COVINGTON, La. — Since her death in 2017, there have been two arrest warrants issued related to the high-profile murder case of Nanette Krentel, a Covington fire chief's wife, but neither one had anything to do with the actual crime.
The latest came last week when St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith arrested a federal agent for the HUD Inspector General on a defamation charge. Jerry Rogers Jr. was taken into custody and booked for allegedly sending emails to Krentel’s sister that were critical of the investigation into her death, bad-mouthing the lead STPSO detective in the case.
The Sheriff said Rogers’ comments led the victim’s family to lose trust and confidence in their investigation, something many of Krentel’s family members deny.
“Randy Smith caused us to lose confidence in this investigation. And I think that's across the board for every family member,” said Krentel’s father, Dan Watson.
Krentel was found shot, her body burned in the Lacombe house she shared with her husband, in July 2017.
Rogers was arrested last Monday, just days after Smith fired one of his main detectives on the Krentel case, Sgt. Stefan Montgomery. Montgomery’s termination paperwork said the STPSO fired him after an investigation into a “breach of confidentiality” revealed he had allegedly been sharing information about the Krentel case with someone outside the agency.
Sources close to the case said Montgomery had been talking with Rogers, who then emailed Krentel’s sister, Kim Watson, with concerns about what was, or was not, happening in the investigation.
In a news release issued last week, the STPSO said, "The emails contained false information regarding the ongoing investigation as well as derogatory statements regarding the lead investigator and others closely involved in the investigation."
WWL-TV and our partners at the Times Picayune | New Orleans Advocate read some of the emails Rogers admitted sending to Watson. They contained little information about the crime itself, but questioned what was happening in the investigation and the qualifications of lead detective Daniel Buckner, calling him a “stone-cold rookie” at leading homicide investigations.
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A spokesman for the STPSO said that’s not true, that Buckner has headed up four other homicide investigations and has assisted with dozens of others during his eight years as an investigator.
“It is our duty to diligently investigate any claim or possible lead that may further any open or active investigation,” Sheriff Randy Smith said. “In this particular instance, our investigators were able to uncover the malicious, surreptitious, and criminal actions of an individual whose intent was motivated by his efforts to defame, create distrust and otherwise prey on the emotions of a victim’s family.”
The STPSO has said repeatedly they opened the investigation into the leak because one of Krentel’s family members contacted them with concerns about the emails.
None of the family members we initially spoke with said they reached out to the STPSO, but we later learned one of Krentel's cousins, Gina Watson had asked Buckner in December 2017 whether there was going to be a change in detectives based on information Kim had received from Rogers in one of the emails. Buckner asked Gina where she got the information and she forwarded him one of the emails.
Krentel’s father, Dan Watson, said he heard the sheriff was concerned about a leak in the case when he heard about the defamation arrest on the news.
Kim Watson, the recipient of the emails, said the STPSO called her to let her know about the arrest shortly before it was made public.
Other family members expressed shock about the arrest and disappointment the arrest was not related their loved one’s death, but instead for words spoken about the investigation into it.
“I was flabbergasted, first of all, that he had the grounds to arrest someone for defamation and the fact that so many people have been very vocal on social media expressing their opinions about this investigation and that one person had been isolated and arrested. I was pretty shocked,” Krentel’s sister, Wendy Watson, said.
She and other family members have also been critical of how the STPSO has handled the homicide investigation. Wendy is the other person with a warrant out for her arrest related to the case. The STPSO secured it six months after Nanette’s death, when Wendy went back to the property where she died to check out a memorial that she thought Nanette’s husband had erected at the site. Steve called the STPSO on Wendy for trespassing.
“I was told from inside sources that he was doing it to shut me up and to get me to stop talking about him and to retaliate against me for things I have said to the media and things I have said on social media,” Wendy said.
Smith strongly denies that. In a statement, STPSO Spokesman Cpt. Scott Lee said Sheriff Smith does not have, “Any interest in trying to keep anyone from expressing their opinions.”
St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Warren Montgomery already stepped aside from the defamation case because sources said Rogers' wife works for Montgomery.
In their recusal letter to the Attorney General, Montgomery's head of Criminal Investigations, Collin Sims pointed out, “The offense charged has been declared unconstitutional in at least some of its applications.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has been working to try and repeal criminal defamation laws in the 24 states that still have them, including Louisiana.
“They've put these really stringent requirements on any law that seeks to punish people for what they say because the idea that you can be put in jail just for the expression of words is pretty outrageous,” said Legal Director for the ACLU in New Orleans, Katie Schwartzmann.
Defamation claims are more often handled in civil court when one private citizen sues another, for example, for publishing knowingly false statements about them.
But several attorneys, including First Amendment lawyer Scott Sternberg said the courts almost always find criminal defamation charges unconstitutional when the problem speech is directed at public officials or someone in a position of public trust.
Schwartzmann said she most often has seen the criminal charge used to quiet political opposition.
Rogers used the same email addresses to ask questions of one of Smith’s opponents in the race for STPSO Sheriff, Nick Tranchina. Smith is up for re-election next month.
Tranchina said Rogers’ arrest appears politically motivated. In response, Smith’s spokesman reiterated that the investigation into the alleged defamation began after a Krentel family member had contacted STPSO with concerns about the emails.
The Attorney General has not yet determined whether they will formally charge Rogers with a crime.