Doubts Now Surround Account of Snipers Amid New Orleans Chaos
Even in the desperate days after Hurricane Katrina, the news flash seemed particularly sensational: Police had caught eight snipers on a bridge shooting at relief contractors. In the gun battle that followed, officers shot to death five or six of the marauders.
Exhausted and emotionally drained police cheered the news that their comrades had stopped the snipers and suffered no losses, said an account in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. One officer said the incident showed the department’s resolve to take back the streets.
But nearly three months later -- and after repeated revisions of the official account of the incident and a lowering of the death toll to two -- authorities said they were still trying to reconstruct what happened Sept. 4 on the Danziger Bridge. And on the city’s east side, where the shootings occurred, two families that suffered casualties are preparing to come forward with stories radically different from those told by police.
A teenager critically wounded that day, speaking about the incident for the first time, said in an interview that police shot him for no reason, delivering a final bullet at point-blank range with what he thought was an assault rifle. Members of another family said one of those killed was mentally disabled, a childlike innocent who made a rare foray from home in a desperate effort to find relief from the flood.
The two families -- one from New Orleans East and solidly middle class, the other poorer and rooted in the Lower 9th Ward -- have offered only preliminary information about what they say happened that day. Large gaps remain in the police and civilian accounts of the incident.
News of the Danziger Bridge shootings roared across cable television for a time. But as with many overblown reports of crime and violence immediately after the hurricane, the facts remain elusive.
The final findings seem likely to become a provocative centerpiece in assessments of the New Orleans Police Department’s performance in the hurly-burly days after Katrina.
Many officers remained at their posts during and after the storm. Despite losing their patrol cars and running out of ammunition, they improvised to keep assisting in relief efforts. But others abetted the lawlessness -- abandoning their posts or joining in the looting.
As in all officer-involved shootings in New Orleans, the Police Department has undertaken a review and is expected to turn its findings over to the district attorney’s office in the next few weeks. Police Department spokesman Marlon Defillo said it was not unusual that the suspects had given a divergent view of the shootings. But he said homicide investigators would take all accounts seriously, a position reiterated by the office of Dist. Atty. Eddie Jordan.
“We are looking at everyone’s involvement,” said Leatrice Dupre, the district attorney’s spokeswoman. She said the investigation “may find that the police were unjust in this shooting. Or it may not. We just don’t know.”
Today, a late-autumn chill has descended on New Orleans, signaling the end of hurricane season, at last. The Danziger Bridge stands mostly quiet, with an occasional car or truck crossing to and from New Orleans East neighborhoods left in ruins.
On Sept. 4, it was different. The half-mile-long span delivers the Chef Menteur Highway over the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal and into the city’s east side. As a high and dry ridge in the middle of inundated neighborhoods, the highway became a magnet for evacuees.
A small dose of order had emerged in parts of New Orleans on that Sunday morning, with the National Guard deployed in force and evacuations underway at the teeming Superdome and Convention Center. But before 9 a.m., the police reported snipers shooting from the bridge. Initial accounts given to the media by Deputy Police Chief W.J. Riley had the targets as 14 civilian contractors, part of a convoy that drove to the area to help with storm repairs.
But in a measure of the confusion and poor communication that prevailed, another police official gave a different account.
“Five men who were looting exchanged gunfire with police. The officers engaged the looters when they were fired upon,” killing four, said Steven Nichols, the police official, according to the Reuters news agency.
In the following weeks, the official account would be modified again. It turned out, police said, that only two of the suspects had been killed.
Although not disclosed by police, one of the dead was the mentally retarded man, 40-year-old Ronald Madison, family and friends said. The other was a 19-year-old man. Four others were injured: Leonard Bartholomew, 44; his wife, Susan, 39; their daughter, Leisha, 17; and their nephew, Jose Holmes Jr., 19.
A month after the shootings, the Police Department issued a statement giving its most complete account. It said that seven officers had responded to a call, not from contractors but from two officers “down.” The statement said a sheriff’s deputy from a neighboring parish had requested backup because of “gunfire from several persons on the same bridge” -- shots directed at relief workers in boats.
Lance Madison and his brother Ronald walked to the highway that morning. But family and friends insist that they couldn’t be further from the profile of those who would shoot at police.
Lance Madison, 49, had played football at Southern University, a wide receiver who had a chance at the pros before settling into a career with Federal Express, his relatives said. Ronald Madison, nearly a decade younger, had been mentally disabled since birth. He seldom ventured beyond the tidy family home on Lafon Drive, where he lived with his mother, 1 1/2 miles east of the bridge.
Ronald had a childlike demeanor and was best remembered in the neighborhood of well-kept homes for endlessly walking the family dog, Bobby, up and down the block. Neighbors said if they needed to borrow milk or a cup of sugar, Ronald liked to deliver it, usually at a dead run.
Another brother, Raymond Madison, was also mentally disabled. “They were very clean and very polite and everything like that,” said Louis Bart, who last week was cleaning out a home across the street from the Madisons’. “They were grown men but they wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
A fourth Madison brother, Romell, is a dentist and a prominent community figure who has served on several state commissions, mostly involving healthcare. He said that his brothers, after being stranded for several days on the roof of Lance’s apartment building in New Orleans East, were trying to reach his office on the Chef Menteur Highway. To get there they had to cross the Danziger Bridge.
But when they were nearing their destination, gun-toting teenagers shot at the brothers and sent them running, Lance testified at a September preliminary hearing.
“We ran for our lives,” Lance told a judge at the hearing, where he faced eight felony counts for the attempted murder of eight police officers. The brothers escaped only to encounter another group of men -- assembled at the west end of the bridge.
Police officers in those unsteady days appeared far from standard issue. Many were out of uniform, and some carried their own “toys” -- hunting rifles, AK-47s, carbines -- one officer said in an earlier interview. Their police pistols had become useless when they ran out of ammunition.
The police said Lance Madison had fired on officers then fled, heaving his gun into the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, known locally as the Industrial Canal, which connects the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
Chief Orleans Parish Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen, who presided at the preliminary hearing, said he found it “hard to believe” that Madison would have been shooting at anyone that day.
In the police statement on the incident, Ronald is not named. It says only that the “suspect” accompanying Lance fled to a motel about a block from the west end of the bridge. “The suspect reached into his waist and turned toward the officer,” the statement said, “who fired one shot fatally wounding him.”
Despite the judge’s skepticism, he did not dismiss charges against Lance Madison, who still faces attempted murder charges -- one count for each of the seven New Orleans police and one for the sheriff’s deputy on the scene. He is free on bail but is not speaking about the case, on advice from his lawyer, Nathan Fisher.
Dressed in his green dentist’s scrubs at the end of one recent workday, Romell Madison said his family was anxious to tell the full story -- once the lawyer gives the OK.
“It will be worth a movie,” he said. “The truth will come out at the end of this.”
Members of the Bartholomew family, driven out of the Lower 9th Ward by the flooding, also arrived at the bridge that morning. They had evacuated to the higher ground of the Chef Menteur Highway and found two rooms at a Family Inns of America motel.
Instead of refuge, however, the 10 relatives found themselves packed into the motel with drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals. Gunfire rang out regularly, they said.
“A lot of people were running past us with guns and robbing people in the hotel and stuff,” said Jontae Holmes, 16, a niece of the Bartholomews. “Then the generators got messed up and the lights started going off. It was scary.”
Six days after the storm hit, Jontae said, her aunt and uncle crossed the bridge to retrieve a wallet they had left at home. Susan and Leonard Bartholomew hoped to catch a rescue boat to navigate the still-flooded streets, the teenager said.
The Bartholomews’ nephew, Jose Holmes Jr., 19, went along, as did one of his friends, another 19-year-old, who planned to search for his missing mother, Holmes said. Several other family members remained at the motel.
Police said Jose Holmes and his friend were among a group of “at least four suspects” near the east end of the bridge who began shooting at officers. When police returned fire, they said, the shooters jumped over a concrete barrier to a pedestrian walkway along the north side of the span. The suspects continued firing from behind the barrier, the police said.
On the day he was released from the West Jefferson Medical Center last week, Jose Holmes Jr. insisted that was not how it happened. Speaking haltingly, just above a whisper and nodding to answer some questions, the 108-pound teenager continued to move slowly after 10 weeks in the hospital.
The teenager said he was “just walking” with his family and his friend when gunfire erupted behind them.
“It was loud, real loud. After we heard the gunshots, we just started running,” said Holmes, who displayed wounds to his arm, neck, chin and stomach. “Then we hopped over into a little walkway.”
Holmes said he was down and badly wounded when one of the men approached, put an assault rifle to his stomach and pulled the trigger. He said he didn’t get a good look at the shooters.
“They came up real close, real close,” Holmes said, adding that he was too terrified to look up. “They was trying to kill us.”
A colostomy bag now drains Holmes’ bowels. His left forefinger and thumb are frozen. Doctors told him the hand had nerve damage.
Leonard, Susan and Leisha Bartholomew were also wounded by the police. Susan lost an arm to what the family believed was a shotgun blast.
Relatives said all three -- who evacuated to Texas after their hospital stays -- were too traumatized to talk about the incident.
The preliminary conclusion of the investigation is that none of the three Bartholomews was carrying a gun that day, said police spokesman Defillo. But their nephew, Jose Holmes, who has moved into his father’s Georgia home, is suspected of targeting the police. He will be charged with attempted murder and possibly other crimes “imminently,” Defillo said.
The police spokesman said the snipers’ weapons were found at the scene, although he said he did not know what type of guns they were. Authorities have not identified the other man killed by police that day. But Holmes said it was his friend.
“Out of anger, frustration, no leadership, the police just went berserk,” said Jose Holmes Sr. on the day he brought his son home from the hospital.
Defillo said police would investigate claims by both sides. He rejected earlier accounts that officers had celebrated the bloody outcome.
“I was there and I didn’t hear anybody cheering,” Defillo said. “No one was in the mood to be cheering about anything. We were rescuing people, dealing with the loss of two police officers who committed suicide and [coping] with 85% of our police officers being homeless. I didn’t see joy then. I still haven’t seen it.”
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Two views of the bridge shootings
New Orleans police say they shot and killed two snipers who fired from the Danziger Bridge on Sept. 4. The Bartholomew and Madison families say they did nothing to threaten police and were looking for relief and refuge after Hurricane Katrina when the police opened fire.
Bartholomew family’s version: The Bartholomews walked from a Family Inns of America motel to the bridge. When they were about 100 yards onto the bridge, police began shooting. They dove over a concrete barrier to a pedestrian walkway for protection.
New Orleans police version: Police accuse Jose Holmes Jr., 19, a Bartholomew nephew, of being one of the snipers. Police say the shooters used the concrete barrier for protection and continued firing. A friend of Holmes, also 19, was killed.
Madison family’s version: Lance Madison said he and his brother Ronald, who was mentally disabled, were crossing the bridge to reach the safety of a dental office owned by their brother Romell. Family and friends said Ronald Madison posed no threat to police.
New Orleans police version: Police say Lance Madison shot at them and then dumped his gun into the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. Police say they chased Ronald Madison, shooting and killing him when he made a threatening motion in a motel parking lot near the west end of the bridge.
Sources: Times reporting, ESRI, TeleAtlas