A Mother’s Loss
The making of the Danziger Bridge tragedy
James B. Brissette Jr. photographed at a family wedding.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ANDREA CELESTINE
Outside of the federal courthouse, Sherrel A. Johnson – the mother of a child of New Orleans – trembles. A church-going Baptist, conservatively dressed in a brown blouse and tan skirt, she pauses before the strange crescent of waiting reporters and television cameras.
Johnson is about to speak publicly, for the first time, about the cover-up of the deadly police shootings of six citizens on Danziger Bridge in 2005 – including her 17-year-old son, James B. Brissette Jr.
But words soon fail.
“I’m the mother of James B. Brissette Jr.” she begins. Her eyes brim with tears at the mention of her dead son’s name. “That was my baby,” she says. “I’m glad justice is going to be served.” She turns to leave.
Police shot six people on Danziger Bridge; two died – Ronald Madison, 40, a severely mentally handicapped Gentilly man, and James, whose promising young life has been largely overshadowed by the tragic nature of his death.
An 11th grade student at Frederick Douglass High School, Brissette passed tests for “gifted and talented” students in reading, English and the arts, says Daniel Abel, an attorney for Johnson.
“He really liked drawing,” Abel continues. None of the youth’s art survived apparently; his family lost everything when Hurricane Katrina flooded their home. Brissette also sang in his school choir. His interests included Creole cooking, culinary arts, computer design and drafting.
In 2005, his goal was to join the Marine Corps, then still embroiled in the war in Iraq. He made contact with marine recruiters. He was 6 feet tall but very thin. “They [the Corps.] were working with him to build up his weight,” says Abel. Brissette anticipated serving overseas, family members say.
However, he never made it across the Danziger Bridge.
Moments before Sherrel A. Johnson spoke to news media, she sat in a hushed courtroom. Former New Orleans policeman Michael J. Hunter Jr. – one of the last people to see her son alive – stood nearby.
Hunter, now 33, joined the NOPD in 1998, during both the height of police reforms and the city’s nation-leading reduction in violent crime, led by then-Chief Richard Pennington. This day, however, Hunter is the first of the “Danziger Seven” cops to plead guilty to obstruction of justice. A prosecutor reads aloud from the “factual basis” for Hunter’s plea. The legalese and coded references to other police “targets” of the federal probe somehow seem to heighten the horror of Hunter’s confession:
At about 9 a.m. Sept. 4, 2005, Hunter and fellow 7th District cops responded to a radio call for help. Officers on the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge were reportedly taking fire from the Danziger Bridge. Loading into a Budget rental truck, Hunter and six others rushed to the bridge. Hunter drove. “Sergeant A” sat next to him in the cab, holding Hunter’s Romanian-made AK-47 assault rifle.
Hunter soon spotted a “handful of people casually walking” across the bridge. They appeared unarmed and posed no threat to police, Hunter recalled. The rental truck had no police lights or sirens.
With his NOPD-pistol in his left hand, Hunter fired warning shots outside the window of the truck. The people on the bridge scattered. Some ran for cover behind a concrete barrier separating the bridge road from a pedestrian walkway. Others ran west, up the bridge. “As the truck rolled to a stop, Sergeant A fired an assault rifle down toward the civilians on the walkway.”
The cops dismounted. With assault rifles and handguns, they opened fire on people behind the barrier. “Seeing that there was no threat to the officers, defendant Hunter shouted: ‘Cease fire!’” Several civilians lay wounded.
“Sergeant A suddenly leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle, and in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground,” says Hunter.
“Sergeant B,” also armed with an assault rifle, and other officers ran up the bridge. Hunter saw two wounded women lying on the walkway. Terrified, they were “hugging each other and crying in apparent pain.” Three men also appeared seriously wounded. One lay face down and didn’t move. (According to other reports, the victim was James Brissette Jr.)
Hunter says he and Sergeant A returned to the Budget truck and drove to the crest of the bridge. They meet Sergeant B, who says he took fire from civilians who were running toward the bottom of the west side of the bridge. An unmarked car driven by a Louisiana State Police trooper pulled up, joining Hunter and the sergeants at the top of the bridge. Hunter, Sergeant B and “Officer A” got in. The cops drove east. Hunter saw three black males run down the bridge: an older man on the left side and two men, later identified as Lance and Ronald Madison, on the right side. Hunter focused on Lance, who was dressed in black and was running toward the Friendly Inn motel at the bottom of the bridge.
His brother Ronald – who police later learned was severely mentally handicapped – was trailing 20 to 30 feet behind. He ran with his empty hands in view. There was blood on his white T-shirt. The unmarked police car closed on the brothers, then stopped.
Without warning, “Officer A” suddenly fired a shotgun at Ronald Madison’s back. He fell, mortally wounded.
Hunter got out of the car. Ronald was alive, but apparently dying. He lay on his side, with two officers standing nearby. None of the cops searched the victim for weapons.
“Sergeant A” ran up and asked an unidentified officer if Ronald is “one of them.” “When the officer replied in the affirmative, Sergeant A began kicking or stomping Ronald Madison … with as much force as he could muster.”
Hunter intervened; Sergeant A stopped and later apologized for “being out of line.” Meanwhile, Lance Madison was arrested. Unarmed and unharmed, he knelt handcuffed. A State Police SWAT team stood over him.
A “St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s deputy” then identified Lance Madison – a 25-year employee of FedEx with no criminal record – as a gunman who fired on a flotilla of rescue boats crossing the Interstate 10 high-rise. In fact, “deputy” Marion David Ryder of Opelousas, La. is a police impersonator and convicted felon.
However, Ryder’s Danziger tale fits neatly into a wide, corrupt police cover-up of planted “drop guns,” fictional witnesses, and discarded evidence. Corrupt NOPD investigators continue to insist Madison is responsible for the attempted murder of eight police officers – though they know Ryder is not a “deputy,” a former detective later admits.
Incurious NOPD backed the word of an Opelousas horse thief rather than the word of the son of a respected family in Gentilly. Visited by this writer in 2006, a top cop at the St. Landry Sheriff’s Office seems perplexed: Ryder’s arrest history includes battery on his hometown police.
A state grand jury finally dismissed the bogus charges against Lance Madison one year later. Facing prison, Ryder is now cooperating with the federal Danziger probe, after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
Until he fell in with NOPD, the police poser hadn’t been in this much trouble since he took a misdemeanor plea deal in the deadly-force abduction of a Texas man in 1990.
As the sun set on Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, current Police Chief Warren Riley admitted he never read the official NOPD report on the near-massacre at Danziger Bridge.
Meanwhile, the federal civil rights investigation expands to eight cases, including an alleged police beating death before Hurricane Katrina.
Each new guilty plea in the Danziger probe seems to bring fresh horrors.
“It’s like the German citizens who were forced to walk through concentration camps near the end of World War II,” Peter Scharf, a criminologist at Tulane University, says glumly. “You are forced to face the consequences of your apathy and blindness – and there were so many warning signs.”
Next: “The Road to Danziger Bridge”