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A Night That Will Not End

Wilbert Rideau killed a woman on Feb. 16, 1961. Now, as his fourth trial begins, a Louisiana town must once again relive the long, painful saga.

September 09, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Lockup is all about time. Anybody who's been inside can tell you that. In the canned air and fluorescent glare of the Calcasieu Parish jail, time is embedded in concrete, in a visitors' window thick enough to smother sound.

The women come through the lush twilight for this hour; the men in orange jumpsuits march forth from the belly of the jail. With days and months stretched between them, they pick up telephones, and a soft slur of many private conversations settles over the room. Then the guards loom behind, tap shoulders and prod the inmates back to their dormitories. Their 45 minutes have run out.

Wilbert Rideau stays put. Nobody makes him move. He is well-known in these parts, a decorated prison journalist and a killer.

"Do I have regrets?" He has been pondering the question. "Yeah, I have regrets. But my life isn't over with. I'm not ready to add it up yet."

But isn't there one choice? One moment? One night he looks back on now--?

"Life isn't that cold and calculated," he says, the telephone dangling from his fingers as if he has forgotten it's there. "There are forces that drive it. You don't so much choose. It's not that clear. There's emotion. There are things--"

He interrupts himself.

"See, I know where you're going with this," he says. "I'm second-guessing you. That's the curse of being in the same business."

He chuckles. He says good night. He waits until his visitor hangs up the phone, and then he wanders back into the jail.

Outside the darkness is rich and thick with stars. Rideau can't see the sky, can't smell the wilting jasmine. He can't hear the tick and hoot of the swamp settling into sleep. He will sleep waiting and wake up waiting still.

His judgment day is coming.

*

They say his name Read-oh, and around here they say it slowly, say it in knowing voices. It refers to the man named Wilbert Rideau, but it also means a night that split the past from the present, that continues to shred a rift between blacks and whites in this decaying oil patch town. It was a night that started out mean, that drained into morning, but never quite ended.

Wilbert Rideau is a black man who killed a white woman in 1961, just as the stubborn Old South was beginning its slow slide into obscurity. Now Louisiana is preparing to try him for a fourth time, even though he has not denied his crime and despite the three death sentences he has outlived. He is due in court today for arguments on pretrial motions.

Peering through the gauze of yellowing newspaper clips, transcripts of testimony from dead witnesses and lost evidence, a modern judge and jury will have to decide whether Rideau has redeemed himself.

The trial will measure time's work on a man--but it will also put Louisiana up for judgment. Until now, each of Rideau's trials has been so riddled with racism and bias that all of the state's verdicts against Wilbert Rideau were overturned. Each trial drags out Louisiana's ugly past and lays it alongside a man's transgressions.

The laws have changed. Louisiana has changed. Rideau has changed. But that Thursday night clings to the skin of Lake Charles like an ill-advised tattoo.

"They say, 'Let it go, put it aside, bury it,' but when you think you've laid it down, it jumps back up," says Jan Cater. She was 12 when her aunt bled to death on a muddy roadside. She has lived in Lake Charles all her life. "You push it to the back, you don't think about it every day. And then guess what happens: The phone rings and they say, 'He's trying to get out of prison again.'

"It's just like that night happens over and over and over again."

*

Rain, and More Rain

When they think back, they mention the rain. The sky stretched dull as metal that day, and the storm came to blur the seam between day and night. It dropped its beads on windshields, left puddles in the rice paddies. It roared and slackened, only to come back harder.

It was Feb. 16, a night preserved in print at the public library and the old courthouse, chronicled by long-gone stenographers and newspaper reporters. A teller named Dora McCain said she knew something was wrong when her boss yelled out from the back of Gulf National Bank.

"You girls close the curtains and come here," Jay Hickman called.

McCain snatched up the telephone and dialed the bank's main office. "I'm going to lay the phone down, but listen in," she whispered. "Something's funny here." Then, frazzled, she hung up.

In the back, Rideau had a pistol trained on the 55-year-old Hickman. "Do what I say and you won't get hurt," he said. The women stood by while their boss stacked bundles of cash into Rideau's suitcase.

The phone rattled. "Don't answer it," Rideau said.

"They'll think something is wrong," Hickman said.

Rideau considered this. "Go ahead," he said, cocking his gun against Hickman's head. "But talk right."

"Do you need the police?" the bank's vice president asked.

"It might be a good idea," Hickman said. Then he hung up.

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