Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, I have received several e-mails. Most of them are inquiries, some are personal stories, and still others express anger and/or frustration. Last month, a gentleman wrote to inform me that I am obsessed with police violence and to say that “the police don’t shoot black people in cold blood anymore.” I haven’t directly responded to his email and I don’t think that I will. Instead, I offer the following reminder about the 2005 Danzinger Bridge Shootings for those who remain ignorant about the murderous capabilities of the police…
THE DANZINGER BRIDGE SHOOTINGS
On September 4, 2005 a short item appeared in the Associated Press:
“Police shot eight people carrying guns on a New Orleans bridge Sunday, killing five or six of them, a deputy chief said. Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley said the shootings took place on the Danziger Bridge, which connects Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.”
A week after Hurricane Katrina, at around 9 am on September 4, 2005, a group of police officers commandeered a Budget rental truck and headed to the Danzinger Bridge after hearing a distress call from another cop who said that people were shooting at police and rescue workers.
As the truck approached the bridge, officer Michael Hunter, who was at the wheel, fired warning shots out of the window. He parked behind the Bartholomew family and as officers began exiting the truck, they immediately started shooting, killing 17 year old James Brissette and wounding four others: Jose Holmes, 19; his aunt, Susan Bartholomew, his uncle, Leonard Bartholomew III, and a teenage cousin, Lesha Bartholomew.
The family had been crossing the bridge heading from a local motel where they had been camped to the Winn Dixie supermarket to shop for food. James Brissette was killed by a shotgun blast to the back of the head and then was shot at least three more times while he lay on the ground. Susan Bartholomew’s arm was shot off. Her 19-year-old nephew Jose Holmes was shot in the arm, the jaw and the abdomen.
Police then chased down Ronald and Lance Madison, two brothers, who had been walking a ways ahead of the Bartholomew family. Hearing the gunfire, the Madisons began to run. Ronald Madison, a 40-year old man who had the mental capacity of a 6 year old, was injured. Eventually, another officer, later identified as Robert Faulcon, killed him with a shotgun blast to the back as he tried to run away.
After his brother was killed, Lance Madison, who was unhurt, was surrounded by police officers and accused of firing a weapon at police. He was arrested and booked that day with eight counts of attempted murder.
In all, four people were wounded and two died that day. The police contended that they were being shot at on the Bridge and took appropriate action to neutralize the threat.
Over a year later in December 2006, after a Grand Jury had heard details of the case, seven New Orleans police officers were indicted for their roles in the Danzinger Bridge shootings. Four police officers — Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, officer Anthony Villavaso and officer Robert Faulcon — were charged with the first-degree murder of James Brissette. Faulcon was also charged with the first-degree murder of Ronald Madison. Three more officers faced attempted-murder charges. These officers became known in the press as the “Danzinger 7.”
The story of the Danzinger Bridge incident is a case study in police abuse of power and lawlessness. It is also the story of a massive cover-up.
The following are the charges that were faced by the Danzinger 7 in the aftermath of the incident:
• Kenneth Bowen was charged with one count of first-degree murder of James Brissette. Bowen also was charged with six counts of attempted first-degree murder of Leonard Bartholomew III, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew, Jose Holmes Jr., Lance Madison and Ronald Madison, who allegedly was fatally shot by another officer. Lance Madison was shot at by police, but not injured, according to his attorney. The three Bartholomews and Holmes were treated for gunshot wounds at West Jefferson Hospital, according to all accounts.
• Sergeant Robert Gisevius was charged with one count of first-degree murder of James Brissette and two counts of attempted first-degree murder of Lance Madison and Ronald Madison.
• Officer Anthony Villavaso was charged with one count of first-degree murder of James Brissette and four counts of attempted first-degree murder of Leonard Bartholomew III, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew and Jose Holmes Jr.
• Officer Robert Faulcon was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of James Brissette and Ronald Madison. He also was charged with attempted first-degree murder of Leonard Bartholomew III, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew and Jose Holmes Jr.
• Officer Robert Barrios was charged with four counts of attempted first-degree murder of Leonard Bartholomew III, Susan Bartholomew, Lesha Bartholomew and Jose Holmes Jr.
• Officer Michael Hunter was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder of Lance Madison and Ronald Madison.
• Officer Ignatius Hills was charged with one count of attempted second-degree murder of Leonard Bartholomew IV.
The grand jury also found no true bill to eight counts of attempted murder against Lance Madison, who police had arrested and accused of firing at officers. This essentially cleared Madison of those charges.
In 2008, a criminal district court judge, Raymond Bigelow, dismissed the charges against the Danzinger 7 after deciding that a prosecutor violated grand jury secrecy. Assistant District Attorney Dustin Davis showed part of the grand jury testimony to the supervisor of several of the accused officers. The Orleans Parish district attorney’s office then turned to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division asking that it take over the case. The Division agreed to pursue an investigation of the Danzinger Bridge incident and after six years ultimately succeeded in prosecuting five officers.
When the trial began in June 2011, there were five defendants: former officer Robert Faulcon, who resigned not long after Katrina; Sgt. Kenneth Bowen; Sgt. Robert Gisevius; officer Anthony Villavaso; and retired Sgt. Arthur Kaufman. The prosecutors built their case around the testimony and statements of five other police officers who had already accepted plea deals. Of the five cooperating officers, three had been directly involved in the shootings. These officers provided the most important details in the prosecution of the five defendants. The officers who turned against their colleagues shared information about a cover-up that included: a planted gun retrieved by one officer from his garage; officers revising their accounts of the shooting after being coached; phony witnesses; and a secret meeting to coordinate stories.
For their part, the officers who were on trial said that they believed that they were under fire when they arrived at the bridge and were fearful for their lives. Yet this was contradicted by at least one officer who testified against his fellow cops. Officer Michael Hunter said that the first group of people they encountered was simply walking on the bridge and that they were unarmed. He fired some warning shots and people quickly began to scurry to take cover. In describing his state of mind at the time he testified: “I wanted to send a message,” Hunter said of emptying his handgun of bullets. “Don’t mess with us.” Another officer, Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, then started firing at the unarmed civilians with an assault weapon leaning over a barricade where some individuals had taken cover to shoot at them. In his plea report, Hunter describes the scene:
“The two females were lying on the ground, hugging each other and crying in apparent pain. Hunter saw that at least one of the females had suffered serious gunshot wounds, and that both appeared terrified. One of the females had a gaping wound on her leg, and had a large chunk of flesh missing from her calf. The other civilians were also seriously wounded, including one man who was lying face-down, not moving.”
During his testimony at trial, Hunter told the jury that Sgt. Bowen later stomped on a dying Ronald Madison, who had already been felled by officer Faulcon’s shotgun blast.
On August 5 2011, a New Orleans jury returned a verdict of guilty for all five officers. The jury did not convict them of murder but found that the defendants had violated the victim’s civil rights.
On the steps of the courthouse, after the verdict was rendered James Brissette’s mother, Sherrel Johnson said that her son was “gonna forever more be an urn of ashes.” She added:
“They took the twinkle out my eye, the song out of my heart and blew out my candle. But it’s gon’ be alright — because justice has been served. The day has come. Fat lady done sang. Curtain came down. Nothing more to say.”
Sentencing was originally scheduled for December 2011 but was postponed by the judge in January until April 2012. On April 4, 2012, the five convicted officers were sentenced by Judge Kurt D. Engelhardt to terms between ranging from 6 to 65 years:
• Sergeant Kenneth Bowen was sentenced to 40 years in prison;
• Sergeant Robert Gisevius was sentenced to 40 years in prison;
• Officer Robert Faulcon was sentenced to 65 years in prison; and
• Officer Anthony Villavaso was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
The fifth officer, Sergeant Arthur “Archie” Kaufman, was a supervisor who was not involved in the shooting, but who helped the other officers cover up what they had done. Kaufman was sentenced to six years in prison.
This information and more is included in a zine developed by me and illustrated by my friend Billy. You can download it here (it’s volume 4 in the list).