New Evidence in Post-Katrina Vigilante Shooting
In addition to their sprawling investigation into the NOPD, federal investigators are looking into claims of racially motivated violence in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers Point in the days after Katrina -- and new evidence has emerged.
The federal investigation was prompted by reporting first published by ProPublica and The Nation in December 2008. The story, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," described the activities of a neighborhood militia formed in the aftermath of the hurricane. Locals in Algiers Point, a predominately white neighborhood, said the armed group was formed to protect property from thieves. But others described a pattern of violence directed towards African Americans.
The story uncovered evidence of a string of incidents in which the group threatened, attacked, and shot African Americans. It profiled a man named Donnell Herrington who had been shot in the neck and almost died.
Federal investigators have looked closely at the Herrington case and recently took grand jury testimony from Terri Benjamin, who lived Algiers Point at the time and saw the vigilante activity firsthand.
In an interview for FRONTLINE, Benjamin describes in dramatic detail the atmosphere of fear and growing violence in Algiers Point in the days after Katrina hit.
Speaking to ProPublica reporter A.C. Thompson, Benjamin recounts an event that she'll never forget. She was preparing to leave Algiers Point -- things were getting out of hand, she said. Then she saw her neighbor, Roland Bourgeois, Jr. and several others celebrating -- "hootin' and hollerin'." They said they had shot someone. But one of the vigilantes reported back -- the man wasn't dead yet. Roland set off with his shotgun to finish the job, Benjamin says.
He ran around the corner, she says. Then a shotgun blast was heard. And soon Bourgeois was back, waving a bloody blue cap around like it was a trophy.
The cap, Thompson reports, probably belonged to Donnell Herrington, who described the events of that day to FRONTLINE last year. He had been fleeing his damaged home, heading to a designated evacuation zone, a ferry terminal on the river. To get there he had to go through Algiers Point.
Accompanied by a cousin and friend, Herrington had barely crossed into Algiers Point when he suddenly felt the pain of a spray of hot lead in his back and neck. He had been shot from behind with a shotgun.
Herrington fell but got up to run. Soon though another shot rang out -- he was hit again. As he struggled for his life he staggered back the way he had come. He came upon two men in a pickup truck. They did not offer help; instead they threatened to shoot him as well.
Terri Benjamin did not see the shooting of Donnell Herrington; her witness testimony is strictly related to what she saw from her porch -- a group of white men celebrating the shooting of a black man. But Thompson reports that he has since talked with Roland Bourgeois's mother, Pam Pitre, who confirmed that her son was involved in Herrington's shooting. Pitre told Thompson that her son encountered three African-American men, who "looked like gang members" trying to break into parked cars, and that he and another man fired shots meant to "scare," not kill. The only reason the federal government is investigating, she is quoted as saying, is because "this man Roland shot survived and is telling his tale."
Bourgeois has not been charged with any crime, and declined to be interviewed. U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said she couldn't comment on the investigation. At this point, Thompson reports, it is unclear whether the probe will lead to indictments.