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Sheriff's Deputy Slain in Botched Bank Heist


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January 04, 2004

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Sheriff's Deputy Slain in Botched Bank Heist

Officer Down: Sidney Zaffuto - [New Orleans, Louisiana]


By Paul Purpura and Rob Nelson, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Another cop hurt; all three suspects are captured

An off-duty Orleans Parish sheriff's deputy was killed Thursday when three men concealing pistols in umbrellas stormed an Algiers bank, sparking a shootout that left a second deputy and two suspects wounded.

New Orleans police swarmed the Iberia Bank branch at 4626 Gen. de Gaulle Drive seconds after 11:30 a.m., finding a wounded suspect outside the bank and quickly apprehending two others with the help of two armed Coast Guardsmen. No customers were in the bank at the time, and its four employees were not injured, authorities said.

Police shut down the westbound lanes of Gen. de Gaulle and restricted a lane of the Crescent City Connection bridge so ambulances could transport the wounded to Charity Hospital.

Sidney Zaffuto, 50, a field training officer at the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office, died of a gunshot wound to the chest shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Andrew Jenkins, 48, who recently was promoted to captain, was shot in the right foot.

At an impromptu news conference at the hospital, Sheriff Charles Foti called the shootings "very sad and very hurtful, not only for me but for the families."

Zaffuto "was everybody's friend," said Mary Baldwin Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Foti. "I have seldom run into someone more caring or giving. He is clearly a loss for this office."

Zaffuto and Jenkins were off duty and working as security guards at the bank. The robbery attempt happened as they were changing shifts, said Capt. Marlon Defillo, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department.

Police arrested Joseph A. Smith, 52, of 1017 Lebouef Court; John W. Johnson, 51, who reported no address; and Herbert Jones, 58, of 1225 Truxton St., Gretna.

Late Thursday, FBI agents took the men into custody after federal bank robbery and murder charges were filed against them, acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said. If convicted, they face life in prison or the death penalty, Letten said.

Shootout inside bank

The suspects walked into the bank and, without saying anything, disarmed Zaffuto, who was standing near the entrance, police said. One of the suspects held a gun to his neck, police said.

Jenkins, who was in the back of the bank, saw what was happening and drew his pistol, and a gunfight began. It was unclear who fired first, Defillo said.

"It is my understanding that (Zaffuto) was hit by one of the suspects," Defillo said. Jenkins also was shot.

The suspects then fled from the bank, leaving the wounded deputies inside, Defillo said. Police Detective Lawrence Green, who was already in the area, saw the men fleeing and called for help. Lt. Jerome Laviolette, Lt. Reginald Jacque, Sgt. John Miller, Detective Dennis Gibliant and officer Shaun Ferguson, all of the NOPD, arrived shortly thereafter, Defillo said.

"It was so fast," said Algiers resident Kim Borrello, who was buying gas at a Shell station at Gen. de Gaulle and Kabel drives next to the bank and saw at least one of the suspects run out. "It didn't take any time for the cops to get here."

Two Coast Guardsmen who were also getting fuel helped police capture the three suspects.

Coast Guard petty officers Robert Jenkins, 21, and Orin Augustus, 34, were returning to their armory in the Belle Chasse area after delivering ammunition to a Coast Guard vessel in Mississippi. As such, they were armed with pistols.

Augustus, who was inside the truck, saw two men run from the bank. One, who was later identified as Smith, had blood on his clothes and was armed with a gun. The other was wearing a ski mask and was also brandishing a gun. Augustus and Robert Jenkins drew their weapons, Jenkins said.

"Once we told him to stop and drop his weapon, he gave up," he said.

A plainclothes police officer quickly took the wounded Smith into custody and pointed the Coast Guardsmen in the direction of the other suspects, who fled behind the gas station into alleys.

Meanwhile, a police officer captured a second wounded suspect, identified by Defillo as Johnson, at a Danny and Clyde's convenience store at Kabel and Berkley Drive, pulling him from a vehicle, a red 2003 Ford Explorer.

Another police officer caught the third suspect, Jones, who had fled on foot into an alley behind the convenience store, Augustus said.

Asked why they got involved, Augustus said, "Being a member of the Coast Guard, our job is to protect, too, I guess. I know we're not the police department, but it's my job, I guess."

Workers, customers look on

The late-morning melee had workers and customers in nearby stores on guard, as many had caught a glimpse of the action and then kept watchful eyes on the flurry of police work outside their windows.

"We didn't know what was going on," said a clerk inside the gas station who did not want to be identified. "We just saw the cops running."

During the chases, two nervous customers urged workers to lock the front doors, the clerk said.

Patrons inside the bar Slapshots, which is part of a small shopping center facing Kabel Drive, said they also saw the police chase.

"We were all pretty shocked and didn't know what was going on," said manager Diane Copeland, adding that robbers have targeted the bank several times in the past year. "We pretty much assumed that was what happened."

Copeland said police showed her a hole that suspects cut in a chain-link fence in the rear of the bar as part of their getaway plan. The route gave the suspects a more direct, if not more concealed, route from the bank to the Explorer parked at the convenience store.

Normally, Copeland said, she parks in the back of the building and would have noticed the hole earlier in the morning. But she said she parked near the front of the bar Thursday.

The same hole in the fence also escaped the attention of David Williams, owner of the gas station adjacent to the bank and the bar. Williams, who said he inspects the property every morning, returned to his business after being telephoned by police about the crime.

A victim of robberies, Williams said he was somewhat surprised by the brazen nature of the crime.

'Friend of the bank'

Zaffuto, who had worked with Andrew Jenkins at the Orleans Parish Prison, was married with children. Zaffuto worked for the Sheriff's Office in two stints, the second of which began in April 2001. It wasn't immediately known how long in total he worked for the Sheriff's Office.

Andrew Jenkins started working at the Sheriff's Office in April 1976.

It was unknown how long the deputies worked at Iberia Bank, which on Thursday called Zaffuto "a friend of the bank."

"Our deepest sympathies go out to the families impacted by this situation," said Michael Brown, president of Iberia Bank for the New Orleans area, in a prepared statement.

The wounded suspects, meanwhile, were in good condition at Charity Hospital, Defillo said.

Police said Smith has been arrested for armed robberies and burglaries. Johnson has been arrested with armed robberies, weapons violations and narcotics charges. Jones has been arrested for domestic violence, battery on police officers, resisting arrest and aggravated assault, police said. The disposition of those crimes was unknown Thursday.

The getaway vehicle had a license plate that had been reported stolen in October in Marrero, and investigators were trying to determine if the vehicle was stolen, Defillo said.

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