COVINGTON, La. - Tanya Husser said she tries to look deep into the face of every homeless person she passes with a little bit of hope and dread. She wonders if each and every one might be her brother, William “Billy” Husser, who went missing from a Covington work release facility in December 2010 after he allegedly escaped.
There's been no sign of him in three years but Tanya, her mother and one of her sisters continue to look for him.
“The last day that he was arrested, I cried because I blamed myself for him going to jail because I didn't answer the phone,” Tanya said.
Thinking about it is a daily struggle for her. She said Billy struggled with depression and a drinking problem.
“I refused to answer the phone because I got tired of the drinking and the crying,” she said.
A St Tammany judge revoked Billy Husser's probation in January 2010. He was on probation after his third DWI conviction. But by December, Billy Husser was gone.
He had been assigned to the privately-owned work release program called North Shore Workforce in Covington.
“It's hard not knowing where he is, knowing if he's dead or alive, if he has a blanket to sleep on or a pillow,” Tanya said.
The St Tammany Sheriff’s Office alerted Tanya and the family about the escape on December 29, 2010. According to the La. Department of Corrections, he only had a few months left, with a release date in May 2010.
Tanya said she last spoke to him the afternoon before he disappeared while he was at his work release job at Heavenly Ham.
“He called me while he was there and wanted cigarettes and I couldn't leave my job to bring him cigarettes and that was the last time I ever heard Billy,” she said.
The incident report from the St Tammany Sheriff's Office shows Husser was accounted for 3:30 a.m. And at the 8:30 a.m. head count, he was gone.
The report shows the sheriff's investigator wasn't dispatched to North Shore work force, which is located across the street from the jail until 11:30 a.m.
After that, they searched Tanya's home.
“That day, they brought the dogs to my home. I wasn't home but my kids were there. So, my kids are calling me, mom there's dogs everywhere,” she said.
But there was no sign of him. Tanya said one of her sisters, her mother and even Billy's ex-wife told her they haven't heard a word from him in more than three years.
“My mom's tried to do the missing person's report and we're told, he's already in the system as missing. You don't have to do it again,” Tanya said.
DOC and the sheriff's office wouldn't release many details on how Husser allegedly escaped, or what has been done to find him.
Both said it's still considered an open fugitive investigation.
“A couple of weeks later, someone else got out and he was plastered all over the TV and why wasn't my brother on the TV,” she asked.
There's no record of the media or the public ever being notified about Husser's escape, something that was standard practice for the St Tammany Sheriff's Office until earlier this year.
Sheriff Jack Strain has said in the past that he considered work release escapes "breaches of contract."
Tanya Husser said investigators have told her that Billy has not used his credit cards or his social security number since he's been gone.
“You're looking at every homeless person on the side of the road just to see if it's him,” Tanya said.
North Shore Workforce was shut down in March after a string of escapes.
Two weeks ago, WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate sat down for an off-camera interview with DOC Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc.
“What's happened at North Shore, it is a black eye for us all, but it's one we're gonna learn from, I can assure you of that,” LeBlanc said.
The work release programs across the state, both public and private, are largely controlled by the sheriffs who create them, according to LeBlanc, with yearly inspections done by DOC.
None of their recent reports on North Shore Workforce documented the problems that our months-long investigation has uncovered.
“I keep thinking, was there something there we should've saw up front that gave an indication that we were having these kind of problems,” LeBlanc said.
None of the state's work release programs that are privately owned have been sent out to bid, rather the sheriffs have awarded the contracts to whomever they wanted to run them.
St Tammany Sheriff Rodney “Jack” Strain gave the contract to run North Shore Workforce to a group of businessmen, including his campaign treasurer Marlin Peachey.
He did the same for a separate group of business people in St Tammany Workforce Solutions, the work release program in Slidell that he privatized last year. It has continued operating.
Leblanc also said he plans to change the policies governing work release programs, or Transitional Work Programs as the state calls them, to require a public bid for them.
“You will have to RFP it. And we will give them a format to use,” LeBlanc said.
Tanya Husser said she believes a lack of oversight both of North Shore Workforce, and of the inmates, is what led to her brother's long-term disappearance.
“Sometimes we were told just leave it alone by people that worked in there,” Tanya said.
But she continues to push the issue waiting and wondering if she will ever see her brother again.
“We just need closure,” Tanya said.
The St Tammany Sheriff’s Office asks anyone with information about Billy Husser’s whereabouts to call Detective Sergeant Steve Gaudet at (985) 726-7847.