Marlyville / Fontainebleau / Broadmoor Preservation
post-Katrina and beyond...









press clipping
Looting Still Problem Post-K

[From The Times-Picayune]
Sunday, January 22, 2006
By Michael Perlstein
and Trymaine Lee Staff writers

Knowing their two-story, Katrina-damaged home in Lakeview was a sitting duck for looters, Scott and Jill Cabes took every precaution. They lined up contractors quickly, gutting the first floor within weeks of the storm. They removed obvious hot-market items like TVs and stereos and sentimental valuables like jewelry. They dropped by the property frequently.

But sitting on Vicksburg Street, surrounded by miles of desolation and darkness, the Cabes' stately colonial-style home proved too tempting and too easy for criminals eager to take advantage of the disaster.

Looters took several large pieces of the family's antique furniture, including two chests of drawers, a mirrored dresser, a nightstand and a grand old office chair, Jill Cabes said. They had to negotiate the heavy pieces down a narrow staircase with the bottom step removed, and they shoved aside the wheelchair of the Cabes' disabled 11-year-old daughter to retrieve the loot.

"The nightstand they took, that had my daughter's oxygen machine and her medical equipment. They just put that stuff on the floor and went about their business," she said. "Who would do that? It's just so wrong on so many levels."

The Cabes are hardly alone.

In the most seriously flooded neighborhoods of Orleans Parish, as well as much of St. Bernard Parish, looting has emerged as the area's most serious crime problem, authorities said. In New Orleans, the stream of calls about homicides, shootings and robberies that infamously characterized the city before Hurricane Katrina has given way to distraught homeowners finding empty spaces where their belongings used to be.

More than 80 people have been arrested in recent months for looting in New Orleans, and at least another 20 in St. Bernard. But authorities said the numbers represent but a fraction of looting complaints. Statistics on looting incidents are hard to come by, as official record keeping has yet to be restored to pre-Katrina levels and authorities said many residents don't report the problem anyway. But interviews with authorities and looting victims reveal a level of pillaging so pervasive and over such an extended period that it evokes images of a war zone.

A Gentilly couple barricaded their vacant home's doors and windows with plywood after being looted once, only to have other looters tear down the wood to take more stuff. An evacuee dialing her Algiers apartment to check whether phone service had been restored got jolted when a man answered. She found the place ransacked a few weeks later. A New Orleans police officer responding to a looting call found items stolen from his in-laws' home, including a copy of his own wedding videotape.

Hunt-and-peck plundering

Authorities said they are doing what they can to curb the problem. But they said it's hard to combat a plague that has evolved from the mass break-ins of businesses in the chaotic first week after Katrina to the hunt-and-peck plundering of homes that continues more than four months later.

"Nobody was shielded from this second catastrophe that began when the waters receded," said New Orleans Police Department Lt. Mike Roussel, assigned to the anti-looting squad the department temporarily formed a few weeks after the storm. "Businesses, homeowners, all those apartment complexes in eastern New Orleans. You even had police officers whose homes were looted."

Adding to the worries of local police agencies, more than 600 firearms were looted from area pawnshops and gun dealers, most in the storm's immediate aftermath, and untold guns have been taken from private homes. In St. Bernard, two people were charged with stealing 10 bulletproof vests from a Chalmette business being used as a temporary outpost for sheriff's deputies.

Sgt. Charles Miller, who worked in the NOPD's anti-looting squad until it was phased out a few weeks ago, made one arrest in which he recovered property belonging to his in-laws, including his own wedding videotape.

Miller, now assigned to the 2nd District, said he figured the ransacking of his in-laws' 9th Ward house would end with his police report, given the needle-in-a-haystack odds of finding the stolen goods and catching a perpetrator.

But a couple of weeks later, he said, his mother-in-law spotted a suspicious stack of merchandise through her neighbor's window. When Miller investigated, he discovered a television that looked like hers, as well as a cache of furniture with store tags attached. With firm legal grounds to conduct a thorough search, Miller said he was flabbergasted when he stumbled across his wedding video.

"I was shocked. But I'm glad I was able to get it back because the only other copy was in my house in Lakeview," said Miller, who lost everything in the flood. "The best part was that we caught the guy and retrieved some irreplaceable property."

Uninvited guest

The brazenness of the looters has astounded authorities.

Roussel said it began even before the storm hit, as thieves took advantage of the area's mass evacuation. After floodwaters inundated the city, some ambitious looters used boats to float away with people's belongings. Even today, as the city's gradual repopulation has become the biggest deterrent to opportunistic criminals, homeowners in the hardest-hit areas have reported being looted two, three and even four times.

One of the most outrageous examples took place in Algiers, which stayed mostly high and dry after the storm. Just before Katrina rumbled through the city, Keisha Robertson, a 25-year-old mother with twin 5-year-old boys, left her Higgins Gate apartment and headed for Atlanta. After a couple of months in exile, she dialed her home number to see whether it was still connected. It was -- and someone answered.

"It was unbelievable," Robertson said, "and he had the nerve to ask me who I was and what I wanted."

The man told her how comfortable her apartment was, all except for the bed, which was a bit too stiff for his taste, she said. "He even offered to pay some of the bills," Robertson said, chuckling at the absurdity of the episode.

Robinson returned to her apartment on Oct. 27 and found no one inside and nothing missing. Her uninvited guest had even vacuumed and neatly hung some of his clothes in her closet. So she left a note in case the intruder returned: "Leave or I'm calling the police."

Robertson visited her apartment a month later, this time accompanied by a 4th District police officer. As they approached her complex, she was floored when the officer recognized the place and told her he'd been to her apartment on several occasions to quiet rowdy parties.

Then they opened the door. "Everything was gone," Robertson said. "There were beer bottles and trash everywhere. They took all my furniture, my couch, the bed. They even took stuff you wouldn't think anyone would take, like the comforter set off my bed, bathroom stuff, pots and pans."

Police said they have seen distinct peaks and lulls in the illegal activity.

Following the rampaging in the first days after Katrina, in which even a handful of New Orleans police officers were seen looting, the presence of military troops and outside police agencies kept much of the illegal activity at bay. For almost a month, police and soldiers manned checkpoints on most major thoroughfares. A mandatory evacuation effectively de-populated hard-hit areas, making any would-be lawbreakers stand out amid the waterlogged wasteland. For the few who remained, strict curfews created the atmosphere of a military lockdown.

But as homeowners returned in larger numbers, police saw looting complaints spike. Roussel said some of the surge in reports stemmed from people returning to already looted homes, but the massive influx of work crews -- contractors, utility workers, laborers gutting houses -- seemed to significantly exacerbate the problem.

In some cases, the thieves were able to blend in with the workers, Roussel said. In other cases, the thieves were the workers. For example, in St. Bernard Parish on Thursday, five workers hired to mop up an oil spill were arrested for pilfering guns and knives from several Chalmette homes.

"We'd find a crew working on one house, but a couple of guys from the crew were next door cleaning the place out," Roussel said.

Beefing up the squad

To combat the pervasive poaching, the New Orleans Police Department launched its anti-looting squad in mid-October and the St. Bernard Sheriff's Office assigned all remaining law enforcement personnel, even detectives, to patrol duty. At one point, the NOPD squad reached a peak of about 80 officers, with Louisiana State Police troopers and officers from New York working hand-in-hand with the group.

The squad was recently disbanded, as anti-looting duties returned to police districts, but Barnes said the department continues to use its new signal call for looting complaints: 21-K, for Katrina.

"Officers have been working very hard to prevent looting," he said. "You have to understand, we've taken many losses ourselves, from the flooding and the looting."

The squad produced results. NOPD spokesman Juan Barnes said police arrested 84 people for looting from Sept. 30 through Jan. 12. In St. Bernard, officials have arrested at least 21 people since the storm.

Those caught face harsh penalties. The crime of looting carries up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, compared to 12 years and $2,000 for burglary. The criminal statutes for both crimes are identical except that looting takes place when "normal security of property is not present by virtue to a hurricane, flood, fire, act of God or force majeure of any kind."

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said he will vigorously prosecute offenders.

"It's indefensible. It violates every code of morality. And it's against the law," he said.

The backgrounds of the suspects vary widely, Roussel said, from neighbors to workers to professional out-of-town criminals. Some looters have even donned hard hats or bio-protection suits to pass themselves off as disaster workers, he said.

Last week, in Slidell, a FEMA worker who was supposed to be installing a trailer was booked with looting a gutted home of its few remaining items. In a notorious case in mid-November, two Louisiana National Guard members were arrested after they were seen loading their Humvee with cases of liquor from a home in the affluent Eastover community.

St. Bernard's looting arrests have included an out-of-state Red Cross volunteer and, in another case, four men hired to clean a flooded bank who tried to make it out of the parish with more than $2,000 in wrinkled bills and coins they found inside the bank, authorities said.

More recently, Roussel said New Orleans officers caught a well-known local burglar stealing a bottle of booze from a house, but the bust led them to a mother lode of stolen goods.

"He had a mini-Wal-Mart at his house," Roussel said. "He had everything from a lint roller to major electronics. It was easily $10,000 to $12,000 worth of merchandise."

Even as the emergencies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have subsided, local police still report at least one looting complaint or arrest every day. In St. Bernard, for example, officials this week charged seven people with looting in two days. While St. Bernard Parish has seen significant looting activity, the degree of storm devastation in that area has kept the problem from reaching the acute levels seen in New Orleans, Sheriff Jack Stephens said. Every house in the parish was flooded and nearly the entire population of 67,000 people was forced to leave.

"It's sporadic, but it comes in waves," Stephens said. "Our biggest enemy is the lack of residents and the lack of streetlights. We just don't have our usual safeguards. It's going to be problematic for some time."

One devastated area where the problem does not seem to have taken hold is lower Plaquemines Parish. Sheriff's Office spokesman Maj. John Marie said two factors have helped the parish. First, the areas that suffered the most significant damage were all but wiped out, leaving very little to steal. Second, the parish has only one road leading in and out, making it easy for deputies to patrol for suspicious activity.

"One way we're blessed is because of geography," he said. "It also helps that deputies working there also lived there. So everybody knows everybody."

Slowdown seen

Today, even with many parts of the area now in rebuilding mode, looters continue to prey on victims of flooding. Roussel said the activity in New Orleans is more concentrated now, restricted mostly to vast empty neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gentilly and eastern New Orleans.

Police in the 7th District, which encompasses eastern New Orleans, said they still write several 21-K reports a day, but it appears the worst is past.

"It's slowing quite a bit," said 7th District officer Robert Barrere, "but it's still prevalent."

The area presents particular obstacles for officers, he said. For starters, they have to patrol 140 square miles and thousands of rental units, apartment complexes and homes spread among dozens of distinct enclaves and subdivisions. There's no power, leaving too much ground to cover "blind" at night.

Then there are unscrupulous workers. With so many structures in need of repair, out-of-town building crews are everywhere. Most are legitimate, but others are felonious, police say.

In one recent case, 7th District officers were patrolling a Seagull Lane apartment complex. As the officers slowly cruised through the cavernous multiplex, a pickup approached. The driver, visibly nervous, told police he was looking for a relative's home, Barrere said. Without any hard evidence to detain the man, the officers let him go. Later, they saw him leave an apartment, hop into the truck with another man inside and speed off. After an across-town chase, the officers caught the men and discovered the Chevy truck was stolen. In the back, they found a 27-inch television and other household items.

"We get reports every day," Barrere said. "It's so dark at night, you can get in, out and away without being noticed by anyone."

With complaints often coming weeks or months after the crime, police said they do what they can to best to document the scene, use the crime lab to gather evidence and look for trends that might link one case to another. But officers admit they are at a disadvantage.

"Population is what deters crime," Miller said. "We need the eyes and ears of the residents."

A partner named Glock

All the stealing has many people who have returned to the area on edge, and some have armed themselves in case they catch looters in the act.

Eastern New Orleans resident Gerald Peters caught up recently with a neighbor and friend whose home was looted.

"They got you, too?" Peters asked, recalling stories of looting around the area that have lit up the grapevine for the past week or so.

"I sleep with my Glock next to my bed," Peters said, referring to his semiautomatic pistol. "If I would have seen them around here, they wouldn't have left this block alive."

Looting victims said nothing can match the crushing effect of the looting wave.

"It's heartbreaking," said Brenda Quant, 59, whose home in Gentilly was looted after it took on 7 feet of water. "After all we've been through, someone comes along and can see what your life is like and then can decide what they think is worth taking and what's not."

Quant and her husband evacuated to Alabama and first returned to the area in November. Even though they have gone to their Eads Street home a few times a week to salvage what they can, they still have been looted at least two times, with looters breaking down plywood from windows and doors as fast at the Quants have nailed it up.

What hit Brenda the hardest wasn't looting, but the wanton destruction of a china set her father, who died when she was a girl, gave her mother. She found the precious pieces stomped into fine shards on her front steps, just days after she'd delicately cleaned each piece.

"They just did it with such disregard," she said. "They didn't want it, but they decided to walk all over it."

. . . . . . .

Manuel Torres contributed to this report. Michael Perlstein can be reached at or (504) 826-3316. Trymaine Lee can be reached at or (504) 826-3301.