RESERVE, Louisiana — One gun took away Arizona Batiste’s freedom, another gun could give it back.
Batiste has been locked up for the past 21 years for the 1993 murder of Leonardo Alexander in what he says was an act of self-defense because Alexander pulled a gun on him. Batiste was convicted by a jury that didn’t buy his claim because Alexander’s weapon was never found by sheriff’s deputies working the crime scene.
Or was it?
During Batiste’s trial, there was some doubt among jurors about the deputies’ version of events and they voted 10-2 to convict. In 48 states, it would’ve been declared a mistrial but Louisiana and Oregon do not require unanimous decisions.
In fact, deputies did recover a pistol matching the description of Alexander’s handgun on the morning after the murder, according to recently uncovered documents obtained by The Daily Beast. The documents also show the district attorney’s office was aware of the gun’s existence but did not disclose it to Batiste’s defense counsel before his trial—a clear violation of his right to due process and grounds for petitioning for a new trial.
It’s unclear if this handgun was Alexander’s gun. What is clear, however, is that for years shady sheriff’s deputies concealed this gun and all the documents surrounding its recovery.
Why would they hide this gun if it didn’t belong to Alexander?
At 11:52 p.m., on Dec. 20, 1993, the St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s office was alerted to a shooting.
A few minutes earlier, Batiste, 19, had killed Alexander, 27. Batiste had shot Alexander three times with a Cobray “Street Sweeper” semi-automatic shotgun.
Before the shooting, “he never really got in any trouble,” said Elva Perriloux, Batiste’s aunt. “He sang in the church choir.”
Throughout his trial, Batiste maintained he’d killed Alexander in self defense, but the sheriff’s department called his statements “self serving” and reported officers only recovered the murder weapon. “Witnesses at the scene during the commission of the murder advised that Alexander did not possess a weapon,” said the report by Detective Allan Wayne Schaeffer.
Batiste was hanging out with friends in his aunt’s mobile home, drinking beer and watching a Saints game.
Around 10 p.m., other friends Waylon Frank and Albert Nicholson pulled up in their car outside and started honking, witnesses said. The men had a couple baseball caps and wanted to know if they were Batiste’s. They’d gotten the hats from Alexander.
“We went around the street to look for [Batiste] to tell him that we think Leo had broke in his house,” Frank told sheriff’s deputies, who later determined that Alexander had robbed Batiste’s trailer, stealing several gold rings from Batiste’s mother, along with the caps.
“Man, that motherfucker must of broke into my house,” Batiste said when he was shown the hats, according to Nicholson.
Batiste and his friends went looking Alexander and found him a few streets over. Alexander claimed he’d been given the items by Batiste’s mother, one of his friends, Andrew Tercuit, told deputies.
“Arizona didn’t believe that,” he added.
Batiste headed back to his aunt’s trailer to call his mom and ask her about Alexander’s claim, and Alexander followed him back, arguing. During the fight, witnesses said Alexander had even pushed his way into the trailer.
“He walked in our trailer with a gun,” Danielle Perriloux, Batiste’s cousin, told deputies, in her first witness statement, a few hours after the murder. (Perriloux and others later recanted that testimony, weakening Batiste’s self-defense claim in court.)
As they argued, one of Batiste’s friends, Thomas Duhe, retrieved the Street Sweeper shotgun from a closet and poked Alexander in the chest with it, forcing him from the stairs into the yard. (Batiste had actually bought the Street Sweeper from Alexander for $200 a month earlier, and that night, he and his friends had taken turns shooting buckshot in the air.)
According to several witnesses, Alexander raised his liquor bottle and tried hit Duhe.
“Thomas Duhe and Leo were fussing,” Perriloux told sheriff’s deputies. “Thomas hit Leo, and that’s when Leo had a bottle for Thomas.” Etrena Gerard, who was 14 years old at the time, said that at this point, Alexander had “the gun pointed to [Duhe’s] head.”
It was “small, silver like,” Regina Terezo, Batiste’s girlfriend at the time, told deputies.
Batiste grabbed the shotgun from Duhe and fired at Alexander.
The first shot struck Alexander in the leg and he fell to his knees. Batiste claimed he didn’t mean to shoot him again.
“I pull the trigger once, and it kept shooting,” he told deputies. Another shot hit Alexander’s left arm and the fatal shot struck the artery his right shoulder.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections refused to allow The Daily Beast to email or speak with Batiste about the shooting or about anything else, including his time in prison or even his high school football career. (Batiste played offensive tackle and fullback.)
“Our policy prohibits inmates from interviewing with reporters for public safety and security reasons,” said Natalie LaBorde, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. LaBorde did not respond to questions about how emailing Batiste would harm public safety.
One of the first deputies to arrive on the scene was Paul Schnyder, Alexander’s first cousin.
“[Batiste] killed my cousin,” was the first thing one witness recalled Schnyder telling him that morning.
Several hours later, Schnyder’s partner, Allan Wayne Schaeffer, took over because of the conflict of interest but he remained on the case and conducted the first interviews with Tercuit, Perriloux, Terezo, and Gerard. They all said Alexander had a handgun.
Every person who saw the murder and spoke to deputies before noon the next day described Alexander holding a silver handgun. After repeated questioning by deputies (including Schnyder) all of the witnesses except Batiste took back their statements about Alexander possessing a gun.
Deputies even accused the teenagers of lying to them, saying they “concocted” the second gun.
In their second interview with Gerard, sheriff’s deputies asked her, “Is it true that this [previous] statement you gave was a false statement?”
“Yes,” Gerard said, according to the transcript of the interview. “You’re being totally honest this time?” they asked her again.
Today, Perriloux and Gerard have both taken back the second version of the story they told the deputies and maintain that Alexander pointing a gun when Batiste fired.
They both explained in a May 19, 2016 hearing why, as teenagers, they said there was only one gun.
Perriloux said sheriff’s deputies told her “there wasn’t a second gun” and one of them “said I was lying.” They both had repeated conversations with the sheriff’s deputies (many of which weren’t recorded). “They kept coming back,” Perriloux said, and eventually she told them what they wanted to hear, even if it wasn’t true.
“I felt pressure,” Gerard said.
Before the deputies arrived, Batiste dragged Alexander’s body into a field a few yards behind the trailer.
“He was scared,” said Terika Anderson, Batiste’s current girlfriend. “At first, he said he couldn’t believe what he did.”
Batiste then grabbed both guns and flagged down a green Ford Tempo with one working headlight that was coming down the road. It was being driven by Batiste’s acquaintance Jerry Lewis, who was on his way home from a nearby bar, the Bumble Bee Disco Lounge.
Lewis pulled over and that’s when Batiste opened his door and tossed in both guns.
“Do something with it,” Lewis said Batiste told him before running away.
Lewis told deputies that he had no idea what was going on when Batiste flung open the door.
“I didn’t really see what it was,” Lewis told the cops the day after the murder. “I looked down and I see the gun and I fuckin freak and I just drive off.”
The pistol was covered in Alexander’s blood.
Lewis said he later pulled over and threw up on the side of the road from smelling the blood and thinking about what might have happened.
Lewis then headed for his friend’s house in Kenner, Louisiana, about 10 miles outside New Orleans. Lewis said he thought the friend would know what to do with the guns, but when he arrived, the friend wasn’t home. Lewis instead encountered someone who he only knew as Glenn and showed him the guns. Glenn held onto the shotgun for Lewis and told him to get rid of the bloody pistol.
“Throw that gun away you know that dude done did something with the gun,” Glenn said, according to Lewis.
The two men walked to a canal a block away and Lewis said he threw the gun in. Lewis admitted as much when deputies interviewed him following Batiste’s arrest, he claims.
“I threw the gun in the um—the revolver in the canal,” he told the deputies in a witness interview the morning after the murder.
The next morning, Batiste turned himself in, and brought sheriff’s deputies to Lewis’ house to retrieve the guns, but the guns weren’t there.
According to Lewis, sheriff’s deputies went to the canal to look for the victim’s weapon that morning.
According to Schaeffer’s report, they returned empty handed.
Jerry Lewis also suggested there were divers at the canal with him that weren’t mentioned in Schaeffer’s report. “They had the divers out there,” he said. “They were debating but they weren’t going down.
“I was always under the impression they never found the gun,” Lewis said, but there was a chance he wasn’t there to see the weapon being found. After Lewis showed the officers the canal, “I got back in the car,” he said, and they took him back to the station.
The sheriff’s office had “no official [diving] team” in 1993, said Carl Butler, the sheriff’s lawyer. But Edward Nowell, who was the commander of the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office Marine Division at the time confirmed that the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office had access to divers.
Nowell didn’t remember the case, but reached out to the two divers who would have been sent to the canal. One didn’t answer, and the other was dead.
Once they returned from the canal, deputies wanted Lewis to lie and say that there was only one gun. Lewis says today that they kept asking him, “You gonna continue to lie for Arizona?”
“I never did change my story,” Lewis said. “I just told the truth.”
Yet according to the investigative report, in Lewis’s last interview with detectives, he supposedly told them there was only one gun.
Detectives “questioned Lewis about the weapons that he’d received from Batiste,” said the report (emphasis added). “Lewis states that he only received one gun from Batiste, that being the 12 gauge shotgun.”
This is not actually what the transcript of Lewis’s interview says.
The transcript of the interview, which is faded almost to the point of being illegible, starts after Lewis was arrested as an accessory. (Out of the hundreds of pages provided to The Daily Beast, only this one interview is faded and hard to read.) In the file, he does not answer any questions about the guns. Instead, he told the sheriff’s deputies he knew his rights. “I want my lawyer,” he said. “Now.” The detectives ended the interview after that. “Based on that, I’m not going to ask you any more questions,” said Schaeffer. “I’m not going to get anything from the tape based on that right there.”
Charges against Lewis were eventually dropped after Batiste’s trial, because he had produced Batiste’s shotgun for the deputies. In Lewis’s first interview with the sheriff’s deputies, Mike Tregre, the young detective who interviewed him, asked, “Have any threats or promises been made to you or has pressure of any kind been applied to induce you to answer questions or give up any of your rights?”
“No,” Lewis told Detective Tregre in his interview, “but he told me if I come up with the guns every—I’m free, Captain whoever told me that,” said Lewis, referring to a Captain Robert Hay.
Lewis said he was afraid to speak out publicly, and when The Daily Beast called him, he originally pretended he wasn’t the person answering the phone. “They [the sheriff’s deputies] were putting a lot of pressure on me,” he said, and pointed out that Tregre, one of the officers who questioned him, is now the sheriff, when talking about his fear of retaliation against him.
“My life got really hard after this,” he said referencing the Batiste case.
Last fall, Batiste’s appeals lawyer, Gwyn Brown, made a public records request of the the St. John the Baptist Parish district attorney for the files on his case. Brown, who provided a copy of those records to The Daily Beast, found a document that hadn’t come up in Batiste’s original trial.
On Dec. 29, 1995, shortly before the trial, Deputy Schaeffer faxed a file to St. John Assistant District Attorney GeorgeAnn Graugnard that said a silver handgun recovered in the Batiste investigation was being held by the sheriff’s office for “safekeeping.” It was a “.25 caliber Handgun, ‘Raven Arms’ brand… Chrome finish with wooden handgrips.” (Emphasis added).
Just like the gun that witnesses described Alexander holding.
“Please call if you need me for anything further,” Schaffer wrote at the bottom of the fax.
According to its chain of custody form, this gun was not sent to the Louisiana State Police’s crime lab to be processed as evidence. The sheriff’s office did send the shotgun and other evidence to be processed.
But, this gun doesn’t fit perfectly into the narrative. There’s a problem with this being Alexander’s gun: the timeline is wrong.
This file says that Captain Robert Hay retrieved this second gun at 5:55 a.m. on the morning of the murder, before turning it over to Schaeffer, according to the chain of custody form for the gun.
If Hay truly located the gun at 5:55 a.m., then it can’t be Alexander’s, because Hay didn’t go with Lewis to the canal until four hours later.
“The pistol (.25 caliber Raven Arms) was seized approximately four (4) hours before the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office Detectives obtained any information or had knowledge of the fact that Jerry Lewis transported both guns to Kenner, Louisiana, where he disposed of the revolver in a canal in Kenner, Louisiana,” says a June 8 memorandum by St. John the Baptist Assistant District Attorney Orenthal Jasmin, arguing against Batiste’s pleading for post-conviction relief based upon this document.
St. John the Baptist Parish District Attorney Bridget Dinvaut was unwilling to comment on pending cases, but during recent hearings, assistant DA Jasmin maintained that the weapon was found at Batiste’s residence as part of a separate investigation into Batiste’s trailer’s burglary, and was not the victim’s weapon.
There is no documentation in the investigative report of Hay finding a weapon at 5:55 a.m. There’s nothing at all recorded at 5:55 a.m. In fact, besides the chain of custody form, there’s no supporting documentation on this gun at all that describes when and where it was found.
The Katrina Lie
When Batiste’s new lawyer, Brown, uncovered the fax about the handgun, she confirmed with the sheriff’s office was still in possession of the actual gun. As soon as Alexander appealed for a new trial, the sheriff’s department became less forthcoming, Brown said.
“The DA says there’s nothing else there,” she says she was told after asking for any other new evidence.
After repeated delays and interference by the DA’s office, sheriff’s case files were eventually provided to The Daily Beast but a large number of files were missing, including the fax about the handgun and another key interview with Jerry Lewis.
The sheriff’s department blamed Hurricane Katrina.
“The sheriff’s file for this case was maintained in a trailer which I am told was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in August 2005,” Carl Butler, the sheriff office’s lawyer, said.
Katrina was a category 5 hurricane that hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005 and killed more than 1,000 people in New Orleans and displaced another 400,000. Parts of the city were submerged under 10 feet of water during the storm.
But St. John the Baptist Parish didn’t flood. Instead, it served as a staging area for recovery efforts into the flooded city.
“In our parish there was no loss of life, no flooding, and no looting,” said the St. John the Baptist Sheriff’s Office’s annual report from 2005 (PDF). “Power outages inconvenienced us all but thankfully damage was mostly limited to roofs. Downed limbs and trees did destroy a few residents’ storage buildings.”
The report didn’t mention any damage to any of the sheriff’s facilities.
“Our department came through Katrina with very few problems,” the report said.
If the sheriff’s office somehow did lose a trailer full of evidence files, they might have requested reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm, at least for cleanup. Officials from the Louisiana Governor’s Office for Homeland Security and Emergency Preparations said there were no reimbursement requests filed by the sheriff’s office for an evidence trailer.
Or the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office might have filed an insurance claim for their lost trailer. They were unable to produce an insurance claim.
But for a trailer of filled with evidence, there ought to be some documentation of its destruction.
As soon as the Katrina excuse was debunked, the sheriff’s office changed its story.
“The case files you seek were relocated to a mobile trailer following Hurricane Katrina damage to the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] building where they had been stored,” he said, appearing to take back the earlier claim about these files being destroyed. “However, those files cannot be currently located.”
“Investigative reports can be wrong,” Butler also said in the meeting where he claimed Katrina destroyed the files, claiming that the missing documents may never have existed, because Schaeffer, while he was alive, was known to be “shady.”
Schaeffer was accused of sexual assault and abuse by five different women and pled guilty to lesser charges in 2008. As part of his plea, he was required to stop using fake names.
“When he was working nights, he would sneak into my house and I would awaken with his hands around my throat,” Tracy Mutz, an ex-girlfriend of Schaeffer, told The Daily Beast.
The Second Chance
Batiste has filed for post conviction relief, arguing that he had ineffective legal counsel during his 1995-96 trial. More than the gun itself, Batiste’s fate may rest upon how much information his first lawyers had about the chrome handgun: Did they know about it, and if so, why didn’t they use it during trial?
The district attorney’s office claims that this second gun was not concealed from Batiste’s lawyers and was provided to one them, Sterling Snowdy, on the morning of the trial. Snowdy is now a judge in St. John the Baptist parish.
“According to testimony, on the morning of the trial, Assistant District Attorney, GeorgeAnn Graugnard, phoned defense attorney, J. Sterling Snowdy, and notified him about the gun,” wrote Judge Madeline Jasmine at a hearing for post-conviction relief, denying Batiste’s earlier claim that prosecutors suppressed evidence.
“There is no excuse for the State withholding this information until the morning of the trial,” wrote Jasmine. “A continuance [delay] of the trial would have been warranted, but the record does not suggest that a continuance was requested.”
If Batiste’s lawyers did know about the gun, they never used it in court.
“Mr. Snowdy [now the Honorable Judge Snowdy] developed no testimony regarding this gun and did not introduce the gun at trial,” read Batiste’s post conviction relief application.
Meanwhile, Batiste’s other lawyer, Richard Millet, said he had no idea there was a second gun.
“I did not know about the existence of a gun, other than the shotgun,” he said at a hearing on May 19.
Millet explained that he would have shown witnesses pictures of the gun to have them identify it, had it tested for ballistics, and used it as evidence. He said it would have affected his decision to put Batiste on the witness stand.
“I shared it with both people,” Snowdy said.
“I did not know about it,” Millet replied.
During the original trial, Snowdy and Millet fought with the district attorney because they had been denied access to evidence.
How could Snowdy not tell Millet about the gun or use it at trial that they both hammered the state to produce evidence?
“Upon information and belief, defendant contends that the state is in possession of [the victim’s] handgun,” Snowdy wrote an in August 1995 motion, demanding that the state produce Alexander’s handgun. “Upon information and belief, said gun is now said in possession of now in the possession of the state, under this case number or under another case number and in connection with a crime committed by another individual.”
Assuming for the sake of argument that Snowdy alone was told about the gun, why didn’t he use it to make the self-defense claim on behalf of his client?
The only two answers to this conundrum seem to be that either the state suppressed evidence or Batiste’s counsel was too stupid to use it. Either way, it would appear he deserves a new trial.
On May 19, Terika Anderson had brought brought her two sons to court to watch the trial, and they were fidgeting in the front row. (And occasionally turning around to stick out their tongues at me.) She regularly brings her sons up to Angola prison to hang out with Batiste. They call him “daddy.”
“I hate that he’s there, because he can’t help me in there,” she said. “But, I’m sticking by his side.”
Anderson says Batiste regretted what happened, but not his actions, because he believes they saved his life. “I wouldn’t change the situation of how I dealt with it, but I wish it could have been in another form,” she said he told her.
After the hearing ended, Batiste, who was in prison orange, with his hands shackled, was allowed a few minutes with his mother, and the rest of his family and friends in a conference room off to the side of the courtroom. Once there he kissed one of the boys on the forehead. “Tell him you’re gonna see him Sunday,” said Anderson.
She didn’t feel like Batiste had gotten a fair shake, and he’d eventually be released from prison. “I feel like when God says it’s enough,” Anderson said. “Arizona’s coming home.”