Peggy Wilson bristles against public indifference to New Orleans’ nation-leading homicide rate, including those killed in the ‘drug game.’
“People say as long as drug dealers and users are killing each other, it doesn’t matter,” says Wilson, the first Republican woman on the City Council (1986-’98) and a former candidate for mayor in 2006.
“It does matter. A lot of people think that as long as [violent crime] stays on the other side of St. Charles Avenue, symbolically [speaking], that it doesn’t matter. It does matter.”
With the death of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee last year, there may be no one in public life who speaks more bluntly on crime than Wilson. Like the iconic sheriff, however, Wilson’s often-brutal candor has infuriated adversaries, exasperated allies and offended minorities.
For example, she says she still doesn’t regret telling a nationally televised mayoral debate in 2006 that she didn’t want “pimps, drug dealers and welfare queens” to return to New Orleans, post-Hurricane Katrina.
Blacks and whites alike were shocked by her choice of words. Critics compared Wilson to David Duke. She finished the mayor’s race with only 1 percent of the vote in a crowded field.
Ironically, 15 years earlier, Wilson was among the first in the GOP to denounce the white supremacist during his rise to electoral power as a Republican state legislator.
Whoever said that actions speak louder than words, probably never met Wilson or heard how the granddaughter of Carnival royalty (Rex, 1926) – once consoled a fatally wounded ex-convict on a gritty street “on the other side of St. Charles Avenue.”
It happened in Hollygrove, a low-income, mostly black residential neighborhood, bordered by South Carrollton Avenue, Palmetto Street, Earhart Expressway and Jefferson Parish.
On an October night in 1990, Wilson was riding with a New Orleans police patrol. “It was a Monday Night football night,” Wilson recalls. “There was nothing going on. It was so boring. Then all of a sudden the call of calls came in over the police radio.”
At about 10:50 p.m., Thomas Butler, 27, of 9117 Edinburgh St. was shot in a drive-by shooting at the corner of Gen. Ogden and Forshey streets, according to a Times-Picayune story.
The police car carrying Wilson raced to the scene. She saw a black man laying face up in the middle of the street, dying from a gunshot wound to the groin – four blocks from his mother’s home.
“It was a nightmare,” Wilson recalls. “The blood is just squirting out of him like a fountain and filling up the gutter. He was screaming, ‘somebody help me! Somebody help me!’”
The ambulance was still en route. As police cordoned off the area with black-and-yellow crime scene tape, Wilson tried to comfort Butler.
“I just knelt with him and said, ‘I don’t know you, but you are closer to God than anyone I’ve ever known,’”
She told him she wanted to pray for him.
“He stopped screaming,” Wilson recalls.
She placed a relic on his chest, a piece of cloth blessed by Father Francis Xavier Seelos, a local 19th-century priest.
She then recited a prayer – The Act of Contrition – which she learned as a young girl at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls’ school Uptown:
Oh my God
I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and
I detest all my sins,
Because of my just punishment
But most of all because I offend thee my God,
Who art all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to sin no more
and to avoid the near occasion of sin.
The ambulance arrived. So did a crowd of neighbors and members of Butler’s family.
“His mother was screaming from the other side of the yellow crime scene tape,” Wilson says.
Emergency medical technicians began working on the victim, cutting away his clothes. It took some time before the portable orange screens that shield the wounded from gawking crowds were set up.
So Thomas Butler lay naked and dying, covered in blood, exposed in the middle of the street.
Wilson recalls scrambling to find some type of cover for the dying man, a bloody sheet the EMTs left in the street when they lifted the victim into the ambulance.
Butler was taken to a hospital, where he died an hour later. Police searched his bloody clothes and found crack cocaine and a curious object, which they showed to the city council member. “They said, ‘ma’am we found something really weird,” Wilson recalls.
It was the relic she had placed on Butler’s chest. Embroidered with a rose crochet by women at Wilson’s church, the blessed cloth was covered in blood.
“It was a life-changing event,” Wilson says, almost 20 years after Butler’s murder. “It made me a whole lot more sensitive to the humanity of all these people who get caught up in drugs. I thought I was going to find a kid from a broken home but he was from a middle-class family. His sisters were nurses. His mother was responsible. They had a two-parent family. It gave me more insight into the evil of drugs.”
At the time of his death, Butler was on parole for manslaughter in the 1985 baseball bat-beating death of Kenneth Dorsey, 26, not far from where Butler died, according to The Times-Picayune article.
Wilson didn’t recall Butler’s prison stint.
About eight years later, she held another fatally wounded man as he lay dying in an empty courtyard of the B.W. Cooper housing project.
She couldn’t recall the victim’s name, but remembers, “the ambulance came a lot faster” than the one for Butler.
A “maverick” Republican, long before Senator McCain and Gov. Palin celebrated the title, council member Wilson fumed against police brutality – a topic still absent the GOP platform on crime.
Eliminating police misconduct is key to building public support. She suggested the staff of old Charity Hospital as model for community relations. “They had murderers coming in and out all the time and they never treated anyone with anything but the utmost respect,” Wilson says. “So it can be done.”
At the urging of the Victims & Citizens Against Crime group, Councilmember Wilson attended 96 funerals of murder victims, by her own count.
She found visiting successful crime-reduction cities, more instructive – and less emotional.
Asking NOPD to try ideas from another city is “like a woman trying to get a man to ask for directions,” she says.
“It’s almost like it’s humiliating them. Like my husband, when we’re driving somewhere – ‘Not yet; I’m going to try one more idea.’”
She says she stopped going to funerals of murder victims after the stabbing death of a priest. “His mother threw her arms around me. I sat with her. She was sobbing the whole time. I was sobbing, too. I think I was crying for him and a lot of other people.”
Yes, she says, the murders of drug dealers and drug users “does matter.”