1,700 suspected of violating court orders, probation
By KEVIN JOHNSON USA TODAY Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Texas authorities are urging Louisiana to issue arrest warrants for hundreds of felons who are suspected of violating conditions of their probation or parole by remaining in Texas nearly a year after fleeing Hurricane Katrina.
The Texas attorney general's office, saying the issue is a threat to public safety, has sent Louisiana the names of more than 1,700 felons who either have failed to keep in touch with Louisiana officials or who have ignored court orders to return to Louisiana. Among the offenders are 104 who represent a particular risk to the public, says Angela Hale, spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Hale would not say how many of the felons are freed killers, but a recent audit of the list by Texas law enforcement officials indicated that 69 of the felons are sex offenders and that 28 of those are believed to be living in the Houston area. Felonies are the most serious crimes, ranging in Louisiana from theft or assault to murder punishable by time in state prison.
"These are people who have already been to prison," Hale says. "They need to be monitored. The protection of the public is an issue."
A list of the offenders initially was assembled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which identified the felons from lists of Katrina evacuees who received federal housing or other disaster benefits. Texas, which received more than 200,000 evacuees from Louisiana -- more than any other state -- has been the only state to request such figures from FEMA, so it's unclear how many similar felons are in other states.
Texas' increasing frustration over felon evacuees comes as police in some communities in the state -- particularly Houston -- have cited the influx of Katrina evacuees as a factor in rising crime rates.
It also comes as Louisiana officials are continuing to grapple with the impact last year's storm had on the state's justice system, which struggled to function after Katrina. After felons, lawyers and probation and parole officers fled Louisiana, many felons' cases had little or no judicial oversight for months.
Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections, says state authorities are moving to resolve the problems with felon evacuees.
She says that arrest warrants have been requested for 331 felons who fled to Texas and that 315 are believed to have returned to Louisiana. Investigators are reviewing the status of 400 other felons, she says. Louisiana officials have determined the state no longer has jurisdiction over 285 other offenders because their probation or parole expired during the evacuation period, Laborde says. Hundreds more have applied to have oversight of their cases transferred to Texas.
"We certainly don't want to leave the impression that we aren't doing anything about these people," Laborde says. "This is a very complicated process. We are trying to work with (Texas); we are trying to identify everybody we can."
Meanwhile, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt says the influx of 150,000 to 200,000 evacuees in that city has been a "direct" factor in the city's recent surge in violent crime. Hurtt says Louisianians were involved in 24% of the city's homicides during the first five months of this year.
Hurtt says he doesn't know how many of the Louisianians who have committed crimes in Houston were on probation or parole at the time of the crimes. But he says the action by Abbott's office would "certainly be helpful to us in reducing the possibility of additional crimes.
"A lot of (evacuees) came here without identification," Hurtt says. "We didn't know who we were dealing with."
In the Dallas suburb of Richardson, sex offender Matthew Lindsey of Natchitoches, La., is facing trial in September trial on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The charges stem from his alleged contact with an 8-year-old child at a local hotel that housed evacuees.
William Rowlett, Lindsey's attorney, says his client initially was arrested in October after he failed to register in Texas as a convicted sex offender from Louisiana.
"When Katrina occurred, we got the good, the bad and the ugly from Louisiana," says Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. "We'll keep some of the good and some of the bad, but the ugly got to go back. Texas did the neighborly thing by taking in these people. Now ... the criminals need to go back to Louisiana."