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Crime cases were set back by Katrina

Homicide investigators cope with waterlogged evidence and witnesses who fled New Orleans. Victims' relatives wait.

November 27, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, the body of Joe Wong was found in a warehouse-district apartment behind a restaurant, a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.

His was the last homicide recorded before the storm hit.

Police dusted for fingerprints, examined the scene for signs of a struggle, collected blood samples, and checked for hairs. They found one bullet casing on the floor of the apartment. It was placed in an evidence bag and taken to police headquarters. Wong's body was zipped into a bag and loaded into a coroner's van for the trip to the city morgue. The crime scene was sealed.

Detectives expected to be back as soon as the storm had blown over. They couldn't return for five months.

The onslaught of Katrina essentially shut down crime investigations in New Orleans for weeks, in some cases months. And when they were able to start up again, law enforcement officers faced unprecedented challenges.

Witnesses and suspects had moved to other cities. Evidence was damaged or lost after sitting in water for weeks. Crime scenes had been washed away or gutted.

And since the hurricane, the number of officers on the force has dropped from 1,668 to 1,424 -- leading to a perception that the department is understaffed to deal with current and pre-storm crimes.

Capt. John Bryson, deputy chief in charge of the administrative and support bureau at the New Orleans Police Department, insisted that the decreased size of the force was not impeding homicide investigations.

He acknowledged that the most challenging aspect of investigating pre-Katrina crimes was locating witnesses, family members and suspects. The New Orleans police crime lab was heavily damaged by flooding, so some corroded and rusted weapons and bullet casings have had to be sent to the FBI for ballistics analysis, Bryson said.

Law enforcement agencies in neighboring parishes have chipped in on ballistics and forensic testing, said Capt. Joe Waguespack, commander of homicide with 37 years on the force.

Some initial police reports were destroyed, and damage to evidence that had been stored at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court has made it tougher for prosecutors to pursue some cases.

Waguespack said that since the storm, canvassing crime scenes had become more difficult, particularly in flood-ravaged neighborhoods.

"If the victim is found in three to four square blocks of deserted houses, as far as witnesses seeing or hearing anything, you're not going to get anything on that," Waguespack said.

When he returned to Wong's crime scene five months after Katrina, he found that the building had been badly damaged, ransacked and looted. The building was being gutted and a new restaurant was already being built.

Upheaval upon shock

But explaining the intricacies of investigating a case offers little comfort to grieving relatives.

It was torture for Menhati Kherita Singleton to watch as her son's body bag was shoved into the back of a coroner's van on Aug. 27, 2005 -- the same day Wong was discovered.

Prolonging her agony is the fact that she is no closer today to knowing who gunned down Tracy Girod Bridges, 32, outside the barbershop that he owned.

On the day he was killed, the crime scene -- on a then-bustling commercial strip -- was secured, and his body was taken to the city morgue.

Friends escorted a shocked Singleton home around 7 p.m. Eight hours later, the city's mandatory evacuation order forced her to flee before Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore.

It was not until Oct. 13 that Singleton located her son's corpse at the flood-damaged morgue.

But she still has not seen the police report on Bridges' death. The case has been reassigned to different detectives at least three times. And it's up to her to contact police for developments; according to the grieving mother, no one calls to let her know about new information in the investigation.

"Even if they said, 'This is what we've done, we can't do any more, we have to close it,' I would feel better," said Singleton. "Instead they say if we hear anything ... we should call them. I don't think anything is being done about it. I think my son was just clumped into [the category of] just another black man who got killed that day."

Bryson explained that it wasn't practical to keep every friend and relative informed of every detail.

In Wong's case, Waguespack said, family and friends helped lead police to the woman who they believe killed the restaurant owner. She was arrested in the fall in a neighboring parish on an unrelated charge.

But the case was ultimately cracked last month thanks to technology recently obtained by the special operations division at the New Orleans Police Department, Waguespack said.

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