COVINGTON, La. -- Early Thursday morning, 35-year-old Christopher Ricker escaped from a St. Tammany work release facility called North Shore Workforce in Covington. It was the latest in a string of escapes from the privately-owned, privately-run work release program.
By Thursday evening, St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain had shut down North Shore Workforce, citing the recent escapes and what he called WWL-TV’s “reckless journalism” after a months-long joint investigation into the program done in partnership with The New Orleans Advocate.
In 2013, the Department of Corrections received reports of nine escapes from North Shore Workforce, the highest number of escapes out of all the work release facilities in the state.
One of those was a man named James Miller, who was murdered on the south shore when he was supposed to be at his work release job in Covington.
“I never realized how weak I was until I lost him,” said Michel Miller, the inmate’s wife.
On April 19, 2013, she received the news that no wife ever wants to hear.
“It was at our property in New Orleans,” Michel said.
New Orleans police had responded to reports of gunshots on Basinview Drive in New Orleans East. When they went inside the Millers' rental property, they found James Miller’s body. He had been shot and killed.
A family member had called Michel to tell her that James was hurt.
“I was like, why don't you stop joking? He's over at the facility. He's in the jail facility in Covington," Michel said. "He was like, no, he was shot."
Miller joins work-release program
At the time of his murder in New Orleans, James Miller was supposed to be at his work release job at Victory Bible Church in Covington.
Miller was an inmate in one of the two privately-owned work release programs run by people with ties to the St. Tammany sheriff who were given no-bid contracts for them.
“I knew he didn't belong there. I knew where he was. I knew where he was supposed to be. I knew where I had talked to him that morning. He was safe and tucked away in the facility with the Department of Corrections,” Michel said.
So, how did James Miller end up shot to death on Basinview Drive when he was supposed to be at work?
Miller was a Department of Corrections inmate assigned to North Shore Workforce two weeks before his murder. He was a property owner outside of his incarceration. He was even a well-liked basketball coach for his son's team in Slidell.
But James Miller had a problem with alcohol.
“He had like 4 DWI's and this time he had to go serve some time,” Michel said.
A St. Tammany Parish judge sentenced Miller to 15 years at hard labor, with all but two suspended in December 2012. He began serving his time in the parish jail in Covington, but on April 2, 2013, he got into the work release program.
North Shore Workforce Director Lester Mitchell wouldn't do an on-camera interview with WWL-TV about this story, but said in an email that Miller was a "general laborer" for Victory Bible Church. “His assignment was to wash cars with the program,” as far as Michel Miller knew.
Mitchell said James Miller was taken to and from the church either in North Shore Workforce vans, or people from Victory Bible Church would pick him up and drop him off.
Neither Mitchell nor the sheriff would say who signed him in or out the day of his murder.
Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Pam Laborde said, also in an email, that on the Friday night he was murdered, James Miller was due back at North Shore Workforce at 9 p.m. None of the agencies charged with oversight would say how he was supposed to get back to the facility.
The church pastor, Fredrick Young, also wouldn't do an interview with WWL-TV, but he said "he left without my permission."
“It was strictly and ultimately an honor system and they were running amuk,” said James Patterson, a former warden at North Shore Workforce.
He left in 2012, months before James Miller was assigned to the facility. Patterson is a former Department of Corrections employee and said he was told he was being hired to try and improve security and accountability at North Shore Workforce.
“They did just enough to barely get by. The accountability was, they did no job checks. They didn't call the employers to confirm,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he had employees start to do some job checks, but he admits it wasn't nearly enough.
“I managed to get some improvements. But it was like pulling teeth because the interests of these offenders are not the priority at this facility. The interest is in making money for the sheriff and for Marlin Peachey. That's the priority,” Patterson said.
'You couldn't account for them'
Marlin Peachey is one of a group of co-owners of North Shore Workforce. He is the campaign treasurer for Sheriff Jack Strain, and at one point, was warden at the St. Tammany Parish Jail.
Patterson said he felt like security was still lacking when he left North Shore Workforce, especially in terms of accountability at the job sites.
“The boss could've told them, we're shutting down for two days or we're taking two days off and the inmate could still get up, sign out and go to work. So, you couldn't account for them,” Patterson said.
We took an off-camera tour of North Shore Workforce two weeks ago with the current director, Lester Mitchell. He took over after Patterson resigned because of an investigation into Patterson's daughter, who also worked at the facility.
Mitchell said his employees currently do job checks, but he denied our requests for records to see whether any were done for James Miller.
For our last investigative report into the facility involving allegations that a connected company, Baker Pile Driving, was allowed to give their inmate workers free rein, Strain said Mitchell “…has served well in that role and as a result of his efforts, the problem we recognized three years ago are practically non-existent today."
The night of Miller's murder
So, what happened less than a year ago with James Miller?
The incident report from NOPD shows he was shot to death around 5 p.m. that night. Miller's brother had called Michel Miller a few hours later to tell her James had been shot, and then Michel says she got another call in the middle of the night.
“It was closer to 2 a.m. I got a phone call from a ranking officer or someone in the facility telling me that my husband went AWOL,” Michel said.
Eyewitness Investigative Reporter Katie Moore asked her, “So, you find out your husband had died earlier in the night and at 2 a.m. in the morning, you get a call from the St. Tammany sheriff or North Shore Workforce saying where is your husband?” Michel nodded yes and said, “Kind of threatening me.”
Michel said she couldn’t believe the phone call, so she started questioning the official on the other end of the line, “Like, who is this calling? And he repeated his name at the work force facility. And I'm like, my husband, he's deceased. He's dead. Are you serious? You don't know that?”
Word of Miller’s murder didn't spread.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Miller was due back at North Shore Workforce at 9 p.m. the night he was murdered and that Director Mitchell had been notified Miller was missing at 10 p.m.
State work release regulations say, "If the offender cannot be located within 30 minutes, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center Control Center... shall be notified."
The Department of Corrections said they were notified that Miller was missing at 11 p.m., two hours after he didn't return to North Shore Workforce. Despite that, Laborde said DOC felt like North Shore Workforce followed proper procedure.
The investigation into Miller's escape revealed Miller had been picked up by a “friend” before while working at Victory Bible Church.
According to Eyewitness News sources, that "friend" was the man now accused of killing him, 51-year-old Richard Thompson. He’s awaiting trial in Orleans Parish on a second-degree murder charge.
Victory Bible Church didn't report either of Miller's absences to North Shore Workforce, according to the Department of Corrections.
Strain wouldn't do an interview with WWL-TV about this story, but said in an email, "Mr. Miller was assigned to work for a well-respected preacher at a reputable church. I'm sure that any reasonable person would have confidence in the potential for success with that arrangement. Ultimately, Mr. Miller paid with his life his decision not to follow the rules of the program."
Sheriff points to improvements in oversight
Early Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Corrections said they were continuing to examine the operations at the St. Tammany work release programs. Our last story prompted a surprise inspection of North Shore Workforce by DOC officers. On Wednesday, Strain pointed to improvements in oversight within the sheriff's office in recent months.
"The sheriff's office has taken bold steps to ensure that program operates as it was designed. I have permanently assigned one of our captains (a 30 year veteran of the department of corrections) as our compliance officer to ensure these programs, and their participants, follow the guidelines set forth by D.O.C. He is recognized throughout the corrections field as an expert in this subject and has earned the respect of his peers throughout the state,” Strain said in an email Wednesday.
“The Department of Corrections rep that oversaw the North Shore Workforce facility made sure everything was done properly and passed, you know, inspection, now works for Sheriff Strain,” Patterson said.
Patterson said that man is J.P. Miller, who is listed in past DOC compliance audits of North Shore Workforce as one of the DOC monitors.
In his email, Strain said his improvements to oversight are continuing to improve the two work-release programs that Strain contracts out. That was before another escape from the facility and Strain’s decision to shut down the program Thursday, citing the recent problems and “reckless journalism” on the part of WWL-TV.
Wednesday, Strain said he and people familiar with corrections maintain the benefits of work release programs generally outweigh the risks posed by such programs and that no program can guarantee 100 percent of offenders will “make good choices when they are temporarily released to go to work.”
He went on to say, “Our charge is to provide an operational and oversight structure which minimizes, in every way possible, these few exceptions who would otherwise continue to make bad decisions.”
The big, black bag
As for Michel Miller, she said she'll only remember one thing about the North Shore Workforce facility: picking up her husband's belongings with no condolences given by the staff.
“That's the only time I had been there is when he met his demise and they gave me his stuff in a big, black bag,” Michel continued, “Like a garbage bag. Like garbage."
The suspect in James Miller’s murder, Richard Thompson, recently had his bond lowered by Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier because the Medical Director for the Orleans Parish Sheriff said Thompson has end-stage congestive heart failure and was in need of end-of-life hospice care.
Miller has retained an attorney and said she is still hoping she will see Thompson brought to justice for her husband’s murder. There’s a court hearing scheduled in the case next week.
Victory Bible Church was terminated from the North Shore Workforce program for not reporting Miller's absences. The Department of Corrections discovered in their investigation that another inmate had also left the church with Miller to go to the South shore that day.
He was sent back to jail as a result.