Louisiana Woman Says Police Chief Coerced Sex

     BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A small Cajun community disbanded its troubled police department a year ago, but the town hasn’t shaken a scandal that ousted its police chief.
     A federal trial opened Monday for a civil lawsuit that accuses former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot of sexually assaulting a woman in his office while she was drunk and he was on duty.
     The woman claims Theriot forced her to perform sexual acts in his office after he found her drunk in public. Theriot’s attorneys claim the woman initiated the “unconsummated” sexual encounter to save herself from jail.
     The woman testified that the encounter left her “in a state of shock and fear.”
     “Did you do it because you wanted to?” asked her attorney, Tregg Wilson.
     “No,” she said, reaching for a tissue to wipe away her tears. “I did what he told me to.”
     U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick is hearing the case without a jury and will decide if Theriot or the town violated the woman’s constitutional rights.
     The woman’s accusations already have ended Theriot’s elected tenure. They also fueled the collapse of a police force plagued by other allegations of officer misconduct.
     In 2014, Theriot was sentenced to two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his sexual encounter with the woman. The plea deal required him to resign from his post in Sorrento, where sheriff’s deputies now patrol the town of roughly 1,500 residents.
     Mayor Mike Lambert, who took office in 2013, said the town’s police department spiraled out of control under Theriot and became “one hell of a mess.”
     “The people of Sorrento were scared of the police department,” Lambert said in an interview. “We had to make some drastic changes.”
     A court filing that accompanied Theriot’s guilty plea said he had “inappropriate sexual contact” with the woman on Nov. 1, 2013. His accuser, now 44, claims Theriot detained her, forced her to perform sexual acts and physically restrained her after she called for help.
     On the night before she crossed paths with Theriot, the woman went out drinking with friends. One of them dropped her off at a gas station, where she fell asleep.
     The next day, Theriot responded to a 911 call and found the intoxicated woman in the gas station’s parking lot. He placed her in the front seat of his police vehicle — without handcuffs — and briefly stopped in front of her home before driving her to the police station.
     That’s where their accounts diverge.
     The woman claims Theriot used the threat of jail to coerce her into having sex. She also accused Theriot of taking off her belt and restraining her with it.
     She recalled taking a ring of keys, a flashlight and a notepad from Theriot’s office as proof that she had been there.
     “I was afraid that my boyfriend wouldn’t believe I was telling the truth,” she said.
     Theriot isn’t expected to testify at the trial, but his lawyers have denied that he restrained the woman. In a court filing, they claim the woman has “inexplicably” changed her story after originally telling the FBI that she initiated the “sexual contact.”
     The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault. The woman said the encounter made her feel ashamed and led to a suicide attempt.
     “I believed that my daughter would be better if I wasn’t here,” she said.
     Sorrento was known for its annual “boucherie” festival, featuring traditional Cajun food. Lambert, a former sheriff’s deputy and volunteer fire chief in Sorrento before becoming mayor, said it also earned a reputation for being a speed trap.
     Ticketing practices weren’t the worst of it. The town fired an officer who shocked a college student with a stun gun in 2009 to demonstrate how the device worked; it also fired an officer whose patrol car’s tracking device showed it exceeding 75 mph more than 700 times in two months, The Advocate newspaper has reported.
     The six-officer department was dogged by so many lawsuits and other problems that an insurance company dropped its coverage, Lambert said.
     Residents voted in November 2014 to abolish the department, which officially disbanded last May. Lambert said Sorrento now contracts with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office to patrol the town for nearly half of what it cost to operate its own police force.
     Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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