02/24/2010

Former La. cop pleads guilty in Katrina shooting

Accused of shooting, killing two men after Hurricane Katrina

By Michael Kunzelman and Mary Foster
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — A former police lieutenant pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to obstruct justice after federal officials say he helped cover for officers who killed two people in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.

Federal investigators say former Lt. Michael Lohman knew two people shot to death as they crossed the Danziger Bridge had no weapons, but he and others filed false reports to make the shootings seem justified. Four other people were wounded.

Family members of the victims gathered at the courthouse Wednesday as Lohman arrived to enter his plea. They hope the development means investigators may finally have penetrated the "blue code" of silence that surrounded the case.

Seven officers were charged with murder or attempted murder in the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings on the Danziger Bridge, just days after Katrina smashed levees and flooded 80 percent of the city.

Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and 19-year-old James Brissette were killed. Four others were wounded.

Survivors have said the officers fired at unarmed people who were crossing to get food at a grocery store. The officers acknowledged shooting at people on the bridge, but said they did so only after being shot at.

Lohman supervised the initial probe of the officers' actions. That investigation drew U.S. Justice Department attention after a state judge dismissed the charges against the seven officers in 2008.

Federal officials say Lohman knew another investigator planned to plant a gun to justify the shooting and asked if it was "clean," meaning it could not be traced back to another crime, according to the documents. The investigator assured him it was and he went along with the plan to plant it.

Lohman went to the scene of the shootings, saw that the victims had no weapons, and concluded the shooting was unjustified, according to the bill of information. Then he and other unnamed officers conspired to cover that up by filing false statements on a police report about the incident, according to the documents, which does not name the other officers.

The plan was "to ensure that the shootings would appear to be legally justified and that the involved officers would therefore be shielded from prosecution and liability," the documents said.

A lawyer for one of the officers originally charged in the shootings said federal investigators have been looking into what they described as a "corrupt investigation."

So far, lawyers for two other officers have identified their clients as targets of the probe.

The documents unsealed Wednesday allege that Lohman and two unidentified sergeants drafted different versions of a false incident report on the bridge shootings in October 2005.

Among claims in the false report was a statement by one of the victims that she had seen her nephew and others firing guns on the bridge.

Federal officials say Lohman drafted his own 17-page false report after becoming dissatisfied that another investigator's false account was not logical.

"On several occasions in or about October 2005, defendant Lohman reviewed drafts of the false report written by the investigator and counseled the investigator on ways to make the story in the report sound more plausible," according to court documents.

The documents said Lohman also told the investigator to speak with each of the shooters to ensure they were "OK with" the false report, and were willing to give statements consistent with it.

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