07/12/2011

FBI agent sees holes in Katrina shooting probe

First FBI agent to testify at the trial of 5 current or former police officers said she was 'troubled'

By Michael Kunzelman
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — An FBI supervisor testified before a federal jury on Tuesday about her growing suspicions as she and other agents interviewed the officer assigned to investigate the deadly police shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina.

Kelly Bryson, the first FBI agent to testify at the trial of five current or former police officers, said she was troubled by Sgt. Arthur Kaufman's failure to interview witnesses and gather evidence after police shot and killed two people and wounded four others on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm hit.

"There were some very specific areas that just didn't make sense to me," Bryson said.

Kaufman's attorney, Stephen London, accused Bryson of unfairly judging his client's investigation and claimed she couldn't understand the harsh conditions that hamstrung police after the devastating 2005 storm.

"Yes, I understand the conditions during Katrina," Bryson said.

"You can't understand the conditions because you weren't here," London told Bryson, who had evacuated from New Orleans before the storm hit, breaching levees and swamping large areas with floodwaters.

Kaufman was indicted last year on charges stemming from an alleged cover-up. Prosecutors say he fabricated witnesses, falsified reports and planted a gun to make the shootings appear justified.

Bryson, however, said Tuesday that Kaufman wasn't a target of the federal probe when several FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors interviewed him in January 2009. They had met with him so he could outline the department's investigation, she testified.

Bryson said Kaufman told them he responded to an officer's distress call for "two officers down under the Danziger Bridge." But she found it odd that he didn't look for wounded officers or assign another officer to look.

She also questioned why Kaufman said he didn't look for bullet holes in the rental truck that officers drove to the bridge before they opened fire. The officers claimed they were shot at before they returned fire.

Prosecutors say police reports on the shootings include fabricated statements from two non-existent witnesses, named "Lakeisha Smith" and "James Youngman." The reports claim Smith saw Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, reach into his waistband and turn toward police before he was shot and killed. The reports say Youngman saw people shooting at police on the east side of the bridge.

Bryson said she found it odd that Kaufman provided a vivid description of Smith as an attractive, "well-kept" woman, while his memory of other key details was hazy.

"He said the lady could have been a stripper," she recalled.

Bryson said she also was puzzled when Kaufman told the FBI he didn't have paper or a writing implement to take a statement from Smith, but said he wrote down Youngman's name and date of birth on his hand with a pen.

Kaufman also told the FBI he found a revolver in a grassy area beside the bridge a day after the shootings and took it "for the safety of others," but didn't collect any shell casings he found in the same area, Bryson testified.

Prosecutors claim Kaufman retrieved a gun from his home several weeks after the shootings and turned it in as evidence, trying to pass it off as a gun that belonged to someone who shot at police.

Bryson said she didn't tell Kaufman about her suspicions during the interview, adding "I did not know enough facts to confront him."

Copyright 2011 Associated Press

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