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Conviction of Lafayette teen in 2014 armed robbery overturned by appeals court, cites judge error

Judge error cited in teen’s conviction

By Billy Gunn

A Louisiana appellate court has thrown out the 2014 conviction and prison sentence of a Lafayette teenager accused in the armed robbery of another juvenile two years ago.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, in a decision released Wednesday, said the felony case of Dontrelon Thomas will be sent back to Judge Ed Rubin’s court for another 15th Judicial District trial in Lafayette.

The 3rd Circuit said Rubin erred when he allowed the jury to listen to a recording of the victim’s testimony after the jury had begun to deliberate. During the July 2014 trial, Rubin’s decision to let the jury rehear the testimony brought multiple objections from Thomas’ attorney, Thomas Alonzo.

“We felt that this was an obvious miscarriage of justice,” Alonzo said Wednesday. “We knew it was going to be reversed, and we have been waiting for that to occur.”

The 3rd Circuit’s ruling states that Rubin “undoubtedly violated” Louisiana criminal procedure rules by allowing the 12 jurors access to recorded testimony after they had gone to the jury room to debate and decide the verdict.

“Our Louisiana Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that allowing a jury to review evidence or testimony such as audiotapes or transcripts during deliberations is reversible error because of the possibility that jurors might give undue weight to that limited portion of the oral testimony,” Judge Phyllis Keaty wrote in the 3rd Circuit’s ruling.

Thomas was 15 when he was indicted and charged as an adult on one count of armed robbery, which occurred on Oct. 22, 2013.

The victim, a minor identified only by his initials and whose age is not specified in the 3rd Circuit’s ruling, testified he was walking down a Lafayette street and had hidden his phone when he saw Thomas. He said Thomas confronted him and wanted his cellphone.

Thomas “asked him how long he had lived in the area, then pushed him to the ground and hit him repeatedly with a small handgun, demanding that (the victim) ‘give it up,’ ” according to the 3rd Circuit ruling. “(The victim) further stated that, after his phone was taken, he got up and ran home to tell his mother, at which time police were notified.”

The jury had started deliberating when the jury foreman sent a note to Rubin.

“We have polled 4 times (and the) vote continues to be 8-4. Continuing to discuss but can not seem to get 10 votes either way,” the note states. In another note, the foreman also asks for some of the victim’s trial statements.

Thomas was convicted and became a ward of the state Department of Corrections. In sentencing Thomas to 10 years in prison at hard labor, Judge Rubin chose the lightest sentence available: Louisiana law specifies a prison sentencing range of 10 years to 99 years for defendants convicted of armed robbery.

District Attorney Keith Stutes said Wednesday that prosecutors won’t appeal the 3rd Circuit’s ruling.

“We’ll simply prepare for another trial,” he said.

Chad Ikert, who was Thomas’ attorney during the appeal, said the next step will be to request a bail hearing that could free Thomas, now 17, until he is retried.

“Dontrelon deserves a fair trial and that’s what he’ll get now,” Ikert said.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

Leaders say better transportation options can connect communities, people to jobs


The head of the U.S. Department of Transportation said that urban planners and engineers have a chance to build transit systems that create opportunities for more people.

“We have an opportunity to make this generation of American transportation planning the most restorative in our history,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the federal transportation department said Wednesday during his closing keynote address to the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. The 10th annual summit was held Tuesday and Wednesday at the Shaw Center for the Arts in downtown Baton Rouge.

Foxx said there have been problems with highways, airports and rail lines “carving up neighborhoods” and leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of residents. “Instead of a lifeline, transportation became a wall,” he said.

The new thinking is building transportation networks that bring opportunities for jobs and a better life to people, instead of cutting them off. One technical assistance program launched by the agency is LadderSTEP, which seeks to connect people to jobs, build transportation infrastructure and revitalize distressed neighborhoods.

In April, Baton Rouge was one of seven cities selected by the Federal Transit Authority to participate in LadderSTEP and get technical assistance for developing a streetcar line connecting LSU and downtown. The first meeting with federal officials was held Wednesday.

Michael Townes, a rail and transit market sector leader for HNTB, a Virginia-based engineering firm working on several projects in Baton Rouge, said officials with the FTA see the LSU to downtown streetcar line as a “showcase project.”

“This could be a national template for implementing a streetcar line and the economic development benefits in a medium-sized community,” Townes said.

Chris Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University and president of LOCUS, a coalition of developers who advocate for walkable communities, said the proposed streetcar could be done relatively cheaply and would lead to an “explosion of growth” on the two blocks on either side of the line. The cost of a 7.38-mile streetcar line running from the State Capitol to Tiger Stadium has been pegged at about $100 million.

Much of the discussion during the summit dealt with the change toward creating walkable communities, something that has lagged in Baton Rouge, where development is still largely dominated by unconnected subdivisions of single-family homes.

Leinberger said LSU could be a catalyst in changing the Baton Rouge landscape.

“LSU has a lot of land, and millennials want to live in high-density walking spaces,” he said. “There’s no reason that your university couldn’t build an academic village with housing for faculty, staff and students.” The University of California, Irvine, which is located in an area with high housing prices did a similar program, partnering with a nonprofit agency to build affordable units for students and faculty, Leinberger said.

Another public transportation project discussed at the summit was the passenger rail line linking Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Knox Ross, secretary-treasurer of the Southern Rail Commission, an agency set up to promote rail service, said the cities that are succeeding and growing have made tremendous commitments to rail. That includes places across the political spectrum from Austin, Texas, to Salt Lake City.

“These are amenities young people want,” Ross said.

Efforts to bring passenger rail to the region are gaining momentum. Both state Rep. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the two candidates for governor, have said they would support a rail line connecting Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Ross said there’s a study about extending Amtrak service from New Orleans to Orlando, Florida, and talk about creating a line along the Interstate 20 corridor linking Dallas-Fort Worth with Meridian, Mississippi.

“So many of our cities are losing air service, they’re at a competitive disadvantage,” Ross said. Rail service allows communities to tie themselves to a larger metro area like New Orleans, Dallas or Orlando.

John Spain, executive vice president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, said a play book has been developed to help Edwards or Vitter establish rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans during their first term as governor.

“We have an opportunity,” he said.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

Four booked on DWI in East Baton Rouge Parish from noon Tuesday to noon Wednesday

Advocate staff report

Authorities arrested at least four people suspected of driving while intoxicated in East Baton Rouge Parish and booked them into Parish Prison between noon Tuesday and noon Wednesday, booking records show.

Those booked and the counts against them:

Teresa Price, 31, 10902 Airline Highway, Baton Rouge, second-offense DWI, hit and run, reckless operation and simple assault.

Shantell Rogers, 29, 2712 Lupine Ave., Baton Rouge, first-offense DWI and driving too slowly.

Donald Ferguson, 26, 7353 Antioch Road, Baton Rouge, first-offense DWI, failure to maintain control, failure to report accident, obstruction of public highway and expired registration.

Albert Smith, 73, 2040 75th Street, Baton Rouge, first-offense DWI, reckless operation and drinking in a motor vehicle.

Compiled from staff reports. To talk to a crime reporter at The Advocate, call (225) 388-0369.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

Authorities try to sort out details of marshal-involved Marksville shooting that left child dead, father wounded

Father who was driving stable after marshal-involved gunfire

By Bryn Stole

MARKSVILLE — A chase dead-ending Tuesday night at a shuttered state park in Marksville ended in the death of a 6-year-old boy after deputy city marshals opened fire on the car his father had been driving.

The boy, identified as Jeremy David Mardis, was shot multiple times in the head and torso and pronounced dead at the scene, the Avoyelles Parish coroner, Dr. Lovell L.J. Mayeaux Jr., said Wednesday. Jeremy was a first-grader at Lafargue Elementary School in the nearby central Louisiana town of Effie.

The boy’s father, 25-year-old Chris Few, also was shot multiple times. He was airlifted to Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, where he was listed in stable condition.

Mayeaux said the boy was in the vehicle when he was shot and it appears that all the shots came from outside and through the driver’s side of the vehicle. The coroner said the investigation is ongoing, but the “working theory” is that all the shots were fired by city marshals.

Jeremy was sitting in the front passenger seat of the vehicle when he was shot, Mayeaux said.

Few, with his son in tow, had led the marshals on a chase through Marksville shortly before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, speeding down Martin Luther King Drive in the town before being pinned in by at least two patrol cars at a two-way intersection in front of the gates of the closed Marksville State Historical Site, a now-closed state park that features a number of Indian mounds.

What exactly prompted the chase and then the shooting remains unclear, but The Town Talk in Alexandria reported that Few threw his truck into reverse and tried to run his car into one of the marshal’s vehicles.

Two nearby residents said they heard rapid gunfire shortly after police sirens raced down the street. One resident estimated he heard “six or seven” gunshots, while another said he counted at least 10. Trooper Daniel “Scott” Moreau, a State Police spokesman, confirmed that the marshals “discharged their duty weapons” but couldn’t say how many rounds had been fired.

Spray-painted markings on the street show the location of four vehicles at the site of the shooting. On the driver’s side of one of the markings, at least 17 painted spots possibly show where shell casings or other evidence was recovered.

Moreau said it wasn’t yet clear if there was a weapon inside Few’s car or if anyone besides the ward marshals had fired during the confrontation.

Moreau said investigators from State Police’s Alexandria field office had received initial statements from the marshals involved in the shooting but hadn’t yet interviewed any of those involved. Moreau said the investigation was “still in its infancy” but he wouldn’t be able to say whether the marshals had fired the deadly shots until after ballistics tests and a final autopsy report have been completed.

At TJ’s Lounge, a bar and service station in Marksville, a bartender and patrons said that Few — a familiar face there since relocating from Mississippi about a year ago — had been hanging out there earlier Tuesday, playing pool with a girlfriend before leaving about 9 p.m., less than a half-hour before the fatal shooting. None were sure whether Jeremy had been waiting in the car or if Few picked him up later.

“It just blows my mind that all this happened,” one said, referring to Few as a friendly, low-key guy.

Few’s mother, Samantha Few, declined to be interviewed but told WAFB-TV in a written statement that Jeremy, her grandson, was autistic and a “special gift from God.”

“He was always smiling always happy,” Few told WAFB.

“He loved everyone he met and they loved him. As far as what caused his death, the only thing I have been told is he died from gun shot wounds. He didn’t deserve what happened. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

Marksville Police Chief Elster Smith Jr. could not be reached for comment Wednesday, as he spent the entire day on the scene of another major — though entirely unrelated — emergency in the small city of 5,700 that is also the parish seat. According to Avoyelles Today, 32-year-old Will Ray Lachney took a shotgun from a hunter in the nearby woods, fired it in the air after being confronted by a passing police officer, and barricaded himself inside his mother’s apartment, about a mile or less from the scene of Tuesday night’s shooting.

During Wednesday’s standoff, a Marksville police officer accidentally shot Lachney’s mother in the arm. The woman had gone into the apartment to talk her son into surrendering before ending up in a struggle with her son over the shotgun, the newspaper reported.

Marksville’s Ward 2 marshal, Floyd Voinche Sr., also could not be reached Wednesday. The elected position, similar to a constable, is a certified law enforcement officer with jurisdiction in the town but is primarily tasked — along with a number of deputies — with serving court documents, including warrants and civil suits.

The deputy marshals involved in Tuesday night’s shooting were off-duty Marksville police officers who were working extra duty for the Ward 2 Marshal’s Office. Smith, the Marksville police chief, told Avoyelles Today he will meet with the city attorney before deciding what action, if any, would be taken with the officers, who were not identified.

An autopsy on Jeremy was performed Wednesday afternoon. Mayeaux said initial results were turned over to the Louisiana State Police, who are investigating the shooting, but the findings will not be made public at this time.

Blaine Dauzat, superintendent of the Avoyelles Parish school district, said grief counselors were sent to Lafargue Elementary School on Wednesday to help comfort Jeremy’s classmates and teachers.

“It’s obviously a very tragic loss,” Dauzat said. “We’re all deeply saddened.”

NOPD training course helps officers zone in on drunk drivers

Something to consider the next time you decide to take a drive to the city. 

nopd story

If you’ve ever had a few drinks then hopped in your car to drive home, you may want to think twice about it. New Orleans police are training more officers how to spot drivers who are under the influence in an effort to reduce the high number of alcohol-related fatalities.

During a three-day training course, the police department employed the help of volunteers, providing a group with alcohol starting at 11 a.m. Wednesday. By 3 p.m., one woman  had a blood alcohol level over .10. The legal limit in Louisiana is .08 .

While conducting a mock field sobriety test on the woman, the officer notes, “She missed a step, she actually missed one of the steps.”

Had this been a real field sobriety test, she’d be going to jail.

NOPD Lt. Anthony Micheu explains, “We are seeing an abundance of drunk drivers on the street. We’re currently at 900 for the year.”

Not all New Orleans police officers are trained on how to spot an impaired driver who may not be exhibiting the most obvious signs, which is why the training class is held about once a year. The department figures the best way to learn is with real life guinea pigs.

“We document and we measure every ounce of alcohol consumed by them,” Micheu explained.

Then the volunteers are put through a mock field sobriety test. The 24 officers in training are guided by their superiors as they execute a walk and turn test, the “horizontal gaze nystagmus” and others.

The crackdown on drunk drivers is more important now than ever as Louisiana’s fatality rates climb. Beth Inbau, with the National Safety Council’s South Louisiana Chapter, says, “We’re the second highest parish for alcohol-related crashes based on how many licensed drivers there are.”

The National Safety Council tracks the numbers. Inbau says the average across the country for fatalities blamed on drugs and alcohol is 35 to 40 percent. In Louisiana, that number stands at 44 percent.

Inbau applauds the NOPD’s efforts to reduce the figure, saying increased visibility and education are key.

The officers who graduated from the training class this week are participating in a DUI checkpoint Wednesday night. The area with the highest number of alcohol-related crashes in Louisiana is Calcasieu Parish.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.

Lafayette woman indicted in death of newborn; corpse discovered 14 years later in storage unit

By Advocate staff report

A grand jury on September 30 indicted a Lafayette woman on a second-degree murder charge in the death of her newborn baby, whose corpse was discovered 14 years later inside a storage unit.

Police arrested Rebecca Landry, 57, in June after a renter discovered the corpse inside Landry’s storage unit, which was auctioned off after the bill went unpaid. She’s since been released on a $125,000 bond while awaiting trial.

Landry said she was suffering from alcoholism in late 2001 when she gave birth at home and in secret, police have said. When the baby died a few days later, she hid the infant in a cardboard box filled with women’s clothing and stowed it in a closet, later moving it to the storage unit.

If convicted, Landry faces life in prison.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

Baton Rouge to launch carpooling program, website later this month

Geaux Ride matches office commuters


Baton Rouge drivers are often trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but that hasn’t made carpooling an attractive alternative for the vast majority of commuters.

The Capital Region Planning Commission would like to see that change, not only to help relieve the Baton Rouge area’s oppressive traffic congestion, but also to reduce a source of pollutants that contribute to the formation of ozone. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set to come out with tougher ozone air pollution standards soon, getting more cars off the road can only help the Baton Rouge five-parish area meet whatever new standard is announced.

The commission, along with other partners, will unveil this month a new Web-basedcarpooling site to match commuters who have similar schedules, interests and workplaces. Signup is free, and information will be kept secure until an individual wants to share something with a potential fellow carpooler.

A public information kickoff for the program will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sept. 16 at Town Square along North Boulevard in downtown Baton Rouge. There will be information about the program, along with a free jambalaya lunch on a first-come, first-served basis. If it rains, the event will be held at the state Department of Environmental Quality in the Oliver Pollock Room, 602 N. 5th St.

A soft launch of the Geaux Ride website was released about a month ago for employees of several state agencies, including DEQ, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation and Development, since they all have a large presence downtown, said Jamie Setze, Capital Region Planning Commission executive director.

So far, about 150 people have signed up, but not many have logged their carpooling trips so it’s hard to say how often it’s been used, explained Ravi Ponnapureddy, commission’s director of transportation.

Other cities that have had success with carpooling programs have offered small incentives that reward the highest number of miles, or most trips taken, with rewards like free coffee or better parking spots. It not only encourages participation, but it also gets people to fill out the trip information on the website, vital data for state planners to figure out what’s working.

In cities where the program hasn’t taken off, experts attribute part of the problem to a lack of marketing and incentives offered to get people to change their driving habits.

The Baton Rouge program is trying to be proactive in promoting the program.

“The next step we’re working on is offering incentives,” Ponnapureddy said. Even with cash-strapped state agencies, something as simple as a coveted parking space could make a difference. State offices are currently working out what those incentives will include.

One sticking point for some participants is what happens if they carpool to work, but something unexpected happens — like a sick child needing a pickup from school — and they have to go home early, said Kim Marousek, director of planning with the commission. Being able to offer a “guaranteed ride home” is a necessity for any program that is going to work.

Some larger industries might even be able and willing to provide that resource for employees once they see how much of a difference it makes in participation, she said.

Setze said ride-hailing company Uber has agreed to give users one free ride home as the program gets underway, and the planning commission will continue talking with the organization and looking at other options to make a ride home part of the program.

Interest in carpooling has declined nationwide since the 1980s, which effectively means there are more cars on the road.

According to the Census Bureau 2009-2013 five-year estimates, almost 82 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish workers get to work on their own, while 10 percent carpool.

That reflects a national trend since the oil crisis of the 1970s lifted, people increasingly moved away from the carpools that were a necessity at that time. Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of Americans who carpool dropped from 19 percent to 9 percent. Gas prices have had an impact, but it’s also about people’s lifestyles, Setze said.

In 1980 there were many more families that had one parent going to work while the other stayed home with children. With both parents working, as is more typical now in two-parent families, errands like grocery shopping are piggybacked onto the drive home — making carpooling less attractive to some.

The program will underscore that people who carpool can realize cost savings by leaving their vehicle home even a couple days a week. But in addition to personal benefits, it also sells larger regional benefits in terms of air quality.

“Every two people who carpool together, you’re taking a car off the road,” said Vivian Aucoin, senior environmental scientist with DEQ’s air permits division. “So you’re going to take that added pollution out of the air.”

Although the entire state meets current federal regulations for ozone pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release tougher standards in the next two months that could put some areas, including Baton Rouge, out of compliance.

Getting more people into fewer cars can only help the ozone-causing pollution in the Baton Rouge area, but only time will tell if people embrace ride-sharing after decades of going it alone.

“I really believe it’s going to be your 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds who will make this work,” she said.

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

EPA releases new ozone regulations, only Baton Rouge-area falls out of attainment in Louisiana


The long-awaited lower ozone pollution standard announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Thursday didn’t get as tough as many people feared and will likely mean little change in how things operate in Louisiana.

EPA announced that the standard will be lowered to 70 parts per billion, a level that every monitor in the state, except one, currently meets. The only monitor above that level as of Aug. 31 is at LSU at 71 ppb, which means that once again the five-parish area around Baton Rouge will be the only area in the state that doesn’t meet federal standards.

For years, the EPA has discussed lowering the standard much lower than the new regulations, pushing it to 60 or 65 parts per billion, a level that would have knocked many areas of the state out of compliance.

Not meeting the ozone standard brings with it possibilities of additional requirements on industry, road construction and even additional car emission inspection like Baton Rouge area residents continue to do yearly.

Ozone pollution, commonly known as smog, isn’t released directly into the air. Instead, it is formed through a chemical reaction when volatile organic chemicals and nitrogen oxides – released by industry, vehicles, lawnmowers and other sources – during sunny days, primarily in summer. When there is little wind to dissipate the ozone it can accumulate in an area and provoke health concerns for vulnerable populations like children, the elderly or people with lung ailments.

EPA estimates the new standard will result in public health benefits of $2.9 to $5.9 billion a year in 2025, while estimating the annual cost of meeting the standard would fall at $1.4 billion a year.

Although the standard ended up much lower than many had expected, industry organizations said it still will end up costing too much money. Environmentalists, too, were disappointed by the Obama administration’s decision, saying it didn’t go far enough to protect the health of children with asthma and others affected by ozone.

“This action falls far short of what’s needed to protect the 1 in 10 children who live with asthma,” Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice’s vice president of healthy communities, said in a press release. “The science shows that ozone is dangerous to these kids at the levels allowed by this new standard.”

Environmental Defense Fund agreed saying, “While the air quality standard announced today is an improvement, it falls short of what is necessary to safeguard healthier, longer lives for our children and for all Americans at risk,” Vickie Patton, EDF general counsel said in a released statement.

Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in a press release that although what his group considered a worst-case scenario was avoided, “the Obama Administration finalized a rule that is overly burdensome, costly and misguided.”

Congressman Steve Scalise, R- La., agreed that “EPA’s final radical ozone regulation could cost Louisiana billions of dollars in growth and lost tax receipts as well as thousands of good paying jobs. Make no mistake: this will be the costliest regulation ever.”

EPA disagrees that this will lead to economic hardship and in a press release points out, “Nationally, from 1980 to 2014, average ozone levels have fallen 33 percent, while the economy has continued to grow.”

Follow Amy Wold on Twitter @awold10.

Copyright © 2015, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved

Prosecutor: Iberville fugitive should face new charges when apprehended

Benjuiel Johnson  (Source: Iberville Parish Sheriff's Office)

Benjuiel Johnson
(Source: Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office)

By James Sparvero


Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi wants it all to end. There is currently a multi-agency manhunt going on for Benjuiel Johnson, a Plaquemine man convicted of manslaughter with over 35 years left to spend behind bars.

“He knows that he needs to be in jail and he knows that he should turn himself in,” said Sheriff Stassi. “Tell Mr. Benjueil Johnson to turn himself in to the nearest law enforcement officer that he finds and this case will be over.”

Until then, the Sheriff’s Office is working with Plaquemine Police and the US Marshal’s Office. Questions are now emerging as to whether Johnson will face new charges when he is found or turns himself in.

Johnson’s mother blames the prison for making the mistake, but prosecutors say Johnson is still breaking the law by walking free.

“It’s not like he’s some innocent person who for some inexplicable reason was left out of prison. He knew that he had 35-plus more years to give to people in the state of Louisiana,” said prosecutor Tony Clayton, who assisted in Johnson’s 2013 manslaughter conviction.

Clayton said Johnson should now be charged with escape and eluding police.

“It’s the same as you open your bank account and there’s erroneously $1 million in your account,” said Clayton. “That doesn’t give you the right to go spend it. You just can’t unjustly enriched yourself and he can’t just unjustly free himself.”

Crime Stoppers is offering a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to the arrest of Johnson. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections — Corrections Services is also offering a separate and independent reward of $1,000.

Johnson is a black male, 5’10” tall and weighs approximately 190 pounds. He has a tattoo on his left arm that reads “Timed Up” and a tattoo on his right arm that reads “Keyleon.”

“We are going to continue to search until he’s brought back to where he belongs – prison,” said Sheriff Stassi.

Copyright 2015 WAFB. All rights reserved.

State makes online post of 16 unlicensed day care owners

By Charles Lussier of The Advocate
June 12, 2015

The names of 16 day care owners ordered to close their centers for good are now posted on the Louisiana Department of Education’s website following last week’s death of a toddler at an unlicensed day care in Baton Rouge.

More names will be added to the blacklist as the department combs through older records, John White, state superintendent of education, said at a news conference Thursday.

One name is Shelia Newman, whose day care, Shelia’s Learning Academy and Daycare, was closed by a court order issued Sept. 15. That order is linked to her name on the website, along with the affidavit where she pledged not to operate a similar day care again.

Newman closed her center on the outskirts of Baker, only to quietly reopen for business 7 miles south at 6345 Prescott Road, across the street from her home. Her unlicensed business was not discovered until June 5, when 22-month-old Angel Green died soon after being left unattended in a sweltering day care van.

Newman, 47, was released Wednesday from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on $75,000 bail.

A cousin of Angel’s mother, Joy Green, told The Advocate on Tuesday that no one told Green the Prescott Road day care was operating illegally.

White said he talked to the mother Wednesday.

“It was an extremely sobering conversation about an awful event,” he said.

He said he came away persuaded his office could do more to help other families not make the same choice.

All 16 blacklisted names have in the past five years received court orders to close. The list does not at present include centers that received notices revoking their licenses but whose cases never reached court or whose cases remain on appeal, state officials acknowledged.

In addition to Newman, the blacklist names four other day care center owners in the Baton Rouge metro area: Stacia Barton, My Lil Sunshine Daycare; Yvette Imbraguglio, an unnamed day care; Martha Jackson, Martha’s Childcare; and Michelle Lavergne, Leaps & Bounds Sports Center.

White said his office has sent letters to sheriffs in the 10 parishes where the blacklisted day cares operated, asking them to check and make sure these individuals are not operating illegal day care centers. He also urged members of the public who see something amiss to call a hotline for the department’s day care licensing division, (877) 453-2721.

White said the new blacklist will be included in proposed new licensing regulations for early childhood centers to be considered Tuesday by a committee of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state school superintendent defended past enforcement actions of state day care monitors against Newman.

“State regulators did their job appropriately in every instance,” he said. “That does not mean there aren’t things we can do to be more vigilant.”

The Department of Education in October took over the responsibility of overseeing the state’s day cares from another state agency, the Department of Children and Family Services. DCFS handled the enforcement actions against Newman.

White’s office on Thursday released an updated timeline of the enforcement actions DCFS took against Newman. That timeline makes clear that Newman had operated illegally before for several weeks last summer.

On June 27, 2014, an administrative law judge upheld the revocation of Newman’s license, a decision that should have prompted her to close her doors. Three weeks later, on July 15, inspectors visited her center and found it was illegally operating, with 18 children present.

Still operating illegally, DCFS finally went to state district court in Baton Rouge to get the court to close Newman’s day care. Judge Tim Kelley did just that in his Sept. 15 order.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.
Originally posted on The Advocate