NEW ORLEANS (LA) - A former New Orleans Police Department lieutenant admitted that after New Orleans police officers shot six unarmed people walking across a bridge looking for food after Hurricane Katrina, he realized the shooting had been unjustified and started a cover-up.
Michael Lohman, who retired this month, admitted on Wednesday that he wrote false incident reports, allowed a gun to be planted at the scene of the shooting, and made up false witness statements.
Lohman also admitted that he intended for the officers involved in the shooting to come up with a plausible story that would allow him and other supervisors to conclude the shooting was justified. According to his testimony, the officers then provided "false stories" that "evolved" over time.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, police shot six unarmed people as they walked across the Danziger Bridge, which crosses the Industrial Canal from New Orleans East. Two men, one of whom was severely mentally disabled, were killed, and four were seriously injured.
According to court documents unsealed Wednesday, the incident involved at least seven NOPD officers who drove to the Danziger Bridge in a Budget rental truck in response to a call for police assistance.
When the officers got to the eastern side of the bridge, they found a family of five and a friend of the family walking together across the bridge to a supermarket where they intended to get food and supplies. The officers opened fire.
James Brissette, 19, was killed. The five with him were seriously wounded. Susan Bartholomew lost part of her arm and her husband, Leonard Bartholomew III, was shot in the head. Their daughter, Leisha Bartholomew and a nephew, Jose Holmes, suffered multiple gunshot wounds. Leonard Bartholomew IV, a teen-age son, was uninjured.
The officers then crossed to the west side of the bridge, where they found Lance and Ronald Madison, who were crossing the bride on foot to get to their brother's dentistry office, and opened fire on them. Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, was shot to death.
In his guilty plea Wednesday, Lohman said that when he arrived at the scene shortly after the shootings, he noticed there were no guns on or near the dead and wounded people. When the NOPD officers involved were unable to come up with evidence that would justify the shooting, Lohman said he concluded they had been involved in a "bad shoot" - one that was not legally justified.
Federal prosecutors, in a 13-page statement of the "Factual Basis" of the prosecution, wrote that Lohman spoke with the two officers on the scene, who claimed the people on the bridge had fired at them and the officers had shot in self-defense. But when Lohman asked where the guns were, the officers had no explanation.
Lohman told the officers to decide what happened and let him know. He intended for the officers to come up with a "plausible story" that would allow him and other supervisors to conclude that the shooting was justified, according to the Factual Basis statement.
The statement adds that at the crime scene, Lohman and other officers "purposely neglected to take steps that would have allowed for a true investigation of the incident to occur. Among other things, they failed to conduct or direct evidence-collection at the scene; they failed to diagram the scene or conduct a neighborhood canvas, or ensure that someone else would do so; and they left the scene without any evidence having been picked up, even though there were numerous officers at the scene - and several homicide investigators under Lohman's command - who were available and able to work the scene."
After the shooting an investigator, a sergeant under Lohman's command, told Lohman, "I have a gun and I'm going to put it under the bridge," prosecutors said. Lohman understood that the gun would be planted as evidence that would justify the shooting, and asked the investigator if the gun was "clean," meaning that it couldn't be traced to another crime.
Later, Lohman signed off on a report stating that a gun had been found under the bridge, though he knew the gun had been planted. The statement of factual basis adds that over the course of five or six weeks, the investigator met repeatedly with the shooters and documented the stories they had come up with to justify the shooting.
In October 2005 the investigator handed a draft report to Lohman, which included summaries of statements attributed to the shooters. The shooters' stories didn't make sense to Lohman, "so he suggested changes that would help make the cover story more specific and more plausible," according to the statement of factual basis.
The final version of the report submitted by the investigator contains a false interview in which one of the people on the bridge during the shootings admits that her nephew and some of his friends on the bridge had fired guns before the officers returned the fire. And Lohman and the investigator decided together to add a false witness statement from the first group of people shot at: that they knew the two men on the other end of the bridge and were on their way to all go together to "loot" the supermarket when the incident occurred, according to the factual basis.
After reading several drafts of the investigator's report, Lohman became frustrated that the coverup wasn't logical, and he drafted a 17-page report that he knew was false, prosecutors say. He gave the report to the investigator who had planted the gun at the scene of the crime and told him to submit it as the official evidence report.
Lohman also admitted that in May 2009 he gave false information to an FBI agent investigating the case.
After the guilty plea Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of the Eastern District of Louisiana said that the government intends to "leave no stone unturned to aggressively investigate and bring to justice any officer who tarnishes the badge through criminal conduct." But Letton also expressed "appreciation to the majority of NOPD officers who serve their department and their profession with honor and integrity."
The one-count information to which Lohman pleaded guilty charged him with violating the federal conspiracy statute by agreeing with other officers to write false reports about the shooting; to engage in misleading conduct; and to lie to FBI agents. He faces a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Sentencing has been scheduled for May 26.
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