NEW ORLEANS – Federal officials say a former New Orleans police lieutenant helped cover for officers who killed two people at the Danziger Bridge days after Hurricane Katrina.
Former police lieutenant Michael Lohman Wednesday afternoon pleaded guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice.
The shooting on the Danziger Bridge certainly sent shockwaves through the New Orleans community and the NOPD. Lohman is the first to plead guilty in what we know to be a series of federal investigations into police shootings in the dark days after Katrina.
Lohman appeared in federal court, admitting that he and a group of fellow officers made up a cover story to hide the true reasons why police opened fire on the Danziger Bridge just days after Hurricane Katrina.
“Including the fabrication of stories that were not true. The fabrications of statements. The fabrication of a 17-page report. The planting of a firearm. As one of the final things, actually Mr. Lohman lying to special agents of the FBI as recently as 2009,” said U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
Six civilians were shot on the bridge. Two of the them died, including 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally handicapped man, and 19-year-old James Brissette.
Family members say the victims on the bridge had no weapons and were brutally gunned down by police. At the time police say they were under fire and shot back.
Lohman now admits he and his un-named co-conspirators provided false and misleading information to shield the officers from prosecution, and Letten mentioned that the officers allegedly planted a firearm at the scene.
Lohman is the first NOPD officer to plead guilty in the case. Two others, Sgt. Arthur Kaufmann and Sgt. Robert Gisevius, have reportedly received letters notifying them that are targets of the federal investigation.
Letten would not talk about the importance of Lohman's guilty plea in the overall investigation.
“We're not going to speculate about anything the investigation might produce, except to say that he investigation is very ongoing,” Letten said. “It's very active and it's going to continue.”
Letten said the feds picked up the Danziger case about a year and a half ago, when a state judge cleared seven officers in the case.
In pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, Lohman now faces up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. But based on his cooperation, he could end up with no jail time.
Inside the federal courtroom on the second floor, family members of the Danziger Bridge shooting passed around a box of tissues, emotion on their faces as Lohman pleaded guilty to the charge.
"I think it is monumental to say the least,” said Gary Bizal, attorney for Jose Holmes.
Bizal represents Jose Holmes, one of the surviving victims of the Danziger Bridge shooting. Holmes was not in court Wednesday, but he has filed a federal civil lawsuit against the city, the New Orleans Police Department and the officers involved in the Danziger Bridge shooting.
"He's obviously very happy,” Bizal said. “When you read the original police report that was prepared in this case, which obviously is nothing but lies based on what happened today, you’ve got supposedly his aunt claiming that he fired a weapon, and several other people, and as you saw earlier today in court, that was obviously all lies. Officer Lohman has admitted to that.
“So we’ve got a lot of other officers with a lot of other problems now.”
Other family members who were in court declined to comment on camera. But attorney Mary Howell spoke for the family of Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man who was killed in the police-involved shooting.
"This is hard. This has been a long time coming. Five years, deaths of loved ones involved here, been a lot of trauma. Trauma, It brings up a lot of memories,” Howell said. “Today was a first glimpse into the facts of what happened, and it’s significant, but we know there is a lot more we need to know more about."