METAIRIE, La. — Bob Arthur began to worry when his 40-year-old son Shawn broke off his wedding engagement just before Christmas 2016.
Bob and his wife, Linda, lived in Belton, Mo., hundreds of miles from Shawn's apartment in Metairie. They grew even more concerned when Shawn, who had come to the New Orleans area to work as a water technician, didn’t show up for an appointment on Feb. 25, 2017. He was depressed by the breakup, Bob said, and was supposed to meet with an attorney that day so he could move back home to Missouri.
The nervous parents called the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and rushed out the door to make the long drive from suburban Kansas City to suburban New Orleans.
“And I'll never forget when (JPSO) Detective (Kurt) Zeagler told us over the phone that Shawn was found deceased,” Bob Arthur recalled. “That eerie scream from my wife. I mean, oh my God. It was the worst thing I've ever heard. And it was really difficult. And it just keeps pounding in my head as my driving force all these years to try to get justice.”
Search for Justice
Justice has been fleeting for the Arthurs since Shawn died in his apartment the night of Feb. 24, 2017. The police found beer, whiskey and drug capsules on the floor of the nearly empty, carpeted apartment, not far from Shawn’s lifeless body. They also reviewed phone records and found Shawn had been in touch that evening with a prostitute who offered online escort services.
Shawn’s credit cards, TV, engagement ring, wedding bands and his truck were all stolen, and the police found someone had used his credit and debit cards the next day in New Orleans.
But the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office both quickly concluded Shawn’s death was an accident and not the result of any foul play.
Zeagler, a homicide detective, notified the Arthurs in May that he was closing the case as an accidental death, less than three months into his initial investigation.
Father conducted own investigation
But Bob Arthur, a retired insurance claims investigator, didn’t accept that conclusion. He teamed with David Lohr, then an investigative reporter at the Huffington Post, and hired two private investigators to track down the prostitute whose fingerprints were found at the scene. They also reviewed surveillance footage and traced the car that had dropped her off at the apartment complex to one purchased by that same prostitute’s pimp.
Arthur and his team discovered a nationwide sex-trafficking scheme in which Randy Schenck, a New Orleans pimp, and Dominique Berry, his prostitute girlfriend, would drug and rob men who responded to Berry’s online dating and call-girl ads. They found similar cases to what happened to Shawn in at least six states.
JPSO didn’t reopen its investigation until January 2018, when Jane Holmes, a private investigator hired by Bob Arthur, found Berry in a jail in Georgia. There, Holmes recorded Berry admitting to the scheme, explaining exactly how Schenck directed her to drug dozens of men and notify him with text messages when they were incapacitated so he could come and take their valuables.
The Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office didn’t reclassify Shawn Arthur’s death from “accident” to “undetermined” until April 2018, two weeks after Lohr published a detailed article on HuffPost.com describing the sex-and-drug scheme Schenck and Berry had been running across at least six states.
Fed up with JPSO, Bob Arthur turned to the FBI, bringing the federal agency a massive binder of evidence he and his team had gathered in December 2017. He and his younger son, Ryan, asked the feds to pursue the case as a part of their efforts to combat human trafficking.
They reached out directly to Jordan Ginsberg, the assistant U.S. attorney in New Orleans who prosecuted sex trafficking cases. By the end of 2018, the feds had arrested Berry. She and Schenck were charged with the larger sex-trafficking and identity theft scheme the following summer. They both pleaded guilty and admitted they gave Shawn Arthur drugs without his consent and used the credit card they stole from him at Walmart in New Orleans.
Last month, Schenck was sentenced to the maximum of 25 years in federal prison. Berry testified at the hearing that Schenck beat her and forced her to participate in the scheme. She also stood up during victim impact statements and acknowledged she played a role in Shawn Arthur’s death.
“I just want to say that I am so, so sorry,” she said, according to a court transcript. “I am haunted every day by what happened to Shawn, and I am so ashamed of the role that I played in this.”
Berry is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 1.
Father frustrated but won't give up
With both Schenck and Berry now admitting to drugging and robbing Shawn under oath, Bob Arthur thought for sure Jefferson Parish would finally have what it needed to file murder charges.
“Because I've reviewed the law and … it says in there that if a felony occurs and if a person dies, it doesn't matter the intent. That under Louisiana law is considered as murder,” he said, referring to Louisiana Revised Statute 14:30.1.
That criminal code defines second-degree murder as the “killing of a human being when the offender has a specific intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm; or when the offender is engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of … robbery … even though he has no intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm.” It also includes “when the offender unlawfully distributes or dispenses a controlled dangerous substance … which is the direct cause of the death of the recipient who ingested or consumed the controlled dangerous substance.”
JPSO said it concluded its reopened homicide investigation in October 2018 and turned over what it called an “extensive” file to the office of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick. The sheriff’s office said the file included 100 pages of reports, 50 pieces of evidence and even the results of the parallel private investigation by the Arthur family.
But David Wolff, the DA’s case screener, emailed Bob Arthur on October 24, saying he had reviewed the federal case and it offered "nothing of benefit to the State case." Arthur said he also met with Wolff, who told him he had only kept the file open as a courtesy to the family during the federal case and would recommend no state charges.
The Jefferson Parish District Attorney's Office declined to comment on what is, for now, still an open case.
JPSO issued a statement saying, in part: “We deeply respect any parent's quest to find out the truth of the matter when a loved one is lost,” but adding, “Neither Mr. Arthur, nor JPSO was present when Shawn Arthur died. The obligation of JPSO detectives is to collect evidence and statements, and to document the circumstances of a death for presentation and review by prosecuting authorities. That is exactly what JPSO did in this case.”
But Bob Arthur said he doesn’t believe JPSO ever gave the case the attention it deserved. He pointed to a report by Zeagler and Sgt. Travis Eserman when the case was first closed and ruled an accident in early 2017. It identified a fingerprint left on a bottle of Bourbon in Shawn’s apartment as belonging to Berry and noted she was a known prostitute. But it quickly dismissed the idea that she could be the same person in the online escort ad Shawn had answered, or the same woman who used Shawn’s credit card at the Walmart.
Finally, the report says Zeagler “made numerous attempts to locate (Berry) … without success” and gave up on finding her for an interview because Berry was a fugitive who had “made herself unavailable to law enforcement.”
The report signed by Zeagler and Eserman also gives deference to the first autopsy report by the medical examiner who ruled Shawn Arthur’s death an accident. The pathologist who wrote that report was Marianne Eserman, Sgt. Eserman’s wife at the time.
Sheriff Joe Lopinto, who took office in 2018, after the case had already been closed the first time, said JPSO policy does not allow Sgt. Eserman to investigate death cases if his wife performed the autopsy.
The coroner, Gerry Cvitanovich, said he established the policy but it was intended to avoid conflicts if Eserman was the lead investigator on a murder case, which he was not in the Arthur investigation.
"I've tried my hardest to help Mr. Arthur," Cvitanovich said. "It's just a sad case. But finding the manner of death 'undetermined' left the door open for the DA to pursue charges if he wants to."
Bob Arthur is still livid, but he said Jefferson Parish can still make it right. He hopes the DA will at least bring the case before a grand jury to consider murder charges. He said if the grand jury doesn't indict anyone, he will be willing to accept it.
“All I want is justice. I'm not looking for revenge or anything like that,” he said. “But the law is what the law is. The facts are what the facts are. So, by God, do the right thing.”