Investigation into St. Tammany work release not over with shutdown

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wwltv.com

Posted on March 17, 2014 at 6:34 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 17 at 7:01 PM

Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
Email: kmoore@wwltv.com | Twitter: @katiecmoore

COVINGTON, La. - The fallout continues from the abrupt shutdown of a work release program on the north shore last week.

The St Tammany Parish Sheriff shut down the Covington program last Thursday after another escape. 35-year-old Christopher Ricker led law enforcement on a chase in the neighboring Tangipahoa Parish after he allegedly jumped the fence at the facility and kidnapped his ex-girlfriend from the convenience store where she worked.

It took deputies two days to track him down after he jumped into the Tangipahoa River to evade authorities.

Two weeks earlier, a months-long joint investigation between WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate led to a surprise inspection by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that led 19 of the program’s inmates to be returned to jail, mostly for failing surprise drug tests.

For those whose stories have been chronicled, who suffered losses for what they called the abuses of the program, it was bittersweet to see the program, called North Shore Workforce, shut down.

“I just cried all afternoon because, yes, I was happy that and thankful that no other families will have to go through what I and two other families went through because there was a death in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It wasn't just escapes like a lot of people are saying,” said Jane Leblanc, a woman featured in a previous investigation because her son, Jonathan Dore died while in the program in 2011.

“I wasn't given even as much as an I'm sorry, no condolence by the parish, the Sheriff. I guess I'll take this as my condolence. And I hope under this administration and these people in charge that this program does stay shut down. It needs to,” Leblanc said.

Dore, her son, was found dead of a heroin overdose in an off-site trailer where Leblanc said he had been staying unsupervised. Another former inmate, James Woodside, confirmed Leblanc’s story, saying he also stayed in the trailer, and off-site for five months while in the program. Woodside never worked for any offshore company, but for Baker Pile Driving, the same politically-connected company that Jonathan Dore worked for.

The Sheriff and North Shore Workforce owner Marlin Peachey have consistently denied any of the inmates ever stayed off-site or in the Madisonville trailer where Dore died.

“If the management of a work release program isn't enforcing the rules, it becomes a public safety issue as we saw unfold in Covington,” said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche.

Goyeneche attributes the problems at North Shore Workforce to the for-profit nature of having a private company run a work release program.

“I don't believe that the review of work release is over with yet in St Tammany parish as the state is, I believe, going to look into other aspects of the work release program both in Slidell and Covington,” Goyeneche said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections would not confirm or deny whether the agency was investigating the Slidell facility.

The Slidell work release facility is owned by a separate group of people with ties to the St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.

However, both North Shore Workforce and St Tammany Workforce solutions are run by the same man: Lester Mitchell. Mitchell said he splits time between the two. The fallout continues from the abrupt shutdown of a work release program on the north shore last week.

The St Tammany Parish Sheriff shut down the Covington program last Thursday after another escape. 35-year-old Christopher Ricker led law enforcement on a chase in the neighboring Tangipahoa Parish after he allegedly jumped the fence at the facility and kidnapped his ex-girlfriend from the convenience store where she worked.

It took deputies two days to track him down after he jumped into the Tangipahoa River to evade authorities.

Two weeks earlier, a months-long joint investigation between WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate led to a surprise inspection by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections that led 19 of the program’s inmates to be returned to jail, mostly for failing surprise drug tests.

For those whose stories have been chronicled, who suffered losses for what they called the abuses of the program, it was bittersweet to see the program, called North Shore Workforce, shut down.

“I just cried all afternoon because, yes, I was happy that and thankful that no other families will have to go through what I and two other families went through because there was a death in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It wasn't just escapes like a lot of people are saying,” said Jane Leblanc, a woman featured in a previous investigation because her son, Jonathan Dore died while in the program in 2011.

“I wasn't given even as much as an I'm sorry, no condolence by the parish, the Sheriff. I guess I'll take this as my condolence. And I hope under this administration and these people in charge that this program does stay shut down. It needs to,” Leblanc said.

Dore, her son, was found dead of a heroin overdose in an off-site trailer where Leblanc said he had been staying unsupervised. Another former inmate, James Woodside, confirmed Leblanc’s story, saying he also stayed in the trailer, and off-site for five months while in the program. Woodside never worked for any offshore company, but for Baker Pile Driving, the same politically-connected company that Jonathan Dore worked for.

The Sheriff and North Shore Workforce owner Marlin Peachey have consistently denied any of the inmates ever stayed off-site or in the Madisonville trailer where Dore died.

“If the management of a work release program isn't enforcing the rules, it becomes a public safety issue as we saw unfold in Covington,” said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche.

Goyeneche attributes the problems at North Shore Workforce to the for-profit nature of having a private company run a work release program.

“I don't believe that the review of work release is over with yet in St Tammany parish as the state is, I believe, going to look into other aspects of the work release program both in Slidell and Covington,” Goyeneche said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections would not confirm or deny whether the agency was investigating the Slidell facility.

The Slidell work release facility is owned by a separate group of people with ties to the St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.

However, both North Shore Workforce and St Tammany Workforce solutions are run by the same man: Lester Mitchell. Mitchell said he splits time between the two.

On a recent tour of the Covington facility, Mitchell said the capacity of the Slidell facility was 172 inmates. At the time of that tour, three weeks ago, Mitchell said they housed 96 work release inmates and 76 trustees. The trustees don't get paid to work, but get more freedom than regular inmates in the jail.

At the time of the shutdown last week, Sheriff Strain said about 150 inmates would have to be moved back to the jail, or to other work release programs.

In a statement, Sheriff Strain said this about his plans for the accommodations for the displaced work release participants: “We have worked closely with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections since last Thursday to identify those St. Tammany businesses most impacted by the closure of Northshore Workforce last week. With some businesses, nearly their entire workforce was comprised of transitional work program participants. The sudden loss of all their employees would jeopardize these businesses’ ability to remain open. The Sheriff’s office and DOC are finalizing arrangements this week to have those critical employees transferred to St. Tammany Workforce Solutions in Slidell. As with any inmate movement or relocation, the exact number of inmates moved and the date and time of those movements will not be made public.”

Whether the Sheriff’s Office will move some of the trustees out of St Tammany Workforce Solutions to accommodate some Covington work release inmates to fill the gaps for employee-strapped companies remains to be seen.

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