The Crimes-Picayune

Tony Barthelemy + Hurricane Katrina

March 08, 2022 Peyton Britt
The Crimes-Picayune
Tony Barthelemy + Hurricane Katrina
Show Notes Transcript

Hurricane Katrina caused $125 billion in damages; equivalent to $175 billion today.  There were roughly 50 levee and flood wall failures that were designed to protect the Crescent City from floodwaters. It was reported that tens of billions of gallons of water spilled into the homes and businesses around New Orleans. Some neighborhoods were met with water measuring over 10 feet. 

But regardless of how much water inundated an area, the city also experienced another kind of damage - one that, much like the floodwaters, would leave its mark for generations to come, referred to by Lissa Muscatine as “blue on black justice.” 

Tony's website:
To listen to Floodlines

Hey y’all! I’m your host, Peyton, and today I’m going to explore how one of the worst storms to ever hit Louisiana had an equally devastating effect on its criminal justice system. The levees weren’t the only thing that failed in New Orleans; the people were too. This is The Crimes-Picayune.  

Michelle Barthelemy and her three boys Tony, Patrick, and Lorenzo were forced to leave the home they had known for their entire lives in August of 2005 when the threat of a category 5 hurricane began to approach the Gulf. 

According to NBC, on August 28th “the National Weather Service office in Slidell, LA which covers the New Orleans area, put out its own warnings saying, “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks.. perhaps longer” and predicting “human suffering incredible by modern standards.” 

But no one could’ve prepared for the extensive damage that would be waiting for them less than 48 hours later. 

In total, the storm left the area with over $125 billion in damages; equivalent to $175 billion today.  

There were roughly 50 levee and flood wall failures that were designed to protect the Crescent City from floodwaters. It was reported that tens of billions of gallons of water spilled into the homes and businesses around New Orleans. 

Some neighborhoods were met with water measuring over 10 feet. 

But regardless of how much water inundated an area, the city also experienced another kind of damage - one that, much like the floodwaters, would leave its mark for generations to come, referred to by Lissa Muscatine as “blue on black justice.”  

Immediately following the passage of the eye of the storm, blockades went up preventing anyone from entering or exiting the city of Gretna. Gretna is located just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans within the same parish, Jefferson Parish. The purpose of the blockades, according to Gretna’s mayor Ronnie Harris, “...we were going to contain our borders to make sure that that property within it was complete.” 

Hundreds of desperate New Orleans residents made the almost 5 mile trek up the Crescent City connection bridge just to have shots fired over their heads and forced to turn back. It’s reported by an evacuee that a policeman told her “We are not going to have another Superdome down here.” 

That officer was referring to reports of mass hysteria going on inside of the 166,000 square foot dome as a result of poor storm preparation by the city of New Orleans. 

Because the cell towers were down, false information was being passed around like a game of telephone in middle school. 

There were claims of murders and rapes and gang activity and this and that. The entire city was being broadcasted as this  lawless violent free-for-all full of vandalization and looting. 

According to an archived article by The LA Times, “The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each retelling – that an infant’s body had been found in a trash can, that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the business district, that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the Superdome basement.” 

Spoiler alert. A total of 6 bodies were reported to have been found at the Superdome. All appearing to be from natural causes. 

But the misinformation wasn’t just being spread amongst reporters. Once NOPD was informed of the “chaos,” police officers were instructed to “take back their city and shoot looters.”

The “looters” that were taking food, water, and other supplies for survival. Now were there looters taking things like TVs and nice shoes? Absolutely. But how do we establish between what is “looting” and what is “surviving” when everything that’s being taken is eventually going to spoil or be discarded anyway?  

Although the streets seemed to be overrun with police officers, the opposite could be said for the Orleans Parish Prison, one of America’s biggest jails in 2005 according to VICE. 

On the day of the storm, inmates in building 3, known as Templeton III, were abandoned. 

The generators died, leaving them without lights, power, or ventilation as the temperature rose to 80º. There was no one to hand out food or water. The toilets began to back up as the floodwaters started to infiltrate, ultimately rising to chest-level. 

I’m sure there’s someone out there that believes these people deserved this because they’re “criminals.” According to Human Rights Watch, “many of the inmates held at the jail had been arrested for offenses like criminal trespass, public drunkenness, or disorderly conduct. Many had not even been brought before a judge and charged, much less been convicted.” 

The almost 600 inmates remained in their sewage-filled cells for days waiting to be rescued. 

Some watched from their windows as inmates in other buildings were evacuated and taken to other correction centers outside of New Orleans. 

Those in Templeton III were not evacuated until September 1st and the prison wasn’t fully evacuated until the 2nd. 

As the last of the inmates were rescued from the prison, Henry Glover left his home on the other side of the Mississippi River to go search for food and supplies for his family. A friend of Glover’s, Bernard Calloway, accompanied him on his search. 

Shortly after arriving at a strip mall in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, Calloway reports hearing someone shout “get out of here” before hearing a gunshot. Glover had been shot in the chest. 

According to an article by ProPublica, Calloway fled from the scene to a nearby apartment complex where Glover’s brother, Edward King, actually lived. 

Calloway informed King that his brother had been shot and needed help. The two went back to the strip mall where Glover was still lying on the ground, bleeding, still not knowing who or why he had been shot. 

That’s when a neighbor of King’s drove by in his white 2002 Chevy Malibu. The owner of the vehicle, William Tanner, agreed to drive King and his brother so Glover could receive medical attention. 

Tanner knew that although Glover was still breathing, the 6.5 mile drive to the nearest hospital would be too risky and decided instead to bring him to an elementary school about a ½ mile away. This elementary school had been turned into a command post by the New Orleans SWAT team and Tanner hoped they could provide first-aid or escort the men to the hospital. 

But when the men pulled into the circular drive of the school, all of their hope faded. 

With guns in their faces, Tanner and King were pulled from the vehicle, handcuffed, and beaten. 

For 20 minutes the officers assaulted the men, ignoring their pleas to help Glover who was still hanging on for life in the backseat of Tanner’s Chevy Malibu. 

The men were finally allowed to leave, but Tanner’s vehicle would not be allowed to leave with them. 

The officers told the men that the car was now in their custody and a part of an investigation. 

Tanner watched as one of the officers, Officer Greg McRae, drove his vehicle away with two emergency flares peeking out of one of his pockets. 

Tanner’s car would be discovered a week later by a former law enforcement officer on a Mississippi River levee. 

The 31-year-old father of 4 still laid in the backseat. His body, along with the car, had been set on fire. 

It wasn’t until years later that we learned the identity of the person who had initially shot Glover was David Warren, Officer David Warren. 

In an unrelated event on September 4th, two days after Glover had been shot and killed, two more Black families would experience the death of a family member at the hands of NOPD officers. 

The Madison and Bartholomew families were both on the Danziger Bridge that morning; the Bartholomews were in search of medical and cleaning supplies, the Madison brothers were trying to make it back home.  

That was until they encountered a Budget rental truck, unknowingly filled with 11 armed police officers. 

With his hand pointed out of the window, the driver of the van began shooting before even coming to a stop. 

Ultimately, two people would die as a result of the shootings; 40-year-old Ronald Madison was shot 7 times in the back along with a 17-year-old accompanying the Bartholomew family, James Broissette. 

Several of the survivors had serious injuries as well: one had her arm shot off, another was hit by shrapnel in the head. 

But before any of them were even taken to the hospital, discussion of a cover-up began. Their story would ultimately be that as the officers arrived at the bridge in response to an officer in distress call, they were met with gunfire coming from multiple people on the bridge. Witness statements were falsified and written by imaginary people and a camera owned by an insurance adjuster was smashed by an officer in an attempt to destroy evidence.

It would take years for all of the facts and evidence to come out through various investigations, and when Tony Barthelemy asked his mom, Michelle, if he could return back to New Orleans to stay with his dad in January of 2006, the atmosphere surrounding New Orleans was still very much despondent. 

But Michelle had noticed that Tony had become depressed. He missed his friends. He missed his old routines. He missed normalcy. 

Just before the storm, the Barthelemys evacuated to a small town just north of Hot Springs, Arkansas - 500 miles away from their home in New Orleans. I’m sure the family had to go through a culture shock, I mean, to go from having Tony’s favorites like gumbo and fried chicken and dirty rice to, well, I don't know what they eat in Arkansas.. do they even know what seasonings are up there? 

Kidding! Anyway, Michelle said she and her 3 boys adjusted so well and everyone was so welcoming. They loved their new school. 

Tony joined the band and was on the football team and had made so many new friends. 

They had been in Jessieville for several months and had finally started building a new life, literally from ground zero, but Michelle had to make the incredibly difficult decision to move the family to Texas where she had more support. The boys were so upset but the family needed help finding a new home. 

Tony struggled in Texas. And Michelle couldn’t just watch her son be depressed, so she agreed to allowing Tony to stay with his father in New Orleans. They planned for this stay to be temporary, though, to give his mom time to continue building herself back up.

Tony and his mom would talk practically everyday, it almost became routine for them. She’d send him cards and would visit with his siblings when they could. 

During one of their usual Saturday phone calls, Tony told his mom that he and some of his friends were going shopping. Tony wanted to get his dad a gift for Father’s Day which was the following day. She told him to be careful. “I will, mom,” he said. 

Tony then spoke to other members of his family before speaking with his mom again. He told her he was ready to come home. Tony loved New Orleans but the love he had for his mom was so much greater. 

Tony told Michelle he would call her tomorrow, Father’s Day. 

Michelle received a call 2 days later, though, it wasn’t from Tony. It was about Tony. He was missing. 

The next day, Michelle left her home in Texas and made the several hour drive to New Orleans, unaware of any information regarding her son. She eventually got word that Tony was being treated at a nearby hospital.

After arriving at the hospital, Michelle and her then-husband were brought into a conference room. Three doctors sat down with the pair and informed them of Tony’s condition. 

The incomprehensible brutality against their son’s body caused Michelle to pass out. When she came to, she was escorted to her son’s hospital room. There she saw her 15 year old boy, her baby, her first-born child, laying in a coma. 

He had been found 2 days prior on June 18th outside of his dad’s apartment complex, beaten, shot, and stripped of his clothes. 

The events that happened that night are still unclear, but it’s believed that several men took part in assaulting Tony, one of them being 26 year old Phillip Helton. 

From what I could find about Helton online, he has spent the majority, if not the entirety, of his life in south Louisiana. Specifically the south side of the Mississippi River in the New Orleans area. 

And, boy, does he have quite the track record. 

It starts in September of 1997 when he was arrested for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. I found the court docket from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office but it doesn’t say if he served any time for it. 

If he did it was less than 5 months because he was arrested again in February the next year for 2 counts of simple burglary. 

About a year and a half later in 1999, he was arrested again for possession with intent. According to the case text, “the trial court found the defendant to be a multiple offender… and sentenced the defendant… to nine years of imprisonment… without the benefit of probation or suspension of sentence.” I’m assuming that he received a suspended sentence from the burglary charges because he was ordered “that the first eight years… be served concurrently (at the same time) with the sentence imposed in #98 whatever whatever (the burglary case) and that one year be served consecutively with #98 whatever.” 

He definitely didn’t serve all 9 years though because he was arrested on August 25th of 2005 for several traffic violations like reckless driving, not using his blinker, and something to do with his license. I couldn’t find if he did any jail time for this but this was just 4 days before Katrina made landfall. 

It’s believed that Tony’s murder had something to do with Helton’s involvement with drug trafficking. 

Ya see, Tony had stayed with a friend the night of June 16th and had asked to stay a second night. Needing more clean clothes, we presume that Tony was walking back to his father’s place when Helton and 2 other men kidnapped and assaulted Tony under the assumption that he was responsible for some drug money that was missing from his friend’s apartment. 

Something that I found interesting, kind of as an aside to Tony’s story, was from an article by The New York Times on August 5th 2006. It says “the drug trade in New Orleans is flourishing again, after its dealers, who evacuated to the regional drug hub of Houston, forged closer ties to major suppliers from the Mexican and Colombian cartels. They have since brought back drugs to New Orleans in far larger shipments than before... essentially creating violent distribution gangs now spread over a much bigger area. 

As a result, law enforcement officials in New Orleans and Houston are struggling to keep up with the changes as the region’s drug trade merges to a greater extent than ever before, adding to the murder rates in both cities.”

The article was published after a pickup truck from Houston was seized just outside of New Orleans on May 18th 2006 carrying 50 kg of cocaine worth about $5 million. That’s roughly 110 pounds of cocaine worth about $7 million today. 

Now, I’m not saying that Helton was involved in this particular operation, but I think it demonstrates the grave conditions surrounding narcotics at this time. 

Helton remained on the run for an entire year until he was caught in New Orleans on July 18th 2007. 

He was initially arrested on aggravated kidnapping, second degree kidnapping, and 1st degree murder charges. 

I wasn’t super knowledgeable about the difference between the two kidnapping charges so I looked up some simplified definitions and I thought I’d share. 

In Louisiana, kidnapping is defined as “the forcible seizing and carrying of any person from one place to another, or the enticing or persuading of any person to go from one place to another, or the imprisoning or forcible secreting of any person.” 

From what I understand, the distinction between the two is that with second degree kidnapping, the victim could be used as a shield or hostage, injured, imprisoned for more than 72 hours, or when the offender has a weapon while aggravated kidnapping has a level of extortion involved, such as giving up something of value in order to release them. 

Now, I was able to find the court dockets that included information about the proceedings regarding Helton’s three charges. 

They were pretty difficult to understand, at least for me they were, so I won’t sit here and embarrass my way through all of the legal jargon because, in the end, the outcome remains the same. 

On July 24th 2008, after a year of court proceedings, all three charges against Phillip Helton were dropped. 

It doesn’t explicitly state why, but from what I understand it was due to a lack of evidence on behalf of the state. 

Tony had been beaten with a pipe, tortured, stripped of his clothing, soaked in acetone, and shot and someone that allegedly took part in this assault was allowed to walk free because the prosecution had nothing to prove it. 

Tony’s mother, Michelle, heard that the gun used to shoot her son came up missing. 

But this is not an uncommon occurrence in Orleans Parish. 

Mary Foster with The Associated Press reported in November of 2008 that a study had been conducted of the evidence room. An evidence management company called Evidence Control Systems of California “found that police did not know how much cash or drugs are stored there. It also said prosecutors may have a tough time linking evidence in the warehouse to criminal cases.” 

After receiving *cough* necessary criticism regarding the state of his evidence room, police Superintendent Warren Riley stated “We are going to have some problems… what do you expect when your property room was underwater for 18 days?” 

You’ve had three years to get it together?!

As a result of the dysfunctional evidence room, prosecutors had to refuse hundreds of cases, allowing individuals - including Helton - to walk free. 

You might’ve caught that one of the charges pressed against Helton was for first degree murder… Tony held on for almost two weeks - allowing for his friends, family, and his pastor time to say their goodbyes. 

He passed away on June 28th 2006. The day his mom calls his “angel date.” 

When I asked Michelle if she’d want Tony’s case to be reopened some day, she said she wasn’t sure. She said the pain was so indescribable that she wasn’t sure if she would make it through again. 

Every time I talk to the family members of murder victims, specifically mothers, I am amazed at the strength they have, whether they are still fighting for justice or that they just continue to celebrate their child’s life. 

Every year on Tony’s birthday, May 16th, Michelle and her family each have a Snickers bar in remembrance of the little boy that was obsessed with them. I’ll have a picture of Tony smiling with his favorite candy bar on my Facebook page along with others from the short time he spent here on Earth. 

I felt it was important to tell Tony’s story for a couple of reasons: one being that it did not get the coverage he and his family deserve, and the other because it opened my eyes to so much regarding the effects of Katrina on its people.

And in this episode, I have hardly scraped the surface. If you want to listen to an in-depth exploration into Katrina told first-hand by the people that lived it, check out the multi-part series called “Floodlines” anywhere you listen to podcasts.