Here’s An Amazing, And Troubling, Story About A Louisiana Politician’s Dangerous Brother

Watching the District 8 House race to succeed Mike Johnson from afar, I noticed a few things about Robbie Gatti, the second-place finisher in the primary and likely loser of the race to Raymond Crews, and his brother, state senator Ryan Gatti. I suspect others following the race will have noticed these things as well.

First, Robbie Gatti seems to have a lot of skeletons in his closet that would normally prevent others from becoming candidates for public office. Most people who had appeared in public in blackface and had their photo taken, for example, would think of that episode and say “It was funny at the time, but when this gets out there will be no explaining it and it’ll make running for office a fruitless and unpleasant exercise.” Or the fact that he’s leasing office space to a “happy endings” massage parlor engaged in the sex trade and likely to be the subject of a law enforcement raid at some point in the future – the first such tenant Gatti had was shut down by a cease-and-desist order from the state licensing board, and a similar “happy endings” place was busted just a few days ago in Covington – would seem to be a Sword of Damocles hanging over a candidate’s head.

You can be a good guy and a terrible candidate. When you’re asked to leave a church at which you’re a minister over the divisiveness of your actions amid a congressional race, which is true of Robbie (his brother Ryan was also asked to leave), it’s valid to believe the public will see you negatively in both respects. Most people look at the state legislature, with its $16,000 per year salary and rather meager per diems (you can top out somewhere just south of $32,000 per year in compensation as a House member), and conclude it’s a crappy idea to go through the level of scrutiny we apply to the applicants for such a job if there are this many bombs waiting to go off.

Which ties into the second noticeable item, which is the rather shrill voice both Gatti brothers have applied to state politics since Ryan won election to the Senate in 2015. That race got a bit ugly, and then the Gattis engaged in what can be reasonably described as a slash-and-burn advocacy campaign on behalf of Oliver Jenkins in the LA-4 congressional race Johnson ended up winning. And now, with Robbie running for Johnson’s state House seat, it’s been even more of an emotionalist outpouring. All this for a lousy seat in the legislature?

Simple competitiveness might explain it, perhaps. But then there’s the other noticeable thing. Which is that for as loudly-professed a pair of conservatives the Gattis claim to be, it’s a head-scratcher how close they are to Louisiana’s Democrat governor. Ryan Gatti is the single most loyal Republican senator to Edwards’ agenda; by vote record he’s even more loyal to Edwards than the latter’s president John Alario is. And Robbie Gatti donated office space in Shreveport to Edwards’ 2015 gubernatorial campaign; humorously enough, in the same office building as the “rub-and-tug” massage place sits currently. There aren’t a lot of conservatives who would take so bipartisan an approach toward the most left-wing governor in modern Louisiana history – and it’s hardly smart politics to so align oneself in Bossier Parish, which is one of the most hard-core conservative places in the state.

So what accounts for all this? We’ve run across a theory we find fascinating, and we’ll share it with you.

From the October 13, 2005 decision of the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal in a case called State v. Gatti comes a story straight out of the movies. This is long, but we trust our readers will stick with it…

Defendant was convicted by jury of eight Bossier Parish crimes, all offenses occurring on the same day:

  • aggravated flight from an officer, La. R.S. 14:108;
  • attempted aggravated burglary, La. R.S. 14:60 and La. R.S. 14:27;
  • aggravated burglary, La. R.S. 14:60;
  • attempted second degree kidnapping, La. R.S. 14:44.1 and La. R.S. 14:27;
  • second degree kidnapping, La. R.S. 14:44.1;
  • attempted second degree murder, two counts, La. R.S. 14:30.1 and La. R.S. 14:27;  and
  • unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling, La. R.S. 14:62.3.

Sentenced to a total of 163 years at hard labor, the defendant appeals his convictions on seven of the charges and all of the sentences.   We reverse the conviction of second degree kidnapping for lack of evidence. We affirm the attempted second degree kidnapping conviction but vacate the illegally-lenient sentence and remand for re-sentencing.   We affirm the conviction and sentence on each of the other six charges.

FACTS

On March 13, 2003, Gatti and others robbed the occupants of an armored car in Shreveport of three quarters of a million dollars.   Besides Gatti, the gang included:

  • Larry Thompson, Sr. (“Larry Thompson”);
  • his son, Larry Neal Thompson, Jr. (“Neal Thompson”);
  • two brothers, Nicholas Gentry and Anthony Gentry;  and
  • Tung Nguyen (“Nguyen”).

All six robbers fled to an apartment complex in Shreveport, where they moved loot, guns, and protective vests from a Chevrolet Suburban into a green minivan.   They drove east on I-220, with Neal Thompson driving and Nguyen in the front passenger seat.   Larry Thompson and Anthony Gentry were in the middle of the van, with Nicholas Gentry and Gatti in the rear.   Gatti and Nicholas Gentry were armed with semi-automatic AK-47 rifles, loaded with high-capacity magazines.

When the gang was spotted getting into the green minivan, a BOLO alert was issued.   Shreveport Police Department Officer Mark Sharbono spotted the van at the Shreveport-Blanchard Highway exit off I-220. Sharbono turned on his lights and chased the van, which was speeding over 90 miles per hour.   Gatti fired several times at the S.P.D. patrol unit.   One round struck the officer in the arm.

After being shot, Officer Sharbono was unable to continue his pursuit and pulled his car off the road.   Officer Dwayne Cortez, who was following behind Officer Sharbono, continued the pursuit of the van, with speeds still exceeding 90 miles per hour.   The pursuit continued into Bossier Parish, ending in the Greenacres subdivision of Bossier City.

Once in the subdivision, the van pulled into the garage of a home on Wesley Circle, owned by John Stanley Palmer.   Mr. Palmer:

  • saw armed men getting out of a green van;
  • heard them trying to break in his door;
  • locked his door, called 911, armed himself with a pistol;  and
  • fired at the door, which Gatti was kicking.

The robbers never actually entered the living area of the Palmer house, though they entered the garage without authorization.   Mr. Palmer chased them off by firing into the door Gatti was trying to kick in.

The gang scattered throughout the neighborhood, leaving behind the bags of money, masks, gloves, bullet-proof vests, two-way radios, and most weapons.   After the confrontation, Mr. Palmer saw that the driver’s side door of his car was open.   He saw no faces and could not identify Gatti as one of the masked men.

Larry Thompson was caught while pretending to weed a flowerbed in the neighborhood.   Neal Thompson was quickly apprehended, hiding in a tree.   Anthony Gentry was arrested in a nearby backyard.

Gatti, Nguyen, and Nicholas Gentry fled into to the home of William Walker, who was weeding his flowerbed, unaware of the invasion.   Inside the home was Mrs. Rose Hagelmeier, his 93-year-old mother-in-law.

The three demanded car keys from Mrs. Hagelmeier.   She neither gave them keys nor did she attempt to look for any keys.   She also did not testify at trial.   Nicholas Gentry and Nguyen, testifying as state’s witnesses, denied that anyone threatened Mrs. Hagelmeier, nor held her hostage.   She apparently kept walking around the house during this incident.

Shortly after the intrusion, Mr. Walker noticed his garage door was locked, and went to investigate.   He saw two men holding guns.   Gatti, still wearing a mask, pointed a gun at Walker, demanding keys to a vehicle.

Mr. Walker said “no,” and ran out of the house with Nicholas Gentry in pursuit.   Mr. Walker slammed the door on Gentry’s arm, but was  overpowered by him and thrown him to the ground.   When Gentry demanded the truck keys, Mr. Walker told him the keys were in the truck.

The three ran from Walker’s house.   Nguyen peaceably surrendered.   Gatti and Nicholas Gentry kept running, with the police giving chase.   Nicholas Gentry was arrested without incident after he jumped a neighbor’s fence, landing right next to a peace officer.

Shreveport Police Officers Scebern Willis and J.P. Creighton found Gatti, still wearing a ski mask and body armor, hiding in shrubs at Dr. Clint McAlister’s home.   The S.P.D. officers came to Bossier when they heard a fellow officer had been shot.   Because Gatti had a holstered gun, they pulled their weapons and ordered him to get on the ground.

Gatti knelt, wiped his hands, then reached for his holstered gun as he stood up and fled, whereupon Officer Willis fired at him four times.   Gatti returned fire as he ran into Dr. McAlister’s backyard.   The officers took cover behind a fence, as several bullets struck the ground near them.

Gatti, who was hit twice by the officers, fired his 9-mm pistol 13 times in this exchange, though some of the rounds were fired to shoot out a sliding glass patio door, in order to gain entrance into the McAlister home.

The wounded Gatti used his cell phone to call 911 and tell them he was shot and wanted to surrender.   The call was disconnected.   Gatti attempted to call the captured Larry Thompson, whose cell phone was in the possession of B.C.P.D. Officer Todd Hylbert.   The officer heard the cell phone ringing, saw “Ragan” on caller I.D., but didn’t answer.   Immediately learning that the suspect in Dr. McAlister’s home had called 911 and  wanted to surrender, Officer Hylbert punched the redial button.   He recognized Gatti’s voice from dealing with him for 12 years as a law officer.   When Officer Hylbert made this statement at trial, Gatti’s counsel objected and moved for a mistrial, which was denied by the trial court.

Officer Hylbert told Gatti to remove all weapons and his shirt prior to surrendering so the officers outside the home could see his waistband to make sure he wasn’t armed.   Gatti surrendered without further incident.

Gatti’s blood-stained pistol, holster, extra magazines, bulletproof vest, gloves, and ski mask were later found in a bedroom in the McAlister home.   DNA testing established the likelihood the blood on some of these items to be Gatti’s was 1.6 quadrillion to one.   The pistol had a fresh, fully loaded 14-round magazine in it, and one round in the chamber.

All six of the gang members were indicted on various charges.   Gatti was indicted on eight counts:  aggravated flight from an officer, three counts of aggravated burglary, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, and two counts of attempted first degree murder.

On July 21, 2003, Gatti and Nguyen pled not guilty on all counts.   At the time, Gatti was represented by Daryl Gold, and Nguyen was represented by Peter Flowers.   Neither Gold nor Flowers was present at arraignment.   Attorney Kelly Long stood in for each missing counsel, without objection.

Larry Thompson was convicted separately.   Nguyen and the Gentry brothers pled guilty with sentencing caps and agreed to testify against the remaining defendants.   Gatti and Neal Thompson were tried together.

Near the end of trial, the trial judge, outside the presence of the jury, advised counsel in open court that earlier that morning he had stopped by the jury room to see if they had refreshments, where a juror advised that the jury wanted to see the neighborhood where the crimes occurred.   The judge communicated this to the lawyers.

The state had no objection to the trial court’s conversation with the jury.   Gatti objected, a hearing was held, and a motion for mistrial denied.

Gatti then asked that the jury view the neighborhood, but refused to waive his presence at the scene.   The trial court denied the request.   We instructed the trial court to reconsider.   The trial judge again denied the request, with comments relative to his familiarity with the Palmer and McAlister homes, in which he’d been a guest on many occasions.   Gatti then filed a motion to recuse the trial court, based on these comments.   The motion was heard and denied by Judge Ford Stinson, Jr. The state then rested and the defendants called no witnesses.

The jury found the defendant guilty of aggravated flight from an officer, attempted aggravated burglary of the Palmer home, aggravated burglary of the Walker home, attempted second degree kidnapping of Mr. Walker, second degree kidnapping of Mrs. Hagelmeier, two counts of attempted second degree murder of the two S.P.D. officers, and unauthorized entry of the McAlister home.

After reviewing a presentence report, the court harshly sentenced the defendant.   Gatti appeals seven of the eight convictions, and all sentences.

Regan Gatti, the third brother in the Gatti family, also appealed in federal court on the basis of ineffective trial counsel. That appeal was also denied, and it went all the way up to the federal Fifth Circuit before that court gave him a thumbs-down. That was in 2014. Ryan ran for the state Senate the next year and Robbie became an in-kind donor to Edwards also in 2015. Ryan had run for office before, though he had never put any significant resources into a campaign.

The theory, which as we understand it has some currency among political insiders in Shreveport-Bossier, goes like this – after all of Regan Gatti’s appeals were exhausted and it became clear he’s going to spend the rest of his life in jail for knocking over that armored car, his brothers decided the next option was to put themselves in a position to influence a governor to grant him clemency. The theory would explain the things we noticed – why Robbie would run for office despite things in his background most people would conclude make such a campaign unpalatable, why the Gattis take such a life-or-death attitude about political races which at the end of the day aren’t all that big a deal, and why such “conservatives” are so solicitous to the man who holds Regan Gatti’s freedom in his hands.

Do I believe this theory? I’m agnostic about it. I’d call it far-fetched, but on the other hand if I had a brother who might never spend another free day in his life I can’t say what I would do and what I wouldn’t. I’m not sure our readers could, either. The theory does fit the facts we see, but that’s not dispositive.

I will say this – we’ve sent a public records request to the Louisiana Department of Corrections in an effort to find out if Ryan Gatti has been attempting to use his influence as a state senator to make Regan’s stay in Angola more comfortable. If he has, it might put some meat on the bones of this theory. But so far, DOC hasn’t substantively responded to the request; they’ve told us their IT department runs through the Division of Administration, meaning Jay Dardenne’s people. I’m guessing I won’t get anything back from that request until after the runoff is over later this month.

If we do find out anything, we’ll pass it along. In the meantime, we can say with confidence that the Crews-Gatti campaign is the most fascinating state house race we’ve seen in a long time.

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