A former New Orleans resident was charged last week with federal hate crimes for his alleged role in a racially motivated shooting of three black men in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
The man, Roland J. Bourgeois Jr., 47, is accused of plotting to defend his Algiers Point neighborhood "from outsiders" including African-Americans, constructing barricades on public streets and using racial epithets to describe black people, according to the five-count indictment.
At one point, the charges claim, Bourgeois said, "Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot."
The indictment charges Bourgeois with doing just that when three black males walked through the neighborhood toward a makeshift Coast Guard evacuation center on Sept. 1, 2005. Bourgeois fired a shotgun at the trio, felling Donnell Herrington and wounding Herrington's two companions near the corner of Pelican Avenue and Vallette Street, according to the indictment.
Later, Bourgeois plucked Herrington's bloodied baseball cap from the ground and proudly displayed it to others, boasting that he "got one" and had shot a "looter," according to a witness.
Bourgeois, who denied any knowledge of the incident to federal agents, is also accused of coercing an eyewitness to the shooting to lie to investigators.
Bourgeois left Algiers Point after the hurricane and now lives in Columbia, Miss., according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, which is prosecuting the case along with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office.
The indictment, filed last Thursday, charges Bourgeois with conspiracy to commit a hate crime, committing a hate crime with a deadly weapon and with intent to kill, making false statements and obstruction of justice. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The Herrington shooting was the subject of a lengthy Justice Department investigation into claims that white residents of Algiers Point attacked African-Americans in a spate of racially motivated violence in the wake of Katrina. Algiers Point did not flood, though it did sustain wind and storm damage.
The hurricane prompted more than a dozen residents in the neighborhood, most of whom are white, to take up arms, barricade streets with downed trees and debris, and coordinate vigilante patrols of the area.
Bourgeois' mother, Pam Pitre, acknowledged in April that her son fired his shotgun at a black man that day and kept the man's hat. Pitre insisted her son "is not a racist" and said another man also fired. She said the shooting had nothing to do with skin color.
One witness, Terri Benjamin, recalled hearing gunfire and seeing Bourgeois among a group of armed white men. Bourgeois was gripping a shotgun and celebrating.
"My neighbor was jumping up and down, hooting and hollering like he was big-game hunting and he got the big one," she said earlier this year. "All of his friends were rallying him on, and they were cheering."
Another armed man approached soon afterward and told the group that the wounded man was still alive a few blocks away.
According to Benjamin, Bourgeois said, "I'm gonna kill that nigger," and ran, barefoot and shirtless, down the street before turning and jogging out of view.
Benjamin then heard another gunshot. And Bourgeois ran back to the group with a bloody baseball cap.
"And he brandished the cap for all of his friends," Benjamin recalled. "Everybody cheered. They were happy for him."
Herrington called news of the indictment on Thursday a "huge relief."
"It feels good to know that steps are being taken toward bringing that guy -- or those guys -- toward justice. It's been a long time coming," he said.
Herrington and his companions have said they were trying to get to an evacuation center set up at the ferry terminal in Algiers Point.
Herrington, who lives in Algiers, said his group was walking when a white man pointed his shotgun and, without saying a word, fired.
Shotgun pellets peppered his throat, torso and arms. He recalls scrambling to his feet and running. Herrington also remembers two more armed men joining the first gunman. As he ran, a second shotgun blast tore through his back.
Herrington eventually found his way to the home of an African-American couple who drove him to West Jefferson Medical Center, where he underwent emergency surgery to repair his internal jugular, which was shredded by buckshot.
His companions, cousin Marcel Alexander and friend Chris Collins, suffered minor gunshot wounds. Alexander said he and Collins were briefly taken hostage by a group of about five armed white men, one of whom threatened to set them on fire. Eventually the group allowed Alexander and Collins to flee.
Bourgeois is the only person charged to date in the shooting incident.
Herrington said no police officers interviewed him while he was at the hospital, though officers were present during his stay. He was later shuttled to a Baton Rouge medical facility.
When Herrington returned to New Orleans he said he visited the 4th District police station, but officers there didn't file a report on the shooting.
After the police failed to investigate, Herrington said he felt "nobody cared."
Federal investigators canvassed the neighborhood at various points last year. Several residents acknowledged testifying earlier this year before a federal grand jury.
Bourgeois was living months ago with his mother in Mississippi. She defended him in an interview in April, saying her son was terrified by the lawlessness in the city following the storm.
She said he had been threatened by a group of African-Americans and "pelted with bottles" in the days before the shooting occurred. Pitre, who heard a narrative of the events from her son, said he had encountered three dangerous and "arrogant" African-American men that day.
The men, who were trying to break into parked cars, "looked like gang members" to her son, she said.
After the trio of black men tried to move one of the barricades blocking the street, Bourgeois and another man began shooting at them, Pitre said. "Both men had guns. Both fired," she said, adding that she didn't know the name of the other shooter.
Pitre said the shots were meant to "scare," not to kill.
The only reason the matter came to the attention of federal authorities, she noted, is that "this man Roland shot survived and is telling his tale."
Herrington has long maintained that he and his companions had nothing to do with any criminal activity and were simply trying to make their way out of the stricken city.
A court date for Bourgeois had not been set as of last Thursday evening, according to court records. The investigation is ongoing, according to a new release issued by the Justice Department.