An update to this post can be found here.
At a glance, Bunkie looks like any other cash-strapped central Louisiana town. It’s a jumble of crumbling shacks, modest bungalos and a clutch of picturesque mansions straight out of Gone with the Wind. Bunkie used to be a predominantly white community, but as one old timer told me, “the old whites are dying and the young whites are movin’ out–pretty soon you got yourself a black majority. Used to be the east side was black and the west side was white, with Highway 71 as the divider. But now a lot of black folks are buying homes on the west side. That causes conflict; a lot of whites don’t want to live around blacks.”
I first visited Bunkie on February 22, 2007; exactly one year ago. I had been organizing the families of the Jena 6 and Tony Brown, a radio personality in nearby Alexandria, had interviewed me on his morning talk show.
“You’ve got to come down to Bunkie,” Denise Atkins told me, “we got it real bad down here.”
Denise arranged a public meeting in an old restaurant that was in the process of renovation. A crowd of thirty showed up for fried chicken and conversation. Everyone wanted to talk about Chad Jeansonne, a detective with the Bunkie Police Department who had learned every trick in the drug war manual.
Moments into the meeting, several participants noticed a shadowy figure lurking in a darkened corner of the room. A middle aged black woman in the uniform of the Bunkie Police Department emerged from her hiding spot and confronted her accusers.
“What you doin’ spying on us?” somebody asked. “I’ve seen you on those raids where the cops come busting in without no warrant. You know how they do us!”
The officer was unrepentant. “If ya’ll would quit doing drugs and hanging out on the street corner you wouldn’t have nothing to worry about!”
”We all work hard for our money,” a young woman shot back. It was a familiar conversation: Mos Def meets Bill Cosby. The disgruntled officer sauntered out of the room.
A few days later, I got a phone call from an officer with the Louisiana State Police. “Hello Dr. Bean,” a pleasant voice said. “I hear you’ve been down to Bunkie talking to some folks and I was just curious about your business.”
“I was invited to Bunkie by some concerned citizens,” I replied.
“What were they concerned about?”
“Oh, the usual,” I replied. “Racial profiling, warrantless searches, and coerced testimony and plea agreements. But the conversation kept coming around to one officer in particular: a fellow named Jeansonne; Chad Jeansonne.”
“Well, I’m sure your investigation will lead you to the conclusion that Mr. Jeansonne is a fine officer doing really good work for us down there in Bunkie.”
This prophecy has gone unfulfilled. After chatting with four ex-Bunkie police officers who had worked with Jeansonne I started taking the complaints emerging from Bunkie’s poor black community much more seriously. Unsubstantiated rumors make the rounds in little towns and I have learned to suspend judgment. But as one attorney who has defended dozens of clients in Avoyelles Parish recently told me: “When you got one defendant saying the cops are planting evidence and faking drug cases, you brush it off. But when every guy you represent has the same story, you start to see a pattern. All these little towns have bad cops; but this Jeansonne fellow is totally out of control.”
I haven’t been able to do much with the horror stories emerging from Bunkie, Louisiana. The allegations are serious, but most of it ends in a he-said-she-said standoff. The story of Larry Bazile is different.
Larry Bazile is a big man with a drug conviction on his record–par for the course for black males in towns like Bunkie. Bazile took a plea offer for a probated sentence when the prosecutor told him he didn’t stand a chance in court. The evidence against him was sketchy at best; but Larry knew what happened when black males roll the dice with a jury in Avoyelles Parish. Now, twenty years later, he spends most of his time caring for Pearly Bazile, his seventy-six year-old mother.
On December 1, 2006, at six in the morning, officers from the Bunkie Police Department, assisted by two FBI agents, knocked on Larry Bazile’s door. When Bazile didn’t open immediately, an officer began kicking the door impatiently. “Hold on,” Larry called out as he opened the door.
In seconds, Bazile had been knocked to the floor. He was asking to see a search warrant while they handcuffed his hands behind his back. He asked for a warrant three more times during the raid, but the papers were never produced.
Officers rousted Pearly Bazile out of bed even after being informed that she was an invalid. Young children were crying (over a year later, they are still afraid of the police). Several relatives from out of town, in their early-to-mid twenties, had been staying the night. They too were handcuffed.
An officer called one of the young men into the bathroom. He was holding a bottle of prescription pain medication in his hand. “I’m gonna charge you with this,” the officer said, “unless you tell me what the big guy’s been doing.” The big guy in question was Larry Bazile.
Larry and his young friends were hauled down to the Police Department shed, then transported to the lock-up in neaby Marksville. Larry was charged with conspiracy. A relative visiting from Dallas was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia (the pill bottle).
Over a year later, Larry Bazile is still awaiting his day in court. When I first talked to him he had no idea where the conspiracy charge came from.
Unlike most poor black defendants, Larry Bazile isn’t alone. Jerriel Bazile, a Dallas real estate man, and Gaythell Smith, a Dallas police officer (pictured above) have taken a passionate interest in their brother’s case. For months, their persistant questions went unanswered. Finally, Jerriel filed a freedom of information request for the complete records surrounding the case and prosecutor Charles Riddle turned over the pertinent materials.
The changes against Larry Bazile can be traced back to November 16, 2006, the day an FBI officer allegedly purchased $40 of crack cocaine from the defendant. Detective Chad Jeansonne filed several different reports over a period of three months, all supposedly based on the testimony of an unnamed FBI agent.
But there’s a problem: three irreconcilable accounts of the alleged drug buy emerge from these documents. In one version, the FBI agent came to Bazile’s residence alone. In version two, the agent is accompanied by an unnamed confidential informant. In yet a third version, the agent came to Bazile’s home with a second defendant, Lloyd Robinson.
Is Jeansonne a busy cop with a faulty memory, or is there some method in this madness? To understand the glaring inconsistencies in Jeansonne’s reports you have to understand that less than 5% of narcotics cases ever go to trial. Generally, the government drops the charges or, more frequently, the case is settled by a plea bargain. Jeansonne wrote three irreconcilable versions of the alleged drug buy to fit three separate prosecutorial strategies.
Bazile could be charged with participating in a conspiracy with Lloyed Robinson-hence, it would be convenient if Robinson participated in the buy. If Robinson refused to cooperate, the state could produce a confidential informant to testify that he had accompanied the FBI agent to Bazile’s home. Failing that, the case could be made simply on the uncorroborated word of the FBI agent (the least appealing of the three options since there was no marked money and no video, audio or photographic evidence).
The legal mystery was partially solved a few weeks ago when the prosecution placed Lloyd Robinson on the stand in the course of a short-lived pre-trial hearing. Robinson admitted that he had called Larry Bazile on the day in question, but adamantly denied accompanying the FBI agent to Bazile’s home. When Robinson started talking about going with the agent to the home of a third party (who was never charged) he was silenced.
“The deal is off,” an enraged prosecutor bellowed. “It’s off.”
The prosecution knows the Bazile family is in possession of Chad Jeansonne’s creative writing assignments, but they don’t appear to be worried. If the judge rules the reports inadmissible in court it’s as if they didn’t exist.
With the conspiracy strategy off the table, how will the state proceed?
They could produce a confidential informant willing to verify the alleged transaction. This would be relatively easy. Jeansonne, my sources tell me, has a covey of troubled young men in the drug underworld willing to offer assistance when necessary. Jeansonne, they say, believes his informants implicitly. You offer an informant a sum of money to tell the story your way, or you threaten to send him off to prison if he gets his testimony wrong, or perhaps you work it both ways. It’s easy to produce witnesses in narcotics cases and, so long as they are singing in harmony with police officers, juries believe every word that falls from their lying lips.
Or maybe the State of Louisiana will produce an FBI agent willing to testify under oath that he purchased drugs from Larry Bazile unaccompanied by either Lloyd Robinson or an informant. But how would our hypothetical agent feel about being associated with so many discrepant versions of a simple story?
Normally, he wouldn’t have to worry because no one but the prosecutor would be aware of the discrepancies. But now, thanks to the tenacious detective work of Jerriel Bazile, the truth is out.
The government wants this thing to go away. If Larry will admit to selling drugs the state would be happy to give him five years probation. But Larry doesn’t want to be “on paper” for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s been down that road and has no appetite for a repeat performance.
You may be wondering how Chad Jeansonne has been able to hide his low down ways from his superiors in Avoyelles Parish.
Over the past year I have made six separate trips to Bunkie and have spoken to dozens of residents, including four former colleagues of Mr. Jeansonne. I have spoken with defense attorneys who have tried cases based on Jeansonne’s handiwork. Everyone knows that Mr. Jeansonne isn’t what they call “real police”. He’s the kind of officer that gives the profession a bad name.
So why doesn’t anybody deal with this guy?
There are so many reasons why Chad Jeansonne remains free to work his dreadful magic. First of all, he restricts his malice to the poor end of the black side of town. Secondly, he produces results that make his superiors look good–lots of drug convictions. Third, I am told that he is always professional when in the company of state police officers.
But there is a fourth reason: it is in no one’s best interest to take Mr. Jeansonne down.
Suppose you take a public stand against a dirty cop and nobody backs you up? The mayor and the DA and the judge all stand by their man. Suppose you are a defense attorney. If you anger the local constabulary (or the prosecutor, or the judge) you will suddenly be out of work in that Parish.
So everybody yields to the status quo and hundreds of poor people on the black end of town remain locked in a nightmare. This scenario is playing out in hundreds of little towns across America. Bunkie is a particularly egregious case of normal.
We had another community meeting in Bunkie this past Monday. About 40 concerned residents crowded a tiny livingroom, each one desperate to tell their story. People spoke of sleepless nights, ulcers, high blood pressure and deep depression. Looking into those faces I decided the time for silence was over. The world needs to learn about Chad Jeansonne and the public officials who cover for him.
An update to this post can be found here.