06/23/2006

New Orleans deputy, 3 others busted in drug deal

By Dennis Persica, West Bank bureau
The Times-Picayune
Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

An Orleans Parish criminal sheriff's deputy was arrested in Harvey on Wednesday, accused of driving a car used in a heroin transaction.

The deputy, Brandon Banks, 20, was arrested with three other men in a car that also included a 4-year-old child, heroin and a high-powered rifle, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson said Thursday.

The arrest was the product of a new West Bank strike force, which was formed six weeks ago and includes officers from the Gretna and New Orleans police departments and the Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish sheriff's offices.

At the time of his arrest, Banks was wearing a T-shirt with the word "sheriff" emblazoned across it, Lawson said.

Also arrested were Banks' brother Gerald Banks, 27; Donald Miller, 24; and Damond Cole, 22. All four men, from New Orleans, were booked with possession of heroin with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance with a firearm and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Gerald Banks and Miller also were booked with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Lawson said one of the men is the child's father, but he declined to say which one to protect the girl's identity.

Gerald Banks' record shows felony convictions for narcotics, vehicle theft and being a felon in possession of a firearm, Lawson said. Miller has convictions on federal gun charges and burglary. Neither Brandon Banks nor Cole have any felony convictions, officials said.

Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman said after learning of his arrest, Banks was immediately suspended without pay pending an investigation.

Banks joined the department in February 2005. He left the department after Hurricane Katrina, but returned to work in May, Gusman said.

The task force received a tip that heroin would be delivered Wednesday in a gray Buick Regal with Texas license plates to a location in Gretna, Lawson said. The delivery location later was changed to a store at Manhattan Boulevard and the West Bank Expressway in Harvey.

Wednesday about 6 p.m. the officers saw a car matching that description pull into a parking lot at the Manhattan Boulevard location. They saw two people get out of the car and enter a store, then saw one of the men leave the store to meet with someone in the parking lot.

Officers approached the men in the parking lot and saw Miller drop a plastic bag containing a brown powdery substance, which turned out to be 4.5 grams of heroin, officials said.

The Banks brothers, Cole and the child were still in the vehicle, Lawson said. Officers searched the car and found 2.75 grams of heroin and a high-powered SKS rifle inside. The seized heroin represents about 190 hits for an estimated street value of $5,000, officials said.

Lawson said investigators do not believe this was the first drug transaction in which the deputy was involved and that he purposely was wearing the Sheriff's Office shirt to deter arrests in case the vehicle had been stopped for some reason.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten attended the news conference where the arrests were announced, since the financing for the strike force came through his office from the U.S. Justice Department.

Public safety was an issue in the New Orleans area before Hurricane Katrina, and, "with the return of the population and the increase in the population, has become an issue" again, Letten said.

Letten said the grant money, which came through the federal Public Housing Safety Initiative, gave his office the opportunity to do something it never has before.

"We normally don't get to handle funds," Letten said. "We actually had discretionary money and we were able to pass on these moneys to an area that we determined to be a hot spot or an area where we saw an increase in crime."

The task force puts 15 to 20 officers on the street at night to conduct surveillance and raids and monitor specific suspects believed to be involved in narcotics trafficking. The advantage of a joint task force is that there are no boundaries to stop law enforcement agencies from pursuing suspects, supporters of the idea say.

"Because of this cooperative endeavor, we were able to seamlessly take down these suspects," Lawson said.

The task force has been in operation for six weeks and has resulted in 283 arrests, said Capt. Anthony Christiana, commander of operations for Gretna Police.

Lt. Emile Larson of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office said the West Bank has borne the brunt of post-Katrina crime because of the additional population in the parish. Of the 24 murders in Jefferson Parish this year, 19 have taken place on the West Bank, he said.

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Dennis Persica can be reached at dpersica@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3783. 

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