SATURDAY, MARCH 4, 1995. 1:55 A.M. EASTERN NEW ORLEANS
Antoinette Frank stood in the cramped kitchen of the Kim Anh restaurant, a 9 mm pistol clutched in her hand. Kneeling on the dirty floor at Frank’s feet were 17-year-old Cuong Vu and his 24-year-old sister, Ha.
Cuong was an altar boy at St. Brigid Catholic Church. He played high school football and wanted to be a priest. Ha was considering becoming a nun. Both worked long hours at their parents’ restaurant.
Frank fired nine bullets into them.
Ha Vu died instantly. When detectives found her, she was still on her knees, her forehead resting on the floor.
Cuong took longer to die. Frank shot him repeatedly in the chest and back, but his young athlete’s heart continued to beat. Frank heard him trying to talk, so she shot him again, this time firing two bullets into Cuong’s head.
Frank and her partner in crime, an 18-year-old named Rogers LaCaze, ransacked the Bullard Avenue restaurant until they found what they were looking for – money.
Frank and LaCaze bolted through the dining room. On their way to the front door they passed Ronnie Williams. Williams was a 25-year-old New Orleans police officer assigned to the 7th District. He had gotten off work at 11 p.m. and had gone straight to the restaurant to work a security detail. Williams needed the extra money the detail paid. Ten days earlier, his wife had given birth to the couple’s second son, Patrick.
Still in his police uniform, Williams would be found face down behind the bar in a pool of blood. He had been shot twice in the head and once in the back.
LaCaze took Ronnie Williams’ gun and wallet.
Outside, Frank and LaCaze piled into a battered 1977 Ford Torino. As the car screeched out of the parking lot, a sun-yellowed cardboard sign fluttered on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. Printed on either end of the foot-wide rectangular placard was the star-and-crescent symbol of the New Orleans Police Department. In the center of the sign, between the symbols, were the words New Orleans Police Officer on Duty.
The sign and the car belonged to officer Antoinette Frank, a New Orleans cop who worked out of the 7th District. She, too, had just gotten off at 11 o’clock. Frank was on the same platoon and worked the same shift as Ronnie Williams. The two officers had worked together every day for more than a year.
A POLICE DEPARTMENT IN DESPAIR
Few would argue that by the time 1995 rolled around, the New Orleans Police Department was in sad shape. The department was losing about 100 officers per year – many of them fired or arrested – and hiring only half that many. In 1994, two officers had been arrested for murder, one for killing a man the officer suspected of having broken into his apartment; the other for ordering the execution of a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. Then in December 1994, the FBI arrested 10 New Orleans cops on federal drug-trafficking charges.
CBS’ Mike Wallace branded New Orleans “The No. 1 city in the nation for police brutality and corruption.” Newly elected Mayor Marc Morial told Time magazine, “I inherited a police department that was a shambles.” By the start of 1995, things were bad, but they were about to get a whole lot worse.
Officer Antoinette Frank – the woman who would become the poster child for police misconduct and the living symbol of a department gone bad – had just met Rogers LaCaze. Just past his 18th birthday, LaCaze already had a history of violence and drug peddling. His mother, Alice Chaney, kicked him out of her house when he was 17. “Rogers had become a dope dealer,” she says.
At the end of 1994, LaCaze managed to get himself shot. He told police that he and a friend named Nemiah Miller were just hanging out when another friend, a 19-year-old who went by the name “Freaky D,” whipped out a gun and started blasting at them.
Alice Chaney has her own opinion on the reason for the shooting. “It was behind a dope deal,” Chaney says. “Rogers and Nemiah had just scored.” Miller died. LaCaze went to the hospital. One of the investigating officers was Antoinette Frank.
Frank said she always wanted to be a police officer. Born in Opelousas, she was a member of the Opelousas Junior Police and the New Orleans Police Explorers. When she turned 20, Frank applied to the New Orleans Police Department. Almost immediately, Frank’s application ran into problems. The applicant investigation unit discovered Frank had been fired from Wal-Mart and had lied about it on her application. Frank also scored poorly on two standardized psychological evaluations. The psychologist who reviewed Frank’s tests recommended a psychiatric interview.
Dr. Philip Scurria, a board-certified psychiatrist, evaluated Frank on 14 characteristics relevant to the job of a police officer. He rated Frank as unacceptable or below average in most categories. In his report, Scurria wrote that Frank “seemed shallow and superficial.” He concluded by saying, “I do not feel … that the applicant is suitable for the job of police officer.” Apparently depressed over her faltering job prospects, Frank disappeared. She left a half-hearted suicide note addressed to her father. Her father filed a missing-person report with the police department, but Frank turned up the next day. Less than three weeks later, the police department hired her anyway.
A TWISTED DUO
After Rogers LaCaze got out of the hospital he started getting regular visits from Antoinette Frank. She eventually took him shopping for new clothes. She bought him a pager and a cell phone. She rented him a Cadillac. Frank became obsessed with him, LaCaze says. She started driving him around in her police car. She even answered calls with LaCaze and introduced him as her trainee. Two officers from the 7th District once saw LaCaze driving Frank’s patrol car. Then Frank and LaCaze started hatching a plan to rob the Kim Anh restaurant.
Frank had been splitting the security detail at the family-owned Vietnamese restaurant with Ronnie Williams for months. During that time, the Vu family, who owned the restaurant, grew close to Frank and Williams. They treated Frank almost like a member of the family. “The Vus took a real liking to her,” Frank’s former 7th District partner says. “I mean, they were in love with this girl. They bought her presents for this, presents for that. Anything she wanted, anything she needed, they gave her.” Frank knew the Vus distrusted banks. She also knew they kept all their money in cash.
During the weeks leading up to the robbery, Frank acquired a 9 mm pistol from the NOPD evidence room. Two weeks before the murders, she reported the gun stolen. LaCaze was with Frank when a police officer arrived at her house to take the report about the stolen gun. LaCaze later told detectives that the report was bogus. The pistol hadn’t been stolen. Just hours before they robbed the Kim Anh and murdered three people, Frank and LaCaze stopped at a Wal-Mart to buy a box of 9 mm bullets. Frank was on the clock, wearing her police uniform and driving a patrol car.
CRIME SCENE CHAOS
As soon as they heard the explosion of gunshots from the dining room, 23-year-old Chau Vu and her 18-year-old brother, Quoc, ran into the restaurant’s walk-in cooler. Chau slammed the door shut as Quoc killed the lights. The two huddled in the cold darkness. Through the glass doors at the front of the cooler and a window overlooking the kitchen, they caught glimpses of Frank and LaCaze as they rummaged for cash. They heard shouting, crying, more gunshots. Then silence.
After she was sure Frank and LaCaze had left, Chau crawled into the dining room. Her cell phone was in her purse on a shelf beneath the bar. She saw Ronnie Williams’ body on the floor.
“I saw Ronnie was lying with all the blood around him. That’s when all my confidence was gone because the person that protects us was lying right there,” Chau later said. Chau grabbed her cell phone and scrambled back into the cooler. She dialed 9-1-1 but couldn’t get through. She called a friend and begged him to call the police for her. The friend asked what had happened, but the battery in Chau’s phone died. Quoc slipped out the back door and ran to a friend’s house to call the police. On the way out, he passed the blood-soaked bodies of his brother and sister. Several blocks away, Antoinette Frank was fuming. “One of the bitches got away,” she told LaCaze. Frank had seen Chau and Quoc inside the restaurant when she and LaCaze went in, but she’d lost sight of them and couldn’t find them again.
After dropping LaCaze off at his apartment on Cindy Place, Frank drove to the 7th District. There, she hopped into a patrol car and raced back to the restaurant. She had a second gun – a .38-caliber revolver – tucked into her waistband. Sgt. Eddie Rantz, who supervised the homicide investigation, says, “There’s no doubt in my mind; she went back there to kill the rest of them.” Whether that was Frank’s intent or not, she never got the chance.
Chau hid in the cooler until she saw police officers in the parking lot; then she bolted out the front door and dove into the arms of Det. Yvonne Farve. Frank stayed at the restaurant. She caught a break because Chau was so scared she would only speak Vietnamese at first. In the initial confusion at the crime scene, lead investigators Rantz and Det. Marco Demma had no idea that the young 7th District officer was one of the shooters. They thought they had caught a break because one of their witnesses was a trained police officer.
When the detectives questioned her, Frank told them she had been in the kitchen getting something to drink when she heard gunshots in the dining room. She said she tried to push all the employees out through the back door.
Ha and Cuong wouldn’t leave, Frank said. They stayed in the kitchen. Frank told Rantz she drove to the 7th District station to report the shooting. But Frank had a cell phone and a police radio with her. Why didn’t she call it in instead of wasting time driving to the station?, Rantz asked. Why did she leave everybody, including a wounded police officer, behind?
“That’s when she started talking about Rogers LaCaze,” Rantz says. Frank wasn’t a witness, the veteran detective realized. She was a suspect. “I wanted to vomit,” Rantz recalls. A little while later, Chau calmed down enough to tell her story in English. Quoc returned to the restaurant and also told the detectives what had happened.
Rantz and Demma had heard enough. Rantz approached Supt. Richard Pennington, who had just started, in the parking lot. Pennington, a veteran detective himself, had been on the scene for a while. “I told the chief, ‘We’re about to book this motherfucker with three counts of first-degree murder,’” Rantz says. Later, at police headquarters, with a tape recorder in front of her, Antoinette Frank confessed to shooting Ha and Cuong Vu in the kitchen of Kim Anh Restaurant. Her justification was simple: Rogers LaCaze made her do it.
The robbery, Frank said, was all LaCaze’s idea. He’d been talking about it for a couple of weeks. She just went along with it because she didn’t know what else to do. Although ballistic evidence later proved the same 9 mm pistol was used to kill all three victims, Frank refused to admit to shooting Williams. She blamed that murder on LaCaze.
Detectives found LaCaze at his brother’s apartment in Gretna just a few hours after the murders. It turned out that about 45 minutes after LaCaze left Kim Anh, he used Williams’ credit card to buy $15 worth of gas at a station three blocks from his brother’s apartment. After his arrest, LaCaze admitted that he went into the restaurant with a gun but denied that he shot anyone. Frank, he said, committed all three murders. He just happened to be there.
Rogers LaCaze went on trial in July 1995. He decided to take the stand in his own defense. It was a bad move. Against his attorney’s advice, LaCaze, a high school dropout with an IQ later measured in the low 70s, pitted himself against lead prosecutor Glen Woods. Woods is a soft-spoken, contemplative man, but he has a mind like a scalpel, a tool he has used to slice people apart on the witness stand. In the battle of wits with Glen Woods, Rogers LaCaze was unarmed.
In the end, LaCaze was reduced to blubbering on the stand and begged the jury to spare his life. “I did not pull no trigger and kill them people,” he pleaded. “I don’t even know them people.”
Seeking justice for “them people” was one of the defining moments of Woods’ career. “They were people, they had a life, they had aspirations, they had dreams,” he says. The jury convicted LaCaze of murder and recommended he be put to death.
Antoinette Frank went on trail two months later. After prosecutors Glen Woods and Elizabeth Teel rested the state’s case against Frank, her lawyers essentially gave up. Although they’d subpoenaed nearly 40 witnesses, they didn’t call a single one.
The jury took 40 minutes to convict Frank on three counts of first-degree murder. They too recommended the death penalty. Woods said, “It would have been a mockery of justice if Antoinette Frank was to walk away without getting the death penalty.”
In October 1995, Judge Frank Marullo sentenced Antoinette Frank to death by lethal injection. LaCaze received the same sentence.
A month later, a dog found the remains of a human skeleton buried under Frank’s house. It was the same house she shared for a while with her father. Frank had reported her father missing a year and a half before the murders at the Kim Anh restaurant. There was a bullet hole in the unearthed skull.
A decade after the case that rocked the New Orleans Police Department to its foundation and outraged the city and the nation, much has changed.
Under Pennington, the police department completely revamped its hiring practices. It weeded out bad officers and hired good ones. Under Supt. Eddie Compass, the healing process continues.
Still, as bad as the old hiring system was, in the case of Antoinette Frank, it worked – at least initially. The police department had at least four obvious indicators of Frank’s unsuitability for the job before they hired her: lying on her application and during her pre-employment interview, two failed psychological evaluations, her disastrous interview with the department psychiatrist, her strange disappearance and suicide note – all were well-known to the NOPD before they offered Frank a job. So why did they hire her?
In the early 1990s, the department was severely shorthanded. They needed anybody who could fit into a police uniform. Crime was ripping the city apart. In 1994, the year before the Kim Anh murders, New Orleans was the murder capital of the United States. The residency requirement restricted the department to hiring only those applicants who lived within Orleans Parish. (That policy still prevents NOPD from hiring well-qualified officers who live in surrounding parishes.)
And in a city that often simmers with racial tensions, Antoinette Frank, a black woman, fit the profile they were looking for. Hiring her allowed the police department to chalk up one more hash mark for its nonexistent, never-talked-about quota system.
As to why she committed the crime, Frank now says it’s her father’s fault. She claims to have suffered through years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at his hands; it’s a claim she only recently started making. But a psychiatrist who examined Frank in 1995 and 1999 said she showed symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder with antisocial features.” According to the psychiatrist, Frank exhibits a lack of empathy toward others as well as a feeling of entitlement, flies into rages, and is manipulative in relationships.
Rogers LaCaze has a simpler diagnosis. In a letter from prison, he wrote, “Antoinette is crazy. Hell, she killed her own dad and buried him under her house.”
After 27 years on the job, Eddie Rantz retired. He went to law school. Sometimes he still thinks about the case and about Antoinette Frank. “She is, without a doubt, the most cold-hearted person I’ve ever met,” Rantz says.
Prosecutors Glen Woods and Elizabeth Teel are both in private practice. Teel says the LaCaze and Frank trials were the most traumatic of her career. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t personal,” she says. In his office, Glen Woods keeps a picture of Ha and Cuong Vu. “It’s shocking the way they died,” he says. The picture reminds him of the evil that exists in the world.
Mary Williams, wife of Officer Ronnie Williams, is busy raising their two sons, Christopher and Patrick. She has grown very close to the Vu family. They see each other often.
The Vus still own the Kim Anh restaurant.
Antoinette Frank and Rogers LaCaze are on death row, still blaming everyone else, including each other, for what happened.
As for those human bones unearthed beneath Frank’s house, so far, authorities have made no serious effort to identify them. The 10-year-old case, they say, remains under investigation.
Chuck Hustmyre spent 22 years in law enforcement and retired as a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He is the author of the true crime book Killer with A Badge, the complete story of the Antoinette Frank case. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Baton Rouge Advocate.
SATURDAY, MARCH 4, 1995. 1:55 A.M. EASTERN NEW ORLEANS
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