate asked Cain about his real-estate transactions related to Bluffs North, he said the matter “has been looked at and talked about” already.
He initially agreed to an interview with The Advocate, but then asked the newspaper to send him questions via U.S. mail.
“We’d rather not put it on a state-owned computer, if you don’t mind,” said Cain’s lawyer, L.J. Hymel, the former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana who now works as a defense attorney.
Eventually, Cain declined to answer the questions at all.
“As much as he would like to respond, it would take hours for him to set you straight,” Hymel said in a letter to The Advocate. “Consequently, Warden Cain declines to lower himself into the world of gossip, rumor and fantasy.”
Charles Chatelain, in an email sent by his attorney Stephen Oats, said, “It is vehemently denied that the real estate transaction was in any way related to the incarceration of Jason Lormand. Anyone who says otherwise does not know what they are talking about.”
Requests to the corrections department to speak to Lormand and Nicholas were denied. Ourso died in 2012.
It was in 2006 that Cain — who has a well-known entrepreneurial streak — came up with the notion of developing a subdivision of large estates along La. 421 near Jackson. The subdivision is not connected to The Bluffs Country Club and Resort, a luxury golf-course development roughly five miles away.
His timing wasn’t fortuitous. Just months after Cain’s big investments, which caused him to take on more than $2 million in debt, the nation began spiraling into its deepest recession in decades, and the real-estate market took a nosedive.
In late 2007, Cain started selling off parts of his acreage, with Ourso purchasing two lots from Bluffs North for $700,000. And in early 2009, Ourso bought Cain out of Bluffs North altogether, taking over its debts of more than $1 million.
Around the same time, Cain sold a two-thirds share in his personal 30-acre parcel to a company Chatelain presides over. That firm, La Parisienne LLC, agreed to handle all of Cain’s debt related to the land for the next five years — a total of $151,000 — and two-thirds of all remaining mortgage bills thereafter.
Chatelain has been a licensed real estate broker since 1968, he said in an email.
In 2014, Cain and La Parisienne sold the land the warden had once purchased in his own name for $435,000, about $25,000 less than what Cain had paid for it seven years earlier. Chatelain, through his lawyer, said La Parisienne and Cain actually made money on the deal because another one of his holding companies purchased the note on Cain’s mortgage at a discount. Cain made $3,413 and La Parisienne netted $6,832, Chatelain said.
Cain and his partners have now sold off all their West Feliciana holdings.
The Bluffs North subdivision, which counts one of Cain’s two sons as a homesteader, is still only partially built. The properties share a continuous fence along the road punctuated by dramatic gates, built in brick, iron or wood. One is flanked by saplings; another is covered in ivy.
At least one house has been built. Others are in construction. On several lots, though, nothing lies beyond the gate.
It’s unclear from the documents in the public record how much money Cain made or lost on the Bluffs North project.
An inmate’s champion
Ourso was a noted developer in Baton Rouge; he built several subdivisions, among them Riverbend, Laurel Estates and Laurel Lake Estates, according to his obituary. He was also a frequent visitor to Angola, according to Jerry Arbour, a lawyer and former East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member who handled one of the West Feliciana transactions involving Cain and Ourso.
Ourso was a horse enthusiast who took an interest in Angola’s prison stable, where inmates tend horses that are mostly used in cattle operations at the 18,000-acre prison. They’re also ridden by guards monitoring its 6,000 offenders.
Ourso began visiting Angola out of his friendship with Cain, and given the developer’s equestrian interests, he became friendly with Nicholas, an inmate who trained horses, said Spencer Calahan, a Baton Rouge personal-injury lawyer recruited by Ourso to represent Nicholas.
Nicholas maintains his innocence in the 1980 murder of Charles LeBreton Jr., who was killed in the barroom he owned on Franklin Avenue in New Orleans.
“(Ourso) kind of just lent an ear to (Nicholas) and heard his plight. Will liked to stick up for people that he thought were being bullied. He thought this was a horrible injustice and wanted to help him out,” Calahan said.
A contemporaneous account in The Times-Picayune said that the killer stabbed LeBreton, 57, and stole $5,500 in cash from his business, Charlie’s Bar. The killer also forced LeBreton’s girlfriend to perform oral sex on him at knifepoint, according to a police report.
The woman, 36 at the time, identified Nicholas as her assailant, first in a photo lineup, and then in a live one. He was convicted at trial the next year.
Nicholas maintained his innocence and found an ally in Ourso, who became so passionate about the case that he hired an investigator and arranged for lawyers, including Calahan, to seek a new trial for Nicholas. They filed an ambitious motion in August 2008 that rested in large part on the videotaped confession of Clarence “Mike” Myers, which Cain had secured just four days before Myers died in September 2007. Myers, who suffered from hepatitis C, died at Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge. It’s not clear how Cain happened to record his confession at the hospital, but Ourso soon had the tape, and he delivered it to the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office.
Myers and Nicholas knew each other: In fact, a month after LeBreton was killed, they were arrested together, along with two women, in a trailer park in St. Bernard Parish.
Myers was not charged in LeBreton’s killing at the time. But decades later, with Nicholas’ appeal pending, prosecutors would portray him as an accomplice. One of the two women who was arrested with the two men told the government in 2008 that Myers and Nicholas had come home that night with a large stash of cash.
Myers spent his final years in prison after being convicted of a string of burglaries in Jefferson Parish.
On the tape, Cain asked Myers whether he knew Nicholas. He said he did.
“Did you do it or did Lenny do it?” Cain asked, using Nicholas’ nickname, according to a 2008 Times-Picayune article on the motion.
“I did it,” Myers responded.
“You shot him?” Cain asked.
Myers replied that the murder was committed with his “hands,” adding: “strangulation.” In fact, reports from the time mention LeBreton being stabbed, while the coroner eventually ruled he died of “blunt head injury.”
Nicholas’ motion for a new trial was denied in 2008. He’s now jailed at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
Donna Andrieu, then the head of the appeals unit for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, called the confession taped by Cain a “fraud perpetrated on the court,” in part because Myers didn’t name the victim and misremembered how the killing occurred.
But then-Criminal District Judge Julian Parker never even watched the videotape, saying that he didn’t want to do so until or unless he determined Nicholas’ appeal deserved a hearing.
Killer seeking clemency
Like Ourso, Charles Chatelain became a friend of Cain’s.
In March 2004, Kathleen Blanco, then the newly minted governor, appointed Chatelain — whom she described to The Advocate as a close friend of one of her neighbors — to the volunteer board of Prison Enterprises. The agency, which is part of the DPS&C and uses inmate labor to grow food and manufacture items for sale, used to be called the Office of Agri-Business. It was once overseen by Cain.
Chatelain, now 72, had a reason for taking an interest in Louisiana prison affairs. His stepson Lormand, now 43, had been in Angola since November 1999 for the murders of Justin Fitzgerald, 23, and Heidi Studler, 20. Blanco said she believed Chatelain’s interest in serving on the board owed to his stepson’s imprisonment.
Lormand killed his victims based on the belief that they were drug informants — a belief Fitzgerald’s mother said was mistaken. Lormand initially fled the state, but returned to turn himself in.
He was convicted at trial of two counts of first-degree murder. The jury deadlocked on whether to give him the death penalty, and he got life in prison.
He is currently seeking a pardon.
Fitzgerald and Studler had gone out to a club on McKinley Street near the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on the night they were killed. Alida Anthony, Fitzgerald’s mother, described her son as a cheerful and “charming” young man who helped customers in her store in Lafayette.
She said he smoked marijuana and used other drugs, though she believed he was trying to get himself clean.
For reasons that are unclear, Lormand that night decided Studler and Fitzgerald were informants, and he dispatched both of them with a shot to the back of the head. Their bodies were discovered days later near another club on Lake Martin Road.
Cain and Chatelain got to know one another after Chatelain joined the board of Prison Enterprises in 2004. Within a few months, Lormand had been upgraded to trusty status.
The next year, he began cooking for Cain at the Ranch House — the warden’s sprawling headquarters for entertaining guests — a position that lasted two years, according to his clemency application.
While working at the Ranch House, he bunked at the canine training facility, Jessica Landry Chatelain said. Known as the “dog pen,” it’s considered one of the best assignments at Angola because it allows inmates freedom to move around, according to several former employees of the prison.
In 2007, Lormand was off to the Governor’s Mansion, even though he had run up two disciplinary infractions that year, one of them just two months before his reassignment.
In that case, he was charged with unspecified misconduct. Corrections spokeswoman Pam Laborde said full details of the misconduct are not public record, but she characterized it as minor, saying Lormand got in an argument with another inmate, who struck him. Lormand did not retaliate, she said.
Laborde said the other infraction stemmed from an incident in which a prison employee drove Lormand to a residence on the Angola grounds where alcohol was available. She said the inmates were “intimidated” and reported the incident, and that the employee resigned.
It’s up to the State Police — not the Angola prison staff — to decide who works at the Governor’s Mansion, as those inmates stay at the State Police Barracks in Baton Rouge. State Police conduct their own interviews, Laborde said.
She said Lormand “fits the traditional profile” for an offender assigned to the State Police barracks “so his transfer there is not unusual,” although only a small fraction of Angola’s roughly 6,000 inmates ever get posted to the Governor’s Mansion.
State Police officials said the barracks house 146 offenders. They wouldn’t specify how many inmates are assigned to the mansion, but a source with knowledge of the mansion said the number is generally less than 20.
Chatelain noted that his stepson left Angola in 2007, two years before Chatelain entered into real-estate deals with Cain. Lormand, however, continued to be an inmate under the corrections department regardless of his prison assignment, and wardens are prohibited from fraternizing with the families of any inmates.
State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, who was not in charge of the department when Lormand was selected, said those decisions are largely based on what the warden says.
“When we accept inmates at the State Police Barracks, we interview the inmate and consult with the warden,” he said. Of the warden’s word, he said: “We give (it) a tremendous amount of weight. I don’t move an inmate (if) the warden doesn’t approve that move.”
Neither of the two men in charge of the State Police at the time, Henry Whitehorn or Stanley Griffin, said they could recall the transfer, but said they would have taken seriously any inmate misconduct reports if they’d been provided by the corrections department.
“Those are handpicked inmates,” Griffin said.
Blanco said despite receiving campaign contributions from Chatelain, she had nothing to do with getting Lormand posted to the Governor’s Mansion.
“When Jason came into the mansion, he introduced himself as Mr. Chatelain’s son,” Blanco said. “I did not request Jason. He was sent through the regular channels as far as I understood. I was surprised when he introduced himself.”
But Alida Anthony, whose son was gunned down at 23 by Lormand, was skeptical when she learned from a relative in the State Police that Lormand had gotten a plum post in the Governor’s Mansion.
“He had special treatment,” Anthony said. “I know he did.”
In 2008, Chatelain was reappointed to the Prison Enterprises board by Gov. Bobby Jindal, whom he has also supported with campaign donations. Chatelain eventually became the board’s chairman, a role he continues to fulfill.
Though Lormand’s disciplinary record is spotless from 2007 on, he was abruptly moved from the Governor’s Mansion to Hunt Correctional Center in 2011.
His mother described the change as a setback, and she attributed the transfer to pressure from the federal probe.
“I understand there was some sort of investigation on Warden Cain, that they had people watching him all the time, and I think that may have been one of the reasons ... that they actually moved my son away from the Governor’s Mansion,” Jessica Landry Chatelain said.
“It was almost like being convicted all over again,” she said.
She said her son worked hard to rehabilitate himself from a crime he committed while addicted to drugs.
Neither Anthony, her husband Jim nor Sarah Marie Mills, the mother of Studler, Lormand’s other victim, had any idea that Lormand’s stepfather had a financial relationship with the warden at Angola until they learned of it from The Advocate.
“I think it’s shocking. … It is unfortunate,” Jim Anthony said. “There’s no doubt about it being unethical.
“I can’t believe he’s (Cain) in power doing some of these things. … That’s typical politics in Louisiana — you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
The Anthonys remain fearful that Lormand will be set free. The state Pardon Board this year voted to give him a clemency hearing. In order to be eligible for such a hearing, an inmate serving life must have clocked at least 15 years behind bars, a milestone Lormand passed in September 2014.
If the board votes to grant his request for a commutation, it will be up to Gov. Bobby Jindal to make a decision.
Wardens serve as nonvoting members of the Pardon Board. But thanks to Lormand’s 2011 transfer to Hunt Correctional Center, Cain will not be among those considering his case, corrections officials said.
Blanco, the former governor, punted when asked whether she thought it was appropriate for the warden to be doing business with the father of an inmate seeking clemency.
“I’d rather not comment on that. It’s awkward,” she said. “I find it awkward.”
Asked what she would have done as governor if she had become aware of such a relationship, she said: “I think that I would have tried to decide if there was an attempt to do anything with the son. The whole thing I feel is awkward, but I don’t think I can pass a judgment at this juncture.”