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Serial child molester erroneously set free, returned to prison after WWL-TV investigation

Matherne, 66, who coached several boys’ sports at Sacred Heart and taught various subjects at the school for 22 years, was charged with 300 child sex abuse counts.

TANGIPAHOA PARISH, La. — A child molester and former teacher at Norco’s Sacred Heart Elementary School was mistakenly released from prison last month, more than seven years too early, though he was put back behind bars Wednesday after his victims and WWL-TV began asking questions. 

Meanwhile, before receiving word that Brian David Matherne had been imprisoned again, a WWL-TV reporter and photographer went to his address in Tangipahoa Parish seeking comment Thursday morning and were attacked by his brother-in-law, who was arrested.

The Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office booked Bruce Verdin with three counts of aggravated battery and a count of aggravated destruction of property after he wielded a wrench and tried to hit the photographer with his truck.

Matherne, 66, who coached several boys’ sports at Sacred Heart and taught various subjects at the school for 22 years, was charged with 300 child sex abuse counts in August 1999. In February 2000, he pleaded guilty in St. Charles Parish to molesting 17 boys during a 15-year period that ended in 1999. Judge Robert Chaisson then sentenced Matherne to 29 years, 11 months and 29 days at hard labor. 

Credit: David Hammer
Brian David Matherne

The fact that the sentence was exactly one day less than 30 years was critical. A sentence of 30 years or more would have meant Matherne was eligible for parole after 20 years or to be released early for exemplary behavior, or “good time.”

But last month, one victim and his family learned that Matherne had been released from Rayburn Correctional Center in Washington Parish – 7 ½ years too early. The victim, Chad Becnel, called elected officials and the state Department of Corrections to alert them to the error. On Monday, WWL-TV asked the same questions of officials. 

St. Charles District Attorney Joel Chaisson, who was not in office when Matherne was sentenced, said he pulled the transcripts from Matherne’s sentencing hearing. Chaisson confirmed the judge, his brother, made clear from the bench that Matherne’s sentence involved “hard labor … without the benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence … and without being eligible for good time.”

Chaisson’s predecessor as St. Charles DA, Harry Morel, told the media on the day of the sentencing, Feb. 22, 2000, that the plea deal was meant to spare young victims the ordeal of a public trial.

Credit: David Hammer
Original trial in 2000

“We didn’t want to subject them to a lot of things, and there’s no point in going through it if we could keep him in there until he’s in his mid-70s,” Morel said at the time.

He was also ordered by Chaisson to serve all 29 years, 11 months and 29 days at hard labor, but only served less than two years in the State Penitentiary in Angola. He served the rest of the time at Rayburn until he was released erroneously at 66.

On Wednesday, state DOC officials obtained a warrant to bring Matherne back to prison.

Officers recaptured Matherne around midnight Thursday and returned him to Rayburn, DOC spokesperson Ken Pastorick said Thursday.

The DA also said he and the victims were not notified when DOC processed Matherne’s release on “good time” on Feb. 1. Pastorick said victims were supposed to sign up for notifications online. Becnel said he filled out paper forms requesting to be notified when Matherne was sentenced in 2000 before any online forms were available. 

For Becnel, the ordeal triggered memories of the trauma he endured at the hands of Matherne. 

Becnel said Matherne molested him and numerous other boys at a hunting camp off the Bonnet Carre Spillway. 

“We knew that night when we went to bed, and at some point during the night we would wake up to him being in our bed trying to … fondle us or do other things that I don’t know if I even want to say,” Becnel said. 

Becnel said Matherne molested him from age 11 to 18. His life spiraled downward, and he ended up in drug and alcohol treatment in 1996. 

Eventually, Becnel told his father, Walter, about the abuse. Becnel’s sister, Doreen, helped him find other victims to come forward.

Credit: David Hammer

Authorities arrested Matherne in August 1999. He ultimately pleaded guilty to 33 charges involving 17 children. The charges included 24 counts of molestation, seven counts of aggravated crime against nature, and one count each of attempted molestation and attempted aggravated crime against nature.

In 1998, prior to Matherne’s arrest, the Archdiocese of New Orleans – which ran the Sacred Heart school in Norco – had received accusations from a parent that years earlier Matherne had molested his son. That parent was Walter Becnel, the Becnels said.

The archdiocese, acting on lawyers’ advice, allowed Matherne to keep working because Becnel – by then in therapy – had refused to give first-hand testimony to Gregory Aymond, the auxiliary bishop at the time.

During the time Matherne was allowed to keep working at the school, Matherne molested another boy, just three weeks prior to his arrest, St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said at the time.

Becnel said he told several therapists about what happened before one of them said she was obligated to report what had happened to the police.

Matherne’s subsequent arrest and conviction marked a significant scandal for the local church. 

Aymond has been New Orleans’ archbishop since 2009. He’s spent much of the last four years managing the fallout from the church’s decades-old clerical molestation crisis, which factored into the archdiocese’s decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May 2020. 

The Becnels on Thursday told WWL-TV that they’ll be able to rest easier knowing that Matherne is back in prison finishing out his punishment. 

“This monster needs not to be out of jail,” Chad Becnel said.

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