Home Part of States Newsroom
News
Wrongful deaths, beatings, false arrests alleged in lawsuits against Rapides law enforcement

Share

Wrongful deaths, beatings, false arrests alleged in lawsuits against Rapides law enforcement

Sep 20, 2023 | 2:00 pm ET
By Frances Madeson Greg LaRose
Share
Wrongful deaths, beatings, false arrests alleged in lawsuits against Rapides law enforcement
Description
Louisiana Illuminator photo illustration

A string of lawsuits lays out allegations of death, violence, negligence and unwarranted arrests, stops and searches against Rapides Parish law enforcement in recent years. Plaintiffs point fingers at leadership for permitting a climate of misconduct. 

 A Louisiana Illuminator review of federal and state court records since 2020 found multiple complaints against the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Mark Wood, his deputies and prison guards, not all of which are covered here. Police officers from Alexandria and Pineville are also defendants in the lawsuits as is the Rapides Parish Police Jury. 

Lauren Bonds, executive director of National Police Accountability Project, said it’s not just the frequency of the suits that jumps out at her but the severity and the range of issues they cover. How the sheriff’s office runs its jails is the focus of many of the court cases as well as questionable patrol practices, SWAT team dispatches and use of informants.

 “It’s not like there’s this discrete problem that some repairs here or there could fix,” Bonds said. “It really does seem like it’s a problem of leadership and oversight and supervision more generally. The complaints are touching all the different work of the sheriff’s department.”

I always thought that cops were protectors, but now I’m scared of them.

– Ashley White, plaintiff

Plaintiffs in the 13 lawsuits reviewed for this report range in age from 1 to 80 years old. They are Black and white, rich and poor, male and female, locals and travelers. 

 Court filings describe the plaintiffs as victims of wrongful death, excessive force, rape, suicide, overdoses, mental trauma, medical neglect, beatings and unlawful seizure of property. Three men filing separate lawsuits claim they were roughed up by law enforcement officers after they had already been placed in handcuffs. One was punched in the face so forcefully he had contusions, broken teeth and feared his jaw was fractured. 

For Tyler Croxton, who claims he was punched in the face while handcuffed during a May 2023 arrest, something else was damaged — his trust in law enforcement. 

“Mentally, I’m scared to drive though Rapides,” the 23-year-old pipefitter told the Illuminator. To get to work in northern Louisiana from his home in Allen Parish, he must pass through Rapides.  

Rapides sheriff’s siblings receive low-ball property assessments and $0 tax bills

“I’m scared they’re going to pull me over and whoop my ass again,” Croxton said.

“I don’t know under what circumstances what it would take for someone to believe it’s OK that they’re struck, beat, hit while in handcuffs. They’re not a threat. Why are you doing that?” said attorney Alan Pesnell, who’s representing Croxton and other plaintiffs who’ve sued Rapides law enforcement. 

Croxton’s federal lawsuit — filed in August against the RPSO, Wood and the deputy allegedly involved — is still in its early stages. 

RPSO Chief of Staff Tommy Carnline declined to comment, citing department policy on pending litigation that involves the sheriff’s office.

4 deaths at parish jail attributed to alleged gross oversight

News reports have detailed the deaths of three people held at Rapides Parish Detention Center since July 2020 that have prompted lawsuits. Alleged details of a fourth person who died at the facility were made public in a federal lawsuit filed in May. 

Court records say the May 2022 beating death of Andrew Myles in a holding cell came at the hands of another incarcerated person who corrections officers knew was mentally unstable and violent. Myles had been arrested for minor property crimes. Earlier in the day Markese Harrell was apprehended on charges that included second-degree battery, according to the court complaint.

When he was arrested, the suit recounts how Harrell’s family called multiple departments and “stressed to the RPSO deputies and nurse that Harrell could not be placed in a cell with other inmates under any circumstances.” He was initially placed in solitary confinement but later moved into a holding cell with 11 other men, including Myles, and was not constrained, the lawsuit alleges.

“Myles was asleep on the floor in the holding cell when Harrell proceeded to stomp on Myles’ head 48 times and punched him multiple times for approximately two minutes,” the complaint reads. “Other inmates in the holding cell immediately called for help, but RPSO deputies failed to respond until it was too late.” 

Harrell’s second-degree murder trial is on next month’s court docket.

The mother of Myles’ child is suing the sheriff’s office, Wood and prison staff. A status conference in the case took place last month. 

The other jail deaths at the Rapides Parish Detention Center include a suicide in which the parents of Jasmine Anderson claim a guard provided their daughter with the means to take her life. Anderson had been arrested for the 2019 murder of her 5-year-old child. Her parents’ case continues in state court.

 Last year, the mother of Jason Marler filed a lawsuit that alleges the jail’s guards and medical staff helped smuggle illegal drugs inside or were aware it was happening. Marler died in custody in August 2021 after ingesting fentanyl, all while under video surveillance that was unmonitored, according to court records.

Exavier Cortez James of Alexandria, who was also imprisoned at the time, allegedly brought drugs into the jail and was later arrested for Marler’s death and two other nonfatal overdoses at the facility. James’ jury trial on a second-degree murder charge is set for next July.

 In August 2024, a jury trial is scheduled in a lawsuit over the death of Rose Marie Taylor at Rapides Parish Detention Center after father-and-son defendants, Alexandria police officers Brian and Matthew Frost, who’d been traveling in separate vehicles, came into the parking lot where Taylor was talking with her girlfriend. The officers blocked her girlfriend’s car and confronted the couple.

The suit says Matthew Frost “approached the open, driver’s side door of the vehicle and mistakenly referred to Plaintiff RM Taylor as a man.” Taylor was allegedly handcuffed and forcefully thrown on the hood of a police cruiser. The lawsuit accuses the officers of denying medical care on Taylor’s behalf at a local hospital for injuries that led to her death at the jail, which the coroner ruled a homicide.

 The Alexandria Police Department declined to comment on the Taylor lawsuit.

80-year-old blames injuries on poorly trained deputies

A federal case filed in July 2022 against the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office involves an 80-year-old Pineville man. Court records say William Huddleston arrived at his son’s financial planning firm July 14, 2021, to go over some paperwork. Having gotten there a few minutes early, he parked across the street from his son’s business and was soon swarmed by officers from the Alexandria Police Department and three RPSO deputies, according to his lawsuit. 

Before they approached Huddleston, they didn’t run his license plate or notice the elderly man did not fit the description of the two young men they were looking for in a vehicle that bore no resemblance to his, the court complaint states. 

The lawsuit indicates police ordered Huddleston out of his vehicle and asked him if he had weapons. He did not, but officers, one with a pistol pointed at Huddleston, surrounded him and violently placed him in handcuffs. 

Police then searched Huddleston’s vehicle unlawfully, the complaint asserts. When they realized their mistake, they uncuffed him and left the scene, leaving Huddleston injured with broken bones in his shoulder and a torn rotator cuff, according to court documents.

Huddleston is suing the Alexandria Police Department, RPSO, Wood and the Rapides Parish Police Jury; none offered comment on the lawsuit. He is pressing for compensatory and punitive damages in a jury trial scheduled for July 2024.

Deputies raid wrong house, illegally search it

In September 2021, deputies from the RPSO joined officers from the Pineville Police Department in a drug bust in Pineville, according to a separate lawsuit. 

Instead of going to the house where suspected drug dealers were thought to be selling fentanyl and methamphetamines, the eight law enforcement personnel charged into the house next door, guns drawn and screaming at the residents and their visitors to “get down” and “shut up,” the court complaint states.

There they found the dwelling’s tenant, Deiastria Jackson, her 1-year-old child, a friend’s 13-year-old, a blind man, and another man identified in court records as J.M. 

As the children wailed, officers put cuffs on everyone except for Jackson and her baby, according to the court filing. When J.M. tried to tell the officers Donte Harrison is blind, an officer pointed a gun at J.M. and punched him, though he was already cuffed. 

The suit further claims when RPSO and Pineville police realized they were in the wrong house, they illegally searched it anyway. They left with an apology and a promise to repair the damage they caused to the furnishings, but the lawsuit claims that never happened.

Need to get in touch?

Have a news tip?

Jackson and the mother of the 13-year-old sued RPSO and Sheriff Wood for, among other things, “practices exhibiting deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of citizens” and for not disciplining their deputies after the incident.

The lawsuit, which also named the City of Pineville and the Pineville Police Department, has been settled for an undisclosed amount.

The Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office declined to share details of the settlement. The Pineville Police Department and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Jermaine Harris, did not respond to requests to comment on the case. 

Traveler, driver detained for possession of Excedrin

 Two men from New York filed a federal lawsuit in July against the RPSO based on their treatment at the hands of deputies. 

On July 3, 2022, Mark Goldstein was traveling on Interstate 49 in Alexandria with his driver, Thomas Larkai, according to their court complaint. Goldstein had hired Larkai to help him move furniture from his recently sold Lake Tahoe vacation home to his new place in West Palm Beach, Florida. Along the way, they planned to drop a few pieces off in Alabama where Goldstein owns a Gulf Coast hotel.

Based on a hunch and nothing more, according to the lawsuit, RPSO Deputy Justin Johnson enlisted the help of his colleagues in the Rapides Area Drug Enforcement (RADE) task force. They coordinated a plan to stop Goldstein and Larkai, who they assumed, according to a deputy’s statement quoted in the suit, to be a “drug king” and his “mule.” 

Johnson followed the New York men for miles, without his emergency lights on to give other agents time to get in position for what they hoped would be a big bust, according to court records. When Larkia saw Johnson’s lights go on in his sideview mirror and pulled over, he was accused of fleeing, though he hadn’t known the deputy had been following him. The lawsuit said Larkai was painfully restrained in handcuffs that were too tight. 

A search of Larkai’s possessions, without a warrant or his permission, yielded a couple of tablets of Excedrin, an over-the-counter analgesic that deputies thought was Vicodin, a controlled substance, according to the lawsuit. Tests at the Rapides Area Drug Enforcement (RADE) lab confirmed the capsules were not Vicodin, yet Larkai was charged anyway with possession of a Schedule III controlled dangerous substance, the complaint says.

Super low property valuations for some Rapides officials result in smaller tax bills

The lawsuit says an illegal search of Goldstein’s suitcase yielded three THC-laced gummies. Goldstein, 68, explained he took them for arthritis pain and had a medical card for them back home. Although medical cannabis products are legal in Louisiana, the state doesn’t reciprocally recognize medical cards from other states.

Goldstein and Larkai were separated and interrogated for two and a half hours, their lawsuit states. Their van was searched for drugs and stolen furniture. A drug-sniffing K-9 was used in the search but only after the Excedrin was found. Even after finding no illegal contraband, the men were taken to Rapides Detention Center and booked, though the district attorney subsequently dismissed all charges. 

Their suit hones in on Wood for establishing and implementing RADE in 2020 for the purpose of targeting individuals based on race and vehicle type even if there is no probable cause. It also seeks to hold him accountable for an underdeveloped policy on “arrests, searches and seizure,” which they say is unconstitutional because it offers insufficient guidance.

What the lawsuit says was a frightening experience and a huge hassle became something far worse for Goldstein. During his jail booking, Goldstein reportedly felt weak and was checked by the nurse. His blood pressure was 188/95, a rate doctors consider an emergency. The court complaint says Goldstein asked for water and food, explaining he was lightheaded and dizzy probably from hypoglycemia. He also wanted to make a phone call. 

He was offered nothing, taken to a room, strip searched and then placed in a holding cell where, the lawsuit says, he continued to let guards know he needed medical attention. None was given, and hours later the men were released.

They then checked into an Alexandria hotel where Goldstein soon collapsed, according to the lawsuit. He was taken by ambulance to Rapides Regional Medical Center, where it was determined he had experienced a stroke, and placed in the ICU. Medical staff told him if he hadn’t gotten there when he did, he might have died. 

Goldstein claims he suffers depression because he may never fully recover his speech, which is now slurred, and has memory loss and decreased motor function.

The lawsuit from Goldstein and Larkai cites 11 others filed against the RPSO between 2014 and 2022 for similar disregard of medical needs. It also claims Wood must know department policies and practices currently in place are inadequate but continues them anyway. The men seek a jury trial and do not ask for a specific damage sum in their court filing, but one sufficient to compensate them for all they have suffered.

A closeup of a man's wrists in handcuffs with smoke in the foreground

Local attorney carries plaintiff heavy caseload

 Alexandria attorney Alan Pesnell said he does not have a specialty practice in civil rights and doesn’t handle many of those cases. Yet somehow, he is representing two plaintiffs suing RPSO and Wood in federal court, another in state court, and is co-counsel on a case in state court that alleges an RPSO informant was raped twice while wearing a wire for Rapides Area Drug Enforcement. 

The monitors entrusted with the informant’s safety weren’t paying attention to the wire, and though she’d been in the house with the dealer for an unusually long time, the decision was made “to let it play out,” the lawsuit says.

“Those Defendants had no regard whatsoever for Petitioner,” Pesnell wrote in the petition for damages.

Pesnell said he was hearing about handcuffed men being hit so regularly, it had come to seem almost routine. One of his clients, Croxton, was allegedly beaten by Jerry Don Rollins, an off-duty deputy who followed him as he drove to his cousin’s house to pick him up to attend their grandmother’s funeral, court records say. 

 There Rollins began screaming at Croxton about speeding, threatened him with jail, and beat him after Croxton said he wanted a lawyer, according to the lawsuit. The incident was filmed by Rollins’ wife, Melissa, who is also a deputy with RPSO, and was also off duty.

I’m scared they’re going to pull me over and whoop my ass again.

– Tyler Croxton, plaintiff

 

Rollins handed Croxton a summons and then released him after asking that Croxton not sue him, according to the lawsuit. Wood is part of the lawsuit because Pesnell said it’s likely policies that involve off-duty officers have been violated.   

“I’ve taken these cases because I don’t think what’s happened to these people is right,” he said. “I don’t think the sheriff has addressed these things properly.” 

The sheriff, Rollins, his wife and a Glenmora Police Department officer who the lawsuit claims Rollins called to the scene but did not intervene are defendants in the case. Court records do not list attorneys for the defendants yet.  

The RPSO would not disclose if Rollins’ work status has changed since the alleged incident.

Pesnell said plaintiffs with complaints against the sheriff’s office don’t have a large pool of attorneys from which to choose. Local attorneys are either scared of the sheriff and deputies or have personal relationships with them, making it awkward, he explained, and some plaintiffs’ cases aren’t significant enough to attract a civil rights specialist from Baton Rouge or New Orleans. 

“At the end of the day, you would think that with all these lawsuits that are out there, you’d have to address this issue,” Pesnell said.

‘I always thought that cops were protectors’ 

Another lawsuit Pesnell has filed is on behalf of Ashley White, who had her phone seized by RPSO this past April after breaking up with her former boyfriend, Charles Thomas Nash. In an interview, White says Nash frequently mentioned the fact that his uncle is former Rapides Sheriff William Earl Hilton. 

It was Hilton who first hired Wood, the current sheriff, as a corrections officer decades ago and was his boss throughout most of Wood’s RPSO career. Hilton endorsed Wood as his replacement during the 2019 sheriff’s race.

White was living with Nash when he filed an eviction order against her after she made a formal complaint against him with the RPSO in a matter not disclosed in the lawsuit. White declined to elaborate in her interview.

The terms of the eviction order giving White only 24 hours to get out of their home were unlawful, Pesnell said, but didn’t bother her much because she planned to leave with her four children as soon as possible anyway.

Rapides traffic stop shooting shines light on window tint enforcement

But when White went to collect her family’s belongings, the constable there to maintain the peace told her she couldn’t leave, and “that the deputies had said to hold her there,” according to White.

White told the Illuminator 10 deputies came to the scene that night and blocked her car.

“I’m on the phone with Alan, telling him that this man’s telling me I can’t leave, and they yanked my phone out of my hand,” White said.

“I was on the phone with her,” Pesnell said, “and [deputies] snatched that phone right out of her hands.”

Pesnell said the RPSO admitted it did not have a warrant for the phone “and said they didn’t need one.” Sheriff Wood returned a call to Pesnell and confirmed that, saying holding White’s phone “was being done in support of her claim,” the lawyer said.

As White was being held, Pesnell said he called the judge on duty who explained to him she had not seen a warrant for deputies to search or seize White’s phone. Deputies obtained a warrant from a different judge after the incident, according to Pesnell. 

“But they had refused to let her leave, which means she was under arrest — for no crime,” he said. “And they’d seized the phone without a warrant. All for evidence they already had, so they were obviously doing something else. It just was an uncomfortable scene.”

Police never did return White’s phone but did return its memory card, which Pesnell said he locked in a safety deposit box.

Hilton did not respond to the Illuminator’s request for an interview. His nephew, Nash, did not respond to a text message, and his phone would not accept voice mail.

“Are those political concerns [about the ex-boyfriend’s family ties] realities? I don’t know, but I don’t know that they’re not either,” Pesnell said.

The experience has changed White, she said, but not for the better.

“I always thought that cops were protectors,” White said, “but now I’m scared of them.”