Many victims of Hurricane Katrina who were forced to leave pets behind in St. Bernard Parish were devastated to learn that the animals they loved and entrusted to law enforcement officers were brutally shot to death. They want answers and justice. And they may be getting both.
Some evacuees left their pets in the care of police at one of three schools in the parish. When the residents returned for the animals two to four weeks later, they found that most of them were dead, their bodies scattered in classrooms, tethered or shot in groups.
I trusted the deputies, said evacuee Jodie Jones. It is such a shock and such a heartbreak that anybody could just shoot them.
Jones and others want those responsible to be held accountable.
Investigators with the Louisiana Attorney Generals office in Baton Rouge are trying to do just that. They are in the midst of two lengthy probes; one looking into street shootings and the other into school killings.
The findings of the investigators are leading to St. Bernard Parish Sheriffs Office deputies, many of whom were entrusted with the care of more than 60 dogs, some cats and a few birds at three different schools.
Incriminating EvidencePhotographer David Leeson, Jr., who was on assignment for the Dallas Morning News immediately following Hurricane Katrina, has produced the most damning evidence to date of police wrongdoing. The paper, under subpoena, has turned over to the Attorney Generals office Leeson's raw video footage of dogs being gunned down on the streets around September 7.
While driving the streets between St. Bernard Highway and Judge Perez Drive near Chalmette, Leeson stopped to help a dog but was dismayed to see what happened when two people in a Jeep and two officers in the back of a pickup drove up.
They shot the dog I was stopping to help right in front of me, Leeson said.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer then recorded other events. On the raw tape you can hear the shootings [of] eight to nine dogs, he said. Also disturbing in the video is the admission by then-Sergeant Mike Minton of the sheriff's office that he had, in fact, shot dogs to death.
When Minton noticed Leeson's camera, [Minton] just kind of jumped in front of me and said, What's going on?, Leeson said. I told him who I was. I said, Tell me about the dog shootings. He started talking.
When Leeson asked Minton how many dogs he'd shot, Minton replied, "Enough."
And, Leeson said, on the unedited tape, Minton implicated a senior officer. The sergeant, who was suspended by his department after an edited version was posted on the newspaper's website, has since resigned his post.
The video appears to contain enough evidence for the attorney general's office to continue its case.
For the dogs in the street, we have evidence, said Assistant Attorney General Mimi Hunley. We have the film.
Evidence from the SchoolsFor the probe into the school shootings at Sebastian Roy Elementary School, Beauregard Middle School, and St. Bernard High School investigators, according to sources close to the case, are said to be relying on ammunition and spent bullets found at the scenes, and, equally important, on eyewitness accounts.
Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman for the attorney general, noted, We can't comment on how many [officers may be involved], except to say we do have a list of deputies we are questioning in connection with this investigation. The St. Bernard Sheriff's Office, Wartelle said, is the only law enforcement agency under investigation. That rules out earlier speculation that National Guard officers may have been involved.
Sheriff Jack Stephens, for his part, declined to be interviewed but said through Captain Mike Sanders: We are prohibited from giving any information to the press. That investigation is ongoing.
Earlier, however, on September 29, after the bodies of animals were discovered at Sebastian Roy Elementary School on Bayou Road, Stephens told CNN: I'm certainly not prepared to say without reservation that it wasn't one of our officers that did it. But what I do know is that it's a despicable act. And someone who did this just has some imperfection in their psyche. And if that someone is a law enforcement officer, they can't be in this business. They're in the wrong business.
About 60 people evacuated with their pets to Beauregard Middle School, including Kit Bauer. She was rescued on August 29 from her attic when neighbors in a boat heard one of her dogs barking. They took her to Beauregard, where she and the dogs spent three days.
Bauer left a note written in chalk on a wall outside a classroom with her phone number. It read, In this room are 6 adult dogs and 4 puppies. Please save them. Kit. The puppies were three-week-old dachshunds and were still nursing. She left water and opened three boxes of Fruit Loops cereal for the dogs. One dog, Indy, was located two weeks after the storm at a shelter and has since been returned to Bauer.
Jodie Jones also left a note at a school. She and her husband, Clay, evacuated the Saturday after the levees broke. A half-mile down Bayou Road, the Joneses left their three cats and a dog in the hands of deputies at a makeshift evacuee center at St. Bernard High School. To their horror, two of their cats were found dead four weeks later inside the carriers they had delivered them in. They haven't found their third cat. All were 10 and 12 years old.
I asked the deputies to promise me they'd get my animals to safety, Jones said. They assured us nothing was going to happen to them.
The deputies told us, If you want to get out alive, you have to go now. We're saving people, not animals. I knew two of the officers. We thought we were doing a good thing by taking our animals to the school.
Their dog, Suzie, somehow escaped being shot and was located in a foster home. Suzie made it to California, Jones said. But she died three days before we were scheduled to get her. I think she died of grief.
Carol Hamm stayed at the high school for two days, waiting for her husband and son, who used their boat to rescue people stranded on rooftops and in attics of flooded homes. While at the high school, Hamm said, One moment [the deputies] told us we could take our pets, and the next moment they said we couldn't. My husband was still at the house with our dogs.
Her husband ended up paddling a boat and dropping off their four dogs at Beauregard Middle School, because sheriff's deputies told him they would take the dogs to an animal shelter for safekeeping. Then he and their son went to the high school and were evacuated out a day later with Hamm.
On September 30, Carol Hamm returned to the school to look for the family's pets. It's the worst memory I'll ever have, she said. The bodies were being removed. It was horrible. I was crying over strangers dogs. Only three of our dogs were in the room. We saw a golden retriever, two Yorkshire terriers, all breeds, and a lot of pits and rotties. Some were shot running, one up the stairs. Bullet, our husky mix, was shot in the head.
Many animals were also taken to St. Bernard High School. People were there with dogs, cats and birds, too. You name it, people brought them," Hamm said. There was an old woman who wanted to take her Yorkie. The dog was so tiny she could fit it in her purse. They made her leave it.
While still at the high school, Hamm overheard a deputy say to another officer, As soon as these people leave, I'm shooting these dogs. Hamm and others confronted the officer. A medic was also there, Hamm said, and he told me he wouldn't let anything happen to them.
At both the middle and high schools, evacuees were eventually ordered to get in the back of garbage trucks. The water had receded and by then was about a foot-and-a-half deep. They were driven in the trucks to barges that took them across the river to buses. Some were bused to Oklahoma and Texas, others to Baton Rouge.
Christopher Acosta also left his dog Mercedes at Beauregard Middle School, along with 10 dogs belonging to his mother, uncle, cousin and best friend. His uncle's German shepherd somehow escaped and made it back to his house.
Acosta returned to the school two weeks later to look for the remaining dogs. What he found were bodies. It made me mad, Acosta said. The more bodies I saw, the angrier I got. He opened every classroom, searching. By his count, about 40 deceased pets were in the building. They included his mother's Pomeranian. Mercedes, his pit bull, missed being shot because her leash got stuck in a file cabinet, trapping her behind it.
A resident walked by the school sometime after the shootings and heard a faint whimper. He flagged down the driver of an SUV that had animal rescue scrawled on the window. Kelle Davis of Animal Rescue New Orleans went inside and found the whimpering dog, who turned out to be Mercedes. Mercedes was later taken to Best Friends' rescue center in Tylertown and reunited with Acosta three months after the evacuation.
Picking up the PiecesWhile the investigations into the shootings continue, those who lost their pets in the carnage are trying to get on with their lives.
Carol Hamm and her family, who now live in Temple, Texas, are about to be reunited with Daisy, the sole survivor of the four dogs they left at the school. Daisy was rescued and taken to Tylertown, then placed in a foster home. The family is looking forward to getting Daisy home.
Jodie Jones returned to her home on Valentines Day after she and her husband received keys to their FEMA trailer. Going home brought back many memories. Jones said, You know how when you pull up in the driveway you're used to them barking, and when you go inside they're happy to see you? It was like we expected to see them, but they weren't there. It's been difficult. My pets were my children. I can't get over the abuse.
Kit Bauer now lives out of state and has no plans to return to St. Bernard Parish. There's nothing to go back to, she said. As for the investigation, Bauer said, I don't want to dwell on what the deputies may or may not have done. They took care of us while we were at the school and found us food. I just pray my dogs didn't suffer.