The perp walk. If ever there was a made-for-TV moment, that’s got to be it. Seeing some formerly powerful figure, paraded before the cameras in a shiny new matching pair of off-the-rack, chrome bracelets is Must-See-TV in anybody’s book. Seeing an agency head subjected to that kind of humiliation is just icing on the cake. What with the nation’s top cop, Attorney General Eric Holder, likely facing some Congressional hearings/falling on his sword for his boss/criminal and civil charges over the death of one or more law enforcement agents, it made me think back to a time when I was able to cover such a story, up-close and personal. It’s a tale of cops, guns, and murder-for-hire.
Many moons ago (okay, in the 70s), I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears college student at Centenary (back in the days of Robert Parrish and a school that had a serious basketball team). The news director for the college radio station, I was in charge of collecting whatever news would be of interest to my fellow students and reporting same. In those days, we did our station I.D.s as “You’re listening to KSCL 91.3-FM, broadcasting with ten thousand miliwatts of power!” For those of you a little shy on your math skills, that’s a 10 watt radio station. We were lucky to pick it up from my parents house, less than a mile away from the transmitter. Not exactly the big time, but I did get to participate in my first press scrum (for Ronald Reagan’s first run at the White House) and a couple of other stories of interest in the area. As I recall, an old warhorse reporter at a local station was our “advisor.” He didn’t do much in the way of advising. In fact, looking back, I’d wager his duties were more along the lines of keeping his young charges from doing anything that might bring embarrassment or shame to the school. In his book, that meant avoiding controversy at all costs.
In the 1970s, Shreveport was just beginning to feel the effects of the racial upheaval that gripped much of the country in the 1960s. Shreveport prided itself as the “city that feels like a town,” and the city reflected that sentiment in everything from industry to politics. In those days, we had a “Commission” form of government. The mayor ran the city in conjunction with the commissioners – A Commissioner of Public Works, A Finance Commissioner, and a Commissioner of Public Safety, who oversaw both the police and fire departments. All the commissioners served the entire city, which more or less insured that the majority (white) populace controlled the government. In 1978, all that changed, and Shreveport moved to single-member districts and a Mayor/Council form of government. But back in the day, Commissioners had the kind of power most city councilmen only dream of. And none were more powerful than George W. D’Artois, the Commissioner of Public Safety.
D’Artois ran the city with an iron fist, and didn’t bother with the niceties of a velvet glove. In those days, the Mafia had some serious connections in the area. Mob boss Carlos Marcello was a frequent visitor, and hung out at some of the city’s most high-profile haunts. I asked my dad one day why D’Artois didn’t just go and arrest Marcello if he knew where to find him. My father looked at me with the world-weary condescension of someone who knows the answer, but really doesn’t want to provide it, lest he pop the bubble of naiveté and leave me jaded for life. In or around June of 1971, D’Artois made headlines with a drug bust at Columbia Park, in the South Highlands neighborhood. He had his police force block the exits, and do a sweep of the park, where they arrested a number of disaffected yoots engaged in smoking some of those funny cigarettes that were popular with the counter-culture movement. (In a twist of fate, a popular chain of yoghurt shops sprung up in the area years later, under the name “Counter Culture.” Their big seller is the Humphrey Yoghurt. Go figure.) D’Artois had the police take pictures and get I.D.s from everyone in the park, prompting a class action suit, enjoining him from preventing law-abiding citizens from being hassled as they enjoyed city parks.
D’Artois didn’t fool around. A friend of mine was a Shreveport police officer at the time. To call him “gung-ho” would be to damn him with faint praise. He sported a buzz cut, and wore a single black glove (pre-dating the Michael Jackson schtick by a decade) with an S.S. Storm Trooper’s ring on one finger of his gloveless hand. He carried his service weapon and a pair of nunchucks on his belt, a .357 hammerless S&W revolver in his pocket, a derringer in his (jack) boot, and a police baton as well. He patrolled a wealthy neighborhood in the area, known as Spring Lake (where D’Artois lived). D’Artois reveled in his eccentricities, and in how the respect/fear he engendered kept the locals happy and the bad guys away. After the reign of D’Artois came to an end, a wealthy Jewish family complained about the S.S. ring, and they transfered my buddy to Cedar Grove – as bad a part of town as Spring Lake was good. Interestingly enough, after the reassignment, the crime rate shot up in Spring Lake, and dropped like a rock in Cedar Grove. A couple of months later, they ordered him back onto the Spring Lake beat.
That was D’Artois public face – the hard-nosed, hard-driving public servant who pro-actively stopped crime before it happened. The not-so-public face was quite a bit more sinister and far less concerned with law-and-order.
Remember the movie L.A. Confidential, about the Los Angeles “Hat Squad,” the detectives for whom there was no line they weren’t allowed to cross? Remember how the chief of police was actually in bed with the gangsters peddling flesh, drugs, and other assorted mayhem? Think about that, but with less style, and a “piney woods of North Louisiana” flair. (We’re not Coon-asses here. That’s SOUTH Louisiana.)
D’Artois, according to a number of sources of mine, was up to his elbows in a protection racket for drugs, bootleg whiskey, gambling and prostitution. It was the ideal scam – if he’d actually been so tough as to dry up crime, he’d have made himself obsolete. But by regulating (and skimming profits off the top) of what he allowed in the city, he could keep things down to a dull roar, look like he was on top of it, and make out like a bandit.
Public service is usually not the first thing that comes to mine when you talk about lucrative jobs. Yet nobody batted an eye when D’Artois moved into the tony Spring Lake neighborhood. Or hung out with known gangsters.
Come re-election time, D’Artois hired a local advertising guy, Jim Leslie, to run his advertising. Jim was a stand-up guy, a good ad man, and a rarity in the advertising game – a man with a conscience. D’Artois was not his only client, that election cycle. He also worked for a group pushing a bill that would make Louisiana a “right-to-work” state, breaking the stranglehold of the unions.
As the story goes, D’Artois, the man who did not take “no” for an answer, attempted to pay Leslie for his work on D’Artois’ campaign from city funds, with a check drawn on a city-owned bank account. Jim assumed that it was a mistake and sent the check back with a note requesting the check be recut, drawn on an account not tied to taxpayer dollars.
D’Artois sent the city check back to Leslie, telling him it was no mistake, and to take the money and shut up about it. Leslie demurred, sending it back once again, with a threat to go public with the story if D’Artois tried to pay Leslie with city funds again.
Election night found Leslie down in Baton Rouge, celebrating the win on the Right-to-Work project with the bill’s backers at the historic Prince Murat Inn. As Leslie walked drove into the parking lot, only one space was left vacant, by a fence at the rear of the lot. He parked, got out of his car and walked to the hotel. From behind the fence, an assailant raised a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with double-ought, and fired from about 20 feet behind Leslie. All 16 pellets from the shell penetrated his body, ripping through his heart and lungs with the force of .32 caliber bullets. He died instantly.
Next time: The East Baton Rouge Sheriff Smells a Rat.