A second former New Orleans police officer pleaded guilty Thursday to covering up the deadly shooting of unarmed residents after Hurricane Katrina, with a judge calling the plot a "despicable" scheme that immeasurably compounded the storm's damage.
Jeffrey Lehrmann, who left the police department in 2006 and is a special agent at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, which means he had knowledge of a crime and didn't report it. Another former officer pleaded guilty last month to a conspiracy charge.
"I have neither imagined or heard of more despicable conduct by law enforcement officers," U.S. District Judge Lance Africk said of the case against the former homicide detective.
A court filing Thursday outlines new details about the alleged cover-up that followed the Sept. 4, 2005, shootings on the Danziger Bridge, which also led to a Justice Department investigation.
The filing says police fabricated two nonexistent witnesses, kicked spent shell casings off the bridge weeks after the shooting and held a secret meeting in a gutted-out police building to make sure officers who shot at unarmed civilians got their false stories straight before taping interviews.
Plot to plant a gun
The filing also reveals how police investigators carried out a plot to plant a gun to make it appear the shootings were justified.
Several weeks after the shooting, Lehrmann went to an unidentified investigator's home, where the investigator retrieved a bag from a storage container in his garage. When Lehrmann asked him what was in the bag, the investigator responded, "a ham sandwich." Inside was a revolver.
"After the investigator assured the officers that the gun was 'clean,' they all went along with the plan to plant the gun," the filing says.
Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who has been informed by prosecutors he is a target of the probe, apparently is the unidentified investigator referred to in the filing, according to his lawyer, Steve London. London denied his client participated in any cover-up.
"There would be no reason for my client, with 30 years of unblemished service, to do what this individual alleges he did," London said. "It makes no sense. He wasn't a shooter. He didn't have anything to cover up."
Prosecutors said investigators didn't collect critical evidence from the scene, including spent shell casings. In fact, Lehrmann allegedly saw an unidentified sergeant kick casings off the bridge.
And in the weeks after the shooting, Lehrmann and other investigators discussed how they could blame their failed investigation on Hurricane Katrina and "use the storm to help make the entire situation 'go away,'" the filing says.
After Thursday's hearing, a reporter approached Police Superintendent Warren Riley in a coffee shop near the courthouse and told him about some of the details in the filing.
"Unbelievable," said Riley, who has said he felt betrayed by the cover up. "All I can say is, 'Wow.'"
Mark of shame
The shootings initially were seen as a symbol of the confusion and lawlessness that followed in the weeks after Katrina hit — only to become a mark of shame on the police department once the cover-up emerged.
Lehrmann, 38, of Anthem, Ariz., faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing has been set for June 10. He is free on $25,000 bond.
Michael Lohman, a retired New Orleans police lieutenant, pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy to obstruct justice, but prosecutors said Lehrmann was the first to agree to cooperate with the Justice Department probe. State charges of murder or attempted murder against seven other officers were thrown out by a judge.
Ronald Madison, 40 and mentally disabled, and James Brissette, 19, were killed and four others shot as they crossed the bridge in search of food. The officers claimed they opened fire only after being shot at. Lance Madison, who accompanied his brother, Ronald, testified less than a month later that a group of teenagers started shooting at them before they encountered police.
"This has been a devastating time for our family and for the citizens of this city," Romell Madison, one of Ronald's brothers, said after the hearing. "We want to ensure that this doesn't happen to anyone else."