NEW ORLEANS — The shocking murder Tuesday night of a key federal witness in a major fraud case is raising an issue that has long plagued New Orleans: the risk of cooperating with law enforcement.
Cornelius Garrison, 54, had been secretly meeting with the FBI for months in the massive fraud case involving intentional truck accidents staged for insurance fraud. After he was indicted with eight others on Friday, he lasted four days before he was murdered.
Some defendants have already admitted working with attorneys to sideswipe 18-wheelers in order to file bogus lawsuits, driving up insurance rates for all drivers in the state. The long-standing and widespread scam costs each Louisiana driver $600 year in extra premiums, state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.
Garrison had been working with the feds long before he was indicted, multiple sources said. And even though he lived in a relatively quiet and peaceful neighborhood on Foy Street in Gentilly, he explicitly told his defense attorney he feared for his safety.
Garrison was gunned down as he opened the door to his apartment, police said, creating a tragic scene that has been seen all too often in New Orleans.
“All the snitches that I know ended up with a bullet in their head,” local actor and author Ameer Baraka said.
Baraka knows the dangers of a criminal life. Now a success on screen, he did time in prison when he was younger, both as a juvenile and as an adult. He has seen what happens to some suspects who flip to become government witnesses.
“They get killed because they don't give them any protection. Or they go to prison and get their brains stomped out,” he said. “When you choose the life of a criminal, what you're doing basically is putting not only yourself, but your family in harm's way.”
Veteran criminal defense attorney Craig Mordock said clients contemplating become state witnesses often ask about witness protection.
“I've had a few clients who have asked to be in witness protection, and the general reaction of the U.S. Attorney or the FBI, it's just sort of a shrug of the shoulders,” Mordock said. “The state has even fewer resources.”
Mordock added, “I think it's extremely dangerous.”
New Orleans has a history of being especially dangerous for suspects who flip, Baraka said.
“You're going to cross paths because it's such a small city. So you put yourself in a very, very dangerous situation and, again, the feds will not protect you,” he said.
In a rare development, the FBI has joined the NOPD in the Garrison murder investigation.
While no motive or suspect in the killing has been announced, the indictment characterized Garrison as a ringleader who dealt directly with multiple local accident attorneys in staging accidents and filing fraudulent lawsuits.