There Sure Seem To Be Lots Of Peculiar Things Happening In Tangipahoa Parish Lately

Have you heard about this crazy case in Tangipahoa Parish which blew up recently? It seems that there was a burglary of the evidence room in an ancillary building used by the Amite Police Department back in late May which was only fairly recently discovered, and now the town’s mayor and its police chief are at each other’s throats over who’s responsible.

A brazen burglary at the Amite Police Department has prompted a war of words between the town’s top officials, with Mayor Buddy Bel denying allegations his administration shut off the electricity — and disabled an alarm — at the Police Department’s evidence room.

Bel said he was “puzzled” by Police Chief Jerry Trabona’s contention that the town cut off the power to the evidence room in a bid to save money, providing several months of Entergy records showing uninterrupted service at the town-owned facility.

“I’m most confident that we haven’t done that,” Bel told The Advocate. “Only I can do that, and I would have to call Entergy to turn it off.”

An ex-convict is accused of breaking into the evidence room in May and stealing prescription pills, heroin and other narcotics that had been seized as part of criminal investigations. Weapons and counterfeit money also were stolen after the burglar broke a window and pried open a dead-bolted door leading to the evidence room.

The burglary affected nearly three dozen criminal proceedings, and prosecutors are still trying to determine whether they will have to dismiss charges in cases in which evidence was stolen and not recovered.

Trabona, who is elected independently of the mayor, said last week that officers had not been alerted to the break-in because “somebody with the (town) turned the electricity off, and we didn’t know it had been turned off.”

Investigative police reports show detectives have not determined exactly when the break-in occurred, though they narrowed the time frame to a seven-day window in mid- to late May.

Bel said there is no lock on the building’s circuit breaker box, and “anybody can go down there and turn all the electricity off.” But he insisted no one in his administration had been ordered or authorized to cut the power.

Trabona, the police chief, says cutting the power to the building disabled the alarm and paved the way for the theft. The district attorney in Tangipahoa, Scott Perrilloux, doesn’t appear to have taken a side – he’s just miffed at the sloppy way the police department there is handling its evidence.

As he should be. There was an arrest made in the case – namely, one Joshua Ross, who was an inmate of the Amite jail having served time for – naturally – theft and drug possession. Ross had been a trustee in the Amite jail, and he’d been allowed to help transport drugs to the evidence room. Law enforcement is also looking for another man, Dustin Cox of Hammond, who had been an informant against Ross and showed police a burn site along the Tangipahoa River where Ross supposedly disposed of some of the evidence from the theft.

Of course, as we know drugs walking out of evidence rooms in Tangipahoa Parish are something of an epidemic; there is after all the major case involving corrupt members of a DEA task force responsible for a steal-and-deal scam involving the evidence room at the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office. That one hasn’t generated any headlines in over a year since a member of that task force who had been a deputy of the TPSO turned state’s evidence; the head of the task force, a former TPSO deputy named Chad Scott who as it turns out is a friend of the sheriff, Daniel Edwards (he’s the brother of Louisiana’s governor John Bel Edwards, by the way), appears to be a prime target of the investigation.

Though maybe not THE prime target. In December of 2016, after all, the feds raided Daniel Edwards’ office and took his laptop computer away in an evidence bag.

Nothing much has come of that case lately, and we’re told a major reason why is they’re still waiting for a US Attorney to be appointed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, which covers Tangipahoa. When one is finally on the job, decisions will be made how to move forward with that high-profile case.

But there are lower-profile cases involving political overtones in Tangipahoa which are moving forward. For example, there’s the investigation into vote-buying in that parish, something which has long been the source of speculation. This from about a month ago

The FBI has rekindled a broad investigation into allegations of vote buying in Tangipahoa Parish that appeared to have stalled, conducting new interviews and reviewing election activities and campaign expenditures, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

The bureau has cast a wide net, examining parish races going back to 2011, two of the sources said, but agents have taken a special interest in certain political operatives, including Louis Ruffino, a former mayor of Roseland who for years has offered “get out the vote” services to local candidates.

A longtime north shore politico, Ruffino has been involved in a wide range of campaigns in recent years. Among other relationships, the feds are asking questions about the consulting work he provided in 2015 for Carlos Notariano, a Hammond Republican who sought unsuccessfully to succeed retiring Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess.

Notariano, a former parish councilman, declined to answer questions from The Advocate last week about a $20,000 payment he made to Ruffino during the 2015 campaign.

He initially said he had “heard the name” of Ruffino but then, when asked about the payment, told a reporter to contact his attorney, whom he refused to identify.

Ruffino declined to comment.

Everybody knows that if you want votes in Tangipahoa, particularly black votes and particularly out in the country and in the northern part of the parish, you send people around with stacks of twenties and hundreds. Everybody does it there. John Bel Edwards did it when he ran for re-election as a state representative in 2011 (he might deny vote-buying, but he did pay Ruffino $8,750 that year).

It cuts both ways. There was a report Tim Gideon, who ran against Daniel Edwards for sheriff in 2011, was guilty of vote-buying in a losing cause.

The FBI is investigating, and it subpoenaed, interestingly enough, both Buddy Bel and Jerry Trabona in Amite in that investigation.

Buddy Bel, by the way, is a cousin of John Bel Edwards’ through the governor’s paternal grandmother. His middle name is a family name. Amite is a small town, and as you might imagine everybody’s related some sort of way.

Then there’s the Tangipahoa Parish Jail, which you do not want to be taken to. That jail has had an amazingly eventful past several months, most recently punctuated by the controversial case of former Hammond businessman Dave Berwick, or “Crazy Dave” as he was known. Berwick, who had descended into a fog of mental illness and drug abuse after a colorful career first in the carpet business and then as a columnist for the Hammond Daily Star and on a local radio station, was arrested in late July and taken to the Tangipahoa Parish Jail – and after a short time there to North Oaks Medical Center, where he died.

Rumors have it that Berwick was beaten in jail and died of his injuries – and those rumors were printed in a Hammond Star column by editor Lil Mirando. Here’s the pertinent part of that piece…

That occasioned the sheriff to protest mightily, issuing a firm denial of that “gossip” and stating nobody beat up Berwick at the jail. The Hammond Star then reported the Jefferson Parish Coroner’s Office confirmed they didn’t find any evidence of trauma on Berwick’s body.

So why would there be such a rumor? Well, there’s a lot of smoke around that jail. In April, there was a rather frightening case involving Peggy Simoneaux, who was booked into the jail after a domestic dispute and subsequently was found unconscious as a result of a “suicide attempt” during a – get this – power outage at the facility. Simoneaux, 59, died a few days later. And there’s a lawsuit against Edwards by the family of a sex offender who was beaten to death in that jail, an attack so violent that Tommy Joe Smith’s funeral had to be of the closed-casket variety.

And on, and on. Not to mention the prison riot there last November.

Something weird is definitely going on in Tangipahoa. And that new US Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana can’t get seated quickly enough. He’s going to be awfully busy up and down I-55.

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