YEAR IN REVIEW: Ascension Parish's Top Ten Stories of 2008

Wade McIntyre
Rueben Molliere surveys the destruction of his trailer home on Cornerview in Gonzales after Hurricane Gustav.

Everyone talked about the weather in 2008. Two years after Katrina, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike and an unnamed winter storm described as a fifty-year event in South Louisiana rocked Ascension Parish.

Residents dealt in September with the darkness of electrical outages and rising water, then marveled three months later when a blanket of white snow dropped down overnight, turning semi-tropical Ascension into a winter wonderland and leaving behind huge agricultural losses and cleanup costs.

Before the storms, upcoming historic elections of both local and national interest looked to be the defining events of the year. While the outcomes of those elections were big news in 2008, their effect on local and national politics will unfold as months and years go by. Not even the unraveling of the global economy, which has yet to be felt full force in Louisiana, affected the state more than this year’s storms.

At the end of 2008, residents of Louisiana and Ascension Parish continued living under the long shadow of Katrina and other vagaries of unpredictable weather. Digging out from under the weather disasters remained the biggest local story of the year.

1) Hurricane’s Gustav and Ike

Ascension benefited from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pre-landfall federal disaster declaration in anticipation of Gustav’s possible hit to the Louisiana coast.  Residents began early preparation for impact, waiting in long lines to gas up and buy supplies, and boarding windows and sandbagging. Sheriff Jeff Wiley instituted a parishwide 10 p.m. to dawn curfew in advance of the storm.

When what Parish President Tommy Martinez said “was the worst storm I’ve ever seen in Ascension Parish” slammed the area on Sept. 1, both sides of the  parish including the three municipalities, suffered extensive damage that included trees crushing homes, businesses and other property.

The entire parish lost electrical services from the storm’s strong winds. Shelters were opened at Dutchtown High School in Geismar and The Dream Center in Donaldsonville, the hardest hit area of the parish due to its proximity to the eye of the storm.

Volunteers and crews from the sheriff’s office working with chain saws were able to clear at least one lane on most parish of trees and down power lines on roads within 24-hours.

Early on the morning of Sept. 4, stoplights began flashing for the first time on Burnside Avenue in Gonzales, and patches of electricity were restored to areas around schools and hospitals and food and service outlets.

Relief supplies, including Meals Ready to Eat rations were still being distributed at Lamar-Dixon Expo Center and the Lemann Center in Donaldsonville more than a week after the storm hit. A mobile hotel supporting 570 men and women contracted to DEMCO to repair it’s downed transmission lines in South Louisiana also put up shop at the Expo-center.

Gov. Jindal visited Ascension the Friday after Gustav’s landfall, arriving by helicopter at the Parish Courthouse East in Gonzales. After assessing parish needs with local officials, the governor said widespread power outages showed that power lines across the state needed strengthening in order to withstand future storm winds.

More than a week after the storm, parish schools on the east side started reopening. West bank students were scheduled to return to class as soon as electricity was restored.

But schools closed again Sept. 12 in anticipation of tropical storm winds from Hurricane Ike, which ended up striking the Donaldsonville area hardest, knocking out the little power the area had regained after Gustav.

Martinez later reported that parish residents dodged a direct hit from the two hurricanes that could have inundated the parish with a surge of water.  During Hurricane Ike, water levels came with 3 1/2 feet of topping levees and four feet from topping the main Marvin Braud Pumping station gate, which would have left the station unable to pump water.

2) The Winter Snowstorm

  The winter storm of 2000 dumped rare early snow on Ascension Parish and most of south Louisiana early on the morning of Dec. 11. Forecasters said the two to four-inch blanket of white stuff was the first substantial snowfall in this area since 1988. In terms of snow accumulation and damage to crops, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain later said the storm was a fifty year event in the state.

Ascension residents awoke that morning and did what comes naturally when it snows on the bayou - they made snowmen. Parish residents were by 8 a.m. advised to stay of roads and highways unless travel was necessary, as mid-morning conditions grew risky hazardous, and requiring the sanding of some roads.

In the snowy confusion all primary schools were closed by the School Board, but high school and middle schools left open. The upper grades were then closed and students released at 11 a.m.

DEMCO and Entergy both reported falling limbs and trees around the parish that caused power outages in St. Amant and Prairieville. Entergy estimated about 1,000 persons without power in Prairieville and Demco about 200 in St. Amant.

3) Parish elections

When district attorney runnoff candidate Louis Lambert surprisingly withdrew on Oct. 10 from the hotly contested race to succeed retiring District Attorney Anthony “Tony” Falterman, Ricky Babin won the race.

Babin had captured the Oct. 4 primary vote with 35 percent to Lambert’s 28 percent, after both men had been on the campaign trail for roughly two years.

In the Oct. 4 election, to succeed Gonzales Mayor Johnny Berthelot, Barney Arceneaux won the Gonzales Mayor position beating Martin McConnell by 1,744 votes to 996.

“We have a great city,” Arceneaux said. “I want to continue working with the city councilmen to make it better. This election is not about me, it’s about unity.”

In the Gonzales Police Chief election to succeed retiring Chief Bill Landry, Sherman Jackson was elected by 1,865 voters to 893 for  Chris Anderson.

Jackson, who was raised by his grandmother after his mother died when he was eight months old, told supporters, “I was raised by a village and I hope she (mother) can be proud of me because I made it.”

Also, in that election, Gonzales Councilman Kenny Matassa was reelected by 1,948 votes to 710 votes for Brad “Plug” Lavine; Councilman Terance Irvin was reelected by 1,690 votes over Harold L. Stewart with 985 votes; and Kirk J. Boudreaux was elected with 1,448 votes over Ralph Delatte Jr. with 819 votes.

In Donaldsonville, Mayor Leroy Sullivan avoided a runoff by beating challenger Michael McKinney Sr. in a rematch of their race four years ago by 1,624 votes to 782 votes, and Eric “Twin” Robinson with 534 votes.

In the Donaldsonville city council races, Anthony Tony, Reginald Francis Sr. and Charles R. Brown Sr. each retained their seats.

4) Nov. 4 election

  After a record breaking early voting turnout in Ascension Parish (11.62 percent of registered voters cast early ballots), Democrat Party Presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois defeated Republican nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona to become the nation’s first black president-elect.

McCain carried Louisiana and Ascension Parish in the election. In Ascension, McCain had 31,225 votes  or 67 percent, to 14, 620 or 31 percent for Obama.

In that election, parish voters defeated a proposed 20-year, 3-mill property tax that would have funded the purchase, upgrade, and operation of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales. 

Following the election, Parish President Tommy Martinez said the parish would shut down the center on June 30, and Mary Lee Dixon of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center Foundation said she would place the center on the market for potential business offers.

The defeated proposal was expected to bring in about $2.1 million annually that would been used to bond $12 million toward the purchase and upgrade of the facility.

Under the current lease-purchase agreement, the parish has the opportunity to purchased the $50 million center for $7.5 million.

Two local runoffs were also decided in the election; Democrat John C. Hebert defeated incumbent Justice of the Peace Jamie Frederic Braud in the 3rd Justice Court, and Republican Danny P. Thibodeaux defeated Democrat George “G.W.” Anderson in the 2nd Justice Court Constable race.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu also defeated a challenge from State Treasurer John Kennedy, winning by a vote of 903,470 votes to 833.855 for Kennedy. Kennedy, who switched party allegiance from Democrat to Republican in order to run against Landrieu, did carry Ascension Parish by 24,028 votes to 20,260 for the senator from New Orleans.

Also, U.S. Rep. Don Cazayoux, who won a special election earlier in the year to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, was defeated by Michael Jackson.

5) Shon Miller Jr. pleads guilty

Accused killer Shon Miller Jr. pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder during an open court hearing June 6 in Gonzales, and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without parole.

The stunning plea bargain arranged by Miller’s American Civil Liberties Union defense team came about after revelations of the defendant’s rapidly deteriorating health, and a doctor’s testimony that Miller, 32, could die at any time, possibly within a year.

Miller, who shot and killed his estranged wife, two-year-old son and a young deacon in a crowded Gonzales church in 1999, was convicted and sentenced to die for the crimes in 2000.

He was also convicted of murdering his mother-in-law in the driveway of her home, but all convictions and the death sentence were overturned by the State Supreme Court last summer, and a new trial ordered after the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that 23rd Judicial District Judge Alvin Tureau failed to allow Miller his constitutional right to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

6) Paul Callais missing at sea

The U.S. Coast Guard search in the Caribbean Sea for missing Gonzales Banker Paul Callais was called off June 27 after he was presumed to have fallen overboard and drowned.

Callais, 39, was on a diving trip with a brother  aboard the Miss Glo, a 97-foot motor vessel owned by the family business when he was reported missing by the crew.

Crewmen told search and rescue coordinators with the Coast Guard’s Seventh District Command center in Miami that no one saw Callais fall overboard. Members said he may have fallen from the ship around 6 p.m. when the Miss Glo was in 10 to 12 foot seas.

Coast Guard crews were for a time aided by the Cuban government as they searched about 2,820 square miles in the area about 37 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas, where Callais is believed to have disappeared.

Callais moved to Ascension Parish in 2001 to be CEO of UCB Bank.

On July 11, hundreds of well-wishing friends and family members filled St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church in Gonzales for a memorial service in Callais’ honor.

7) Gonzales standoff shooting

A small Gonzales neighborhood stood in shock throughout the day July 24 as police barricaded a section of Neal Street leading to a house at 1719 S. LeBlanc St. where a gunman held up after police said he shot and killed his estranged wife before apparently taking his own life.

Consuelo Dickerson, 32, was found dead at the scene from injuries sustained by gunshot, according to law enforcement officials at the scene.

Police identified the gunman as Dickerson’s estranged husband, Bobby Dickerson.

June Mackie, an aunt of Consuelo Dickerson, told The Weekly Citizen that the couple had been

separated for the past three months.

Consuelo Dickerson went to the house around noon to pick up some of her belongings in a U-Haul moving truck, accompanied by her brother Orlando Johnson in another vehicle.

Bobby Dickerson was waiting for her, Sheriff Jeff Wiley said. He allegedly shot her once while in the moving truck, and then again as she tried to escape on foot. She fell in a neighbor’s yard where she later died.

Authorities later heard a muted gunshot from where Bobby Dickerson had barricaded himself in the house, which they suspect was the time that Dickerson took his life.

8) Auzine Arrested on Drug Charges

A pain management clinic operating in Gonzales since Hurricane Katrina was raided April 3 by DEA officers and Ascension Parish Sheriff’s deputies who arrested Dr. Donald P. Auzine III, 38, of Prairieville, on drug charges.

Auzine, a 1999 graduate of Tulane University Medical School, was charged with possession of Ecstasy and marijuana with intent to distribute the drugs, and with contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile. Agents also found $200,000 in cash during a search of Auzine’s home at 36190 Greenleaf Court.

Authorities described clinic at 3138 St. Landry Road as a stand-alone cash and carry type business that generally did not involve insurance claims.

In addition to pain management, Auzine’s clinic offered stop-smoking programs, weight management and various cosmetic procedures including Botox and pain removal.

In what his lawyer said was a plea bargain agreement, the doctor pleaded guilty on May 20 to a federal charge before U.S. District Judge John Parker in Baton Rouge that he unlawfully dispensed controlled medications at his Gonzales clinic.

9) Strip Club manager arrested after hate crime killing

After the man seriously wounded in a hate crimes fight that took place early on the morning of April 20 at the Southern Kumfort Gentleman’s Club in Prairieville died of gunshot wound to the neck, the Sheriff’s Office upped charges against Peter Stephens from attempted first-degree murder to manslaughter and attempted manslaughter.

Stephens, 23, a black man from Baton Rouge, was allegedly called racially offensive names which led to a fight and Stephens being stabbed in the leg, and the death of the man he allegedly shot, Matthew Pittman, no address given.

Parish detectives later arrested the club manager, Drew Stansell Jr. , 26, of 5131 East Hunters Chapel Court Apartments, Baton Rouge, and charged him with obstruction of justice in connection with the alleged hate crimes shooting.

Stansell’s arrest came after forensic investigators found that he deleted “specific and important” video images of the shooting and stabbing incident.

10) Butch Browning named State Fire Marshall

Gonzales Fire Chief H. “Butch” Browning was named Louisiana State Fire Marshal by Gov. Bobby Jindal March 5.

During his tenure as city fire chief beginning in 2001, Browning led the Gonzales department through major equipment acquisition upgrades and nationally recognized rescue efforts during the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“You better believe it, there is no doubt this is a big loss for the City of Gonzales,” then Mayor Johnny Berthelot said when he learned of the appointment. “He literally took the department from ground level zero, in my opinion, to one of the finest fire departments in the southern United States.”

Browning credits his father, who saved him from a fire when he was toddler, with leading to a career in firefighting. After the rescue, the elder Browning was so grateful he became a volunteer firefighter, and his son grew up hanging around fire stations.

Acting Fire Chief Tracey Normand was officially named Browning’s replacement on Nov. 14.

An upended oak tree in the Hobart area was indicative of the chaos caused in Ascension Parish in 2008.