Looting Still Problem Post-K
Sunday, January 22, 2006
By Michael Perlstein
and Trymaine Lee Staff writers
Knowing their two-story, Katrina-damaged home in Lakeview was a sitting
duck for looters, Scott and Jill Cabes took every precaution. They lined
up contractors quickly, gutting the first floor within weeks of the
storm. They removed obvious hot-market items like TVs and stereos and
sentimental valuables like jewelry. They dropped by the property
But sitting on Vicksburg Street, surrounded by miles of desolation and
darkness, the Cabes' stately colonial-style home proved too tempting and
too easy for criminals eager to take advantage of the disaster.
Looters took several large pieces of the family's antique furniture,
including two chests of drawers, a mirrored dresser, a nightstand and a
grand old office chair, Jill Cabes said. They had to negotiate the heavy
pieces down a narrow staircase with the bottom step removed, and they
shoved aside the wheelchair of the Cabes' disabled 11-year-old daughter
to retrieve the loot.
"The nightstand they took, that had my daughter's oxygen machine and her
medical equipment. They just put that stuff on the floor and went about
their business," she said. "Who would do that? It's just so wrong on so
The Cabes are hardly alone.
In the most seriously flooded neighborhoods of Orleans Parish, as well
as much of St. Bernard Parish, looting has emerged as the area's most
serious crime problem, authorities said. In New Orleans, the stream of
calls about homicides, shootings and robberies that infamously
characterized the city before Hurricane Katrina has given way to
distraught homeowners finding empty spaces where their belongings used
More than 80 people have been arrested in recent months for looting in
New Orleans, and at least another 20 in St. Bernard. But authorities
said the numbers represent but a fraction of looting complaints.
Statistics on looting incidents are hard to come by, as official record
keeping has yet to be restored to pre-Katrina levels and authorities
said many residents don't report the problem anyway. But interviews with
authorities and looting victims reveal a level of pillaging so pervasive
and over such an extended period that it evokes images of a war zone.
A Gentilly couple barricaded their vacant home's doors and windows with
plywood after being looted once, only to have other looters tear down
the wood to take more stuff. An evacuee dialing her Algiers apartment to
check whether phone service had been restored got jolted when a man
answered. She found the place ransacked a few weeks later. A New Orleans
police officer responding to a looting call found items stolen from his
in-laws' home, including a copy of his own wedding videotape.
Authorities said they are doing what they can to curb the problem. But
they said it's hard to combat a plague that has evolved from the mass
break-ins of businesses in the chaotic first week after Katrina to the
hunt-and-peck plundering of homes that continues more than four months
"Nobody was shielded from this second catastrophe that began when the
waters receded," said New Orleans Police Department Lt. Mike Roussel,
assigned to the anti-looting squad the department temporarily formed a
few weeks after the storm. "Businesses, homeowners, all those apartment
complexes in eastern New Orleans. You even had police officers whose
homes were looted."
Adding to the worries of local police agencies, more than 600 firearms
were looted from area pawnshops and gun dealers, most in the storm's
immediate aftermath, and untold guns have been taken from private homes.
In St. Bernard, two people were charged with stealing 10 bulletproof
vests from a Chalmette business being used as a temporary outpost for
Sgt. Charles Miller, who worked in the NOPD's anti-looting squad until
it was phased out a few weeks ago, made one arrest in which he recovered
property belonging to his in-laws, including his own wedding videotape.
Miller, now assigned to the 2nd District, said he figured the ransacking
of his in-laws' 9th Ward house would end with his police report, given
the needle-in-a-haystack odds of finding the stolen goods and catching a
But a couple of weeks later, he said, his mother-in-law spotted a
suspicious stack of merchandise through her neighbor's window. When
Miller investigated, he discovered a television that looked like hers,
as well as a cache of furniture with store tags attached. With firm
legal grounds to conduct a thorough search, Miller said he was
flabbergasted when he stumbled across his wedding video.
"I was shocked. But I'm glad I was able to get it back because the only
other copy was in my house in Lakeview," said Miller, who lost
everything in the flood. "The best part was that we caught the guy and
retrieved some irreplaceable property."
The brazenness of the looters has astounded authorities.
Roussel said it began even before the storm hit, as thieves took
advantage of the area's mass evacuation. After floodwaters inundated the
city, some ambitious looters used boats to float away with people's
belongings. Even today, as the city's gradual repopulation has become
the biggest deterrent to opportunistic criminals, homeowners in the
hardest-hit areas have reported being looted two, three and even four
One of the most outrageous examples took place in Algiers, which stayed
mostly high and dry after the storm. Just before Katrina rumbled through
the city, Keisha Robertson, a 25-year-old mother with twin 5-year-old
boys, left her Higgins Gate apartment and headed for Atlanta. After a
couple of months in exile, she dialed her home number to see whether it
was still connected. It was -- and someone answered.
"It was unbelievable," Robertson said, "and he had the nerve to ask me
who I was and what I wanted."
The man told her how comfortable her apartment was, all except for the
bed, which was a bit too stiff for his taste, she said. "He even offered
to pay some of the bills," Robertson said, chuckling at the absurdity of
Robinson returned to her apartment on Oct. 27 and found no one inside
and nothing missing. Her uninvited guest had even vacuumed and neatly
hung some of his clothes in her closet. So she left a note in case the
intruder returned: "Leave or I'm calling the police."
Robertson visited her apartment a month later, this time accompanied by
a 4th District police officer. As they approached her complex, she was
floored when the officer recognized the place and told her he'd been to
her apartment on several occasions to quiet rowdy parties.
Then they opened the door. "Everything was gone," Robertson said. "There
were beer bottles and trash everywhere. They took all my furniture, my
couch, the bed. They even took stuff you wouldn't think anyone would
take, like the comforter set off my bed, bathroom stuff, pots and pans."
Police said they have seen distinct peaks and lulls in the illegal
Following the rampaging in the first days after Katrina, in which even a
handful of New Orleans police officers were seen looting, the presence
of military troops and outside police agencies kept much of the illegal
activity at bay. For almost a month, police and soldiers manned
checkpoints on most major thoroughfares. A mandatory evacuation
effectively de-populated hard-hit areas, making any would-be lawbreakers
stand out amid the waterlogged wasteland. For the few who remained,
strict curfews created the atmosphere of a military lockdown.
But as homeowners returned in larger numbers, police saw looting
complaints spike. Roussel said some of the surge in reports stemmed from
people returning to already looted homes, but the massive influx of work
crews -- contractors, utility workers, laborers gutting houses -- seemed
to significantly exacerbate the problem.
In some cases, the thieves were able to blend in with the workers,
Roussel said. In other cases, the thieves were the workers. For example,
in St. Bernard Parish on Thursday, five workers hired to mop up an oil
spill were arrested for pilfering guns and knives from several Chalmette
"We'd find a crew working on one house, but a couple of guys from the
crew were next door cleaning the place out," Roussel said.
Beefing up the squad
To combat the pervasive poaching, the New Orleans Police Department
launched its anti-looting squad in mid-October and the St. Bernard
Sheriff's Office assigned all remaining law enforcement personnel, even
detectives, to patrol duty. At one point, the NOPD squad reached a peak
of about 80 officers, with Louisiana State Police troopers and officers
from New York working hand-in-hand with the group.
The squad was recently disbanded, as anti-looting duties returned to
police districts, but Barnes said the department continues to use its
new signal call for looting complaints: 21-K, for Katrina.
"Officers have been working very hard to prevent looting," he said. "You
have to understand, we've taken many losses ourselves, from the flooding
and the looting."
The squad produced results. NOPD spokesman Juan Barnes said police
arrested 84 people for looting from Sept. 30 through Jan. 12. In St.
Bernard, officials have arrested at least 21 people since the storm.
Those caught face harsh penalties. The crime of looting carries up to 15
years in prison and a $10,000 fine, compared to 12 years and $2,000 for
burglary. The criminal statutes for both crimes are identical except
that looting takes place when "normal security of property is not
present by virtue to a hurricane, flood, fire, act of God or force
majeure of any kind."
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said he will vigorously
"It's indefensible. It violates every code of morality. And it's against
the law," he said.
The backgrounds of the suspects vary widely, Roussel said, from
neighbors to workers to professional out-of-town criminals. Some looters
have even donned hard hats or bio-protection suits to pass themselves
off as disaster workers, he said.
Last week, in Slidell, a FEMA worker who was supposed to be installing a
trailer was booked with looting a gutted home of its few remaining
items. In a notorious case in mid-November, two Louisiana National Guard
members were arrested after they were seen loading their Humvee with
cases of liquor from a home in the affluent Eastover community.
St. Bernard's looting arrests have included an out-of-state Red Cross
volunteer and, in another case, four men hired to clean a flooded bank
who tried to make it out of the parish with more than $2,000 in wrinkled
bills and coins they found inside the bank, authorities said.
More recently, Roussel said New Orleans officers caught a well-known
local burglar stealing a bottle of booze from a house, but the bust led
them to a mother lode of stolen goods.
"He had a mini-Wal-Mart at his house," Roussel said. "He had everything
from a lint roller to major electronics. It was easily $10,000 to
$12,000 worth of merchandise."
Even as the emergencies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have subsided,
local police still report at least one looting complaint or arrest every
day. In St. Bernard, for example, officials this week charged seven
people with looting in two days. While St. Bernard Parish has seen
significant looting activity, the degree of storm devastation in that
area has kept the problem from reaching the acute levels seen in New
Orleans, Sheriff Jack Stephens said. Every house in the parish was
flooded and nearly the entire population of 67,000 people was forced to
"It's sporadic, but it comes in waves," Stephens said. "Our biggest
enemy is the lack of residents and the lack of streetlights. We just
don't have our usual safeguards. It's going to be problematic for some
One devastated area where the problem does not seem to have taken hold
is lower Plaquemines Parish. Sheriff's Office spokesman Maj. John Marie
said two factors have helped the parish. First, the areas that suffered
the most significant damage were all but wiped out, leaving very little
to steal. Second, the parish has only one road leading in and out,
making it easy for deputies to patrol for suspicious activity.
"One way we're blessed is because of geography," he said. "It also helps
that deputies working there also lived there. So everybody knows
Today, even with many parts of the area now in rebuilding mode, looters
continue to prey on victims of flooding. Roussel said the activity in
New Orleans is more concentrated now, restricted mostly to vast empty
neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gentilly and eastern New Orleans.
Police in the 7th District, which encompasses eastern New Orleans, said
they still write several 21-K reports a day, but it appears the worst is
"It's slowing quite a bit," said 7th District officer Robert Barrere,
"but it's still prevalent."
The area presents particular obstacles for officers, he said. For
starters, they have to patrol 140 square miles and thousands of rental
units, apartment complexes and homes spread among dozens of distinct
enclaves and subdivisions. There's no power, leaving too much ground to
cover "blind" at night.
Then there are unscrupulous workers. With so many structures in need of
repair, out-of-town building crews are everywhere. Most are legitimate,
but others are felonious, police say.
In one recent case, 7th District officers were patrolling a Seagull Lane
apartment complex. As the officers slowly cruised through the cavernous
multiplex, a pickup approached. The driver, visibly nervous, told police
he was looking for a relative's home, Barrere said. Without any hard
evidence to detain the man, the officers let him go. Later, they saw him
leave an apartment, hop into the truck with another man inside and speed
off. After an across-town chase, the officers caught the men and
discovered the Chevy truck was stolen. In the back, they found a 27-inch
television and other household items.
"We get reports every day," Barrere said. "It's so dark at night, you
can get in, out and away without being noticed by anyone."
With complaints often coming weeks or months after the crime, police
said they do what they can to best to document the scene, use the crime
lab to gather evidence and look for trends that might link one case to
another. But officers admit they are at a disadvantage.
"Population is what deters crime," Miller said. "We need the eyes and
ears of the residents."
A partner named Glock
All the stealing has many people who have returned to the area on edge,
and some have armed themselves in case they catch looters in the act.
Eastern New Orleans resident Gerald Peters caught up recently with a
neighbor and friend whose home was looted.
"They got you, too?" Peters asked, recalling stories of looting around
the area that have lit up the grapevine for the past week or so.
"I sleep with my Glock next to my bed," Peters said, referring to his
semiautomatic pistol. "If I would have seen them around here, they
wouldn't have left this block alive."
Looting victims said nothing can match the crushing effect of the
"It's heartbreaking," said Brenda Quant, 59, whose home in Gentilly was
looted after it took on 7 feet of water. "After all we've been through,
someone comes along and can see what your life is like and then can
decide what they think is worth taking and what's not."
Quant and her husband evacuated to Alabama and first returned to the
area in November. Even though they have gone to their Eads Street home a
few times a week to salvage what they can, they still have been looted
at least two times, with looters breaking down plywood from windows and
doors as fast at the Quants have nailed it up.
What hit Brenda the hardest wasn't looting, but the wanton destruction
of a china set her father, who died when she was a girl, gave her
mother. She found the precious pieces stomped into fine shards on her
front steps, just days after she'd delicately cleaned each piece.
"They just did it with such disregard," she said. "They didn't want it,
but they decided to walk all over it."
. . . . . . .
Manuel Torres contributed to this report. Michael Perlstein can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3316. Trymaine Lee
can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3301.