NEW ORLEANS - Federal agents snuck 38-year-old Jeffrey Lehrmann into federal court Thursday morning on his way to pleading guilty to participating in a cover-up in the Danziger Bridge shooting that left two unarmed civilians dead and four wounded.
Lehrmann pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony - concealing knowlege of criminal activity - in a plea bargain that makes him the second former ranking officer to plead in the case and cooperate with authorities.
The former homicide detective, now a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in Arizona, admitted in court that he knew about - and actively participated in - conspiracy to cover up a "bad shoot" on the eastern New Orleans bridge on Sept. 4, 2005.
"He accepts responsibility, and the consequences, for his actions," said Davidson Ehle, Lehrmann's attorney. "Lehrmann extends his sincere apology to the Danziger Bridge victims."
Lehrmann admitted in a signed statement known as a "factual basis" that he helped create non-existent witnesses, falsify police reports and helped plant a gun to make the shooting appear justified.
"I have neither imagined or heard of more despicable conduct by law enforcement officers," said U.S. District Judge Lance Africk after accepting Lehrmann's guilty plea. "You have compounded the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in an immeasurable way. You have disgraced your badge and caused damage to the credibility and morale of honest hard-working law enforcement officers."
Lehrmann admitted in the document that he watched investigators kick spent shell casings off the bridge in efforts to cover up their actions. He went on to admit that while an investigator was concocting a false report, he asked a group of officers, "Hey, someobdy give me a name!" Lehrmann responded by calling out the name "Lakeisha," a name that eventually appeared in the report along with a phony statement that police had come under fire.
Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, 19, were killed and four others wounded as they crossed the bridge in search of food. In the official police report of the shootings, officers claimed they opened fire only after they were shot at. Madison's brother Lance intially was booked with multiple counts of attempted murder, but all of those charges were dropped.
"I think it's obvious on its face that these crimes are pretty egregious and that the cover up, the extent of the cover up, is very, very significant and warrants our continued attention," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said following Lehrmann's plea.
The factual basis of the case also relates a story that Lehrmann and others drove to the home of one of the investigators - where investigators retrieved a bag from a storage container in his garage. When Lehrmann asked what was in the bag, the investigator allegedly responded, "A ham sandwhich."
In fact, the bag contained a revolver that would later be included in a bogus report and entered into evidence as a weapon made to appear that it was wielded by civilians against the officers.
At least two other officers in the case - one who fired shots on the bridge and one of the lead investigators - have received target letters indicating that they are subjects of a grand jury investigation, but Letten would not speculate on the future scope or direction of the ongoing probe.
"I'm not going to suggest how high or how far the cover up went," Letten said. "That is why we're conducting a very aggressive, but very fair investigation."
Lehrmann entered his plea a week after another former ranking officer, retired Lt. Michael Lohman, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the Danziger case, giving prosecutors two potential star witnesses as they continue to investigate other officers involved in the shootings and alleged cover-up.
"The citizens we serve must know that this investigation continues, our U.S. Attorney's office, along with the FBI and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, will do everything in our power to bring to justice all of the individuals responsible for the injustices which occurred no the bridge," Letten said.