Widely reported attacks false or unsubstantiated
6 bodies found at Dome; 4 at Convention Center
By Brian Thevenot
and Gordon Russell
After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable
living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col.
Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the
Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang
violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember
his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated
18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped
to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw
the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop
melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body
recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said
the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside
it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, just four bodies were
recovered, despites reports of corpses piled inside the building. Only
one of the dead appeared to have been slain, said health and law
That the nation's front-line emergency management believed the body
count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of
scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center
treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top
officials, including the mayor and police superintendent. As the fog of
warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the
vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned
out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to
key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in
positions to know.
"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason
Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside
the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any
killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. ... Ninety-nine
percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."
Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department
administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams
were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center.
"We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports
of more bodies there," Cataldie said. "But it just wasn't the case."
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had
confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina -
making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200
homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many
national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs
of unchecked savages.
"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the
two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories
saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the
case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up
on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street)
told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of
As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and
Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's
media: evacuees firing at helicopters trying to save them; women,
children and even babies raped with abandon; people killed for food and
water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police,
according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple
shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle
flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly
fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies,"
and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing
and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of
children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood
victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as
well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying
to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost
Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have
been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and
soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say
that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable
indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never
Military, law enforcement and medical workers agree that the flood of
evacuees - about 30,000 at the Dome and an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 at
the Convention Center - overwhelmed their security personnel. The 400 to
500 soldiers in the Dome could have been easily overrun by increasingly
agitated crowds, but that never happened, said Col. James Knotts, a
midlevel commander there. Security was nonexistent at the Convention
Center, which was never designated as a shelter. Authorities provided no
food, water or medical care until troops secured the building the Friday
after the storm.
While the Convention Center saw plenty of mischief, including massive
looting and isolated gunfire, and many inside cowered in fear, the
hordes of evacuees for the most part did not resort to violence, as
legend has it.
"Everything was embellished, everything was exaggerated," said Deputy
Police Superintendent Warren Riley. "If one guy said he saw six bodies,
then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them - then that
Soldier shot - by himself
Inside the Dome, where National Guardsmen performed rigorous security
checks before allowing anyone inside, only one shooting has been
verified. Even that incident, in which Louisiana Guardsman Chris Watt of
the 527th Engineer Battalion was injured, has been widely misreported,
said Maj. David Baldwin, who led the team of soldiers who arrested a
Watt was attacked inside one of the Dome's locker rooms, which he
entered with another soldier. In the darkness, as he walked through
about six inches of water, Watt was attacked with a metal rod, a piece
of a cot. But the bullet that penetrated Watt's leg came from his own
gun - he accidentally shot himself in the commotion. The attacker never
took his gun from him, Baldwin said. New Orleans police investigated the
matter fully and sent the suspect to jail in Breaux Bridge, Baldwin
As for other shootings, Baldwin said, "We actively patrolled 24 hours a
day, and nobody heard another shot."
Doug Thornton, regional vice president of SMG, which manages the Dome,
walked the complex from before the storm until the final evacuation and
kept a meticulous journal. In a Sept. 9 interview, he said he heard
reports of rapes and killings, but they were unconfirmed and came from
evacuees and security officials.
"We walked through the facility every day, and we didn't see all this
that was being reported," said Thornton, one of about 35 Dome employees
who rode out Katrina in the building and lived there in the days after
the storm hit. "We never felt threatened. It's hard to determine what's
real and what's not real."
Inside the Convention Center, the rumors of widespread violence have
proved hard to substantiate, as well, though the masses of evacuees
endured terrifying and inhumane conditions.
Jimmie Fore, vice president of the state authority that runs the
Convention Center, stayed in the building with a core group of 35
employees until Sept. 1, the Thursday after Katrina. He was appalled by
what he saw. Thugs hotwired 75 forklifts and electric carts and looted
food and booze from every room in the building, but he said he never saw
any violent crimes committed, and neither did any of his employees.
Some, however, did report seeing armed men roaming the building, and
Fore said he heard gunshots in the distance on at about six occasions.
NOPD Capt. Jeff Winn's 20-member SWAT team responded on about 10
occasions to calls from the Convention Center, usually after reports of
shots being fired. The group found people huddled in the fetal position,
lying flat on the ground to avoid bullets or running for the exits. They
also heard stories of gang rapes, armed robberies and other violent
crimes, but no victims ever came forward while his officers were in the
building, he said.
"What's true and what's not, we don't really know," he said.
Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana
National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux put together a 1,000-man
force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center
Sept. 2 at about noon.
It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance,
Thibodeaux said. What the soldiers found - elderly people and infants
near death without food, water and medicine; crowds living in filth -
shocked them more than anything they'd seen in combat zones overseas.
But they found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes
or beatings, Thibodeaux said.
Another commander at the scene, Lt. Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas
National Guard, said the crowd welcomed the soldiers. "It reminded me of
the liberation of France in World War II. There were people cheering;
one boy even saluted," he said. "We never - never once - encountered any
One widely circulated tale, told to The Times-Picayune by a slew of
evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsmen, held that "30 or 40
bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. But a formal
Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had
actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in
the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of
Harrah's New Orleans Casino, said Edwards, who conducted the review.
It's possible more than four people died at the Convention Center. Fore,
the center's vice president, said he saw another body outside the
building early in the first week after the storm, covered in a shroud on
the pavement along Julia Street, near the back of the Convention Center.
It's unclear whether that body ended up in the nearby food service
entrance, where the four confirmed bodies were found later.
Also, several news organizations reported the body of 91-year-old Booker
T. Harris, which sat covered in a chair on Convention Center Boulevard
for several days after he died on the back of a truck while being
Just one of the dead appeared to be the victim of foul play, said Winn,
one of few law enforcement officers who spent any time patrolling the
Convention Center before it was secured. Winn, who did the final sweep
of the building, said one body appeared to have stab wounds, but he
could not be sure. Baldwin also said only one of the dead appeared to
have been slain, apparently referring to the same body as Winn
described. Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Department of Health and
Hospitals, also confirmed just one suspected homicide at the Convention
Center, though he said the victim had been shot, not stabbed.
A Washington Post report quoted another soldier who concluded that three
of the four people appeared to have been beaten to death, including an
older woman in a wheelchair.
But Spc. Mikel Brooks, an Arkansas Guardsman who said he wheeled the
woman's dead body into the food service entrance, said she appeared to
have died of natural causes. Brooks went on to say that the woman had
expired sitting next to her husband, who shocked him by asking him to
bring the wheelchair back.
The Post also cited evacuee Tony Cash and three other unnamed sources
saying a young boy died of an asthma attack, but multiple officials
could not confirm that death.
One attack thwarted
Reports of dozens of rapes at both facilities - many allegedly involving
small children - may forever remain a question mark. Rape is a
notoriously underreported crime under ideal circumstances, and tracking
down evidence at this point, with evacuees spread all over the country,
would be nearly impossible. The same goes for reports of armed robberies
at both sites.
Numerous people told The Times-Picayune that they had witnessed rapes,
in particular attacks on two young girls in the Superdome ladies room
and the killing of one of them, but police and military officials said
they know nothing of such an incident.
Soldiers and police did confirm at least one attempted rape of a child.
Riley said a man tried to sexually assault a young girl, but was "beaten
up" by civilians and apprehended by police. It was unclear if that
incident was the one that gained wide currency among evacuees.
Baldwin, the National Guard commander of a special reaction team
patrolling the Dome, also said he knew of only one attempted sexual
assault of a child - but the details of his story, while similar,
differed somewhat from that of Riley. It was unclear last week whether
the two men spoke about the same incident.
Soldiers apprehended the assailant after a "commotion" in the bathroom
exposed him, Baldwin said, but he knew nothing about the man being
beaten. Furthermore, in a detail that raises questions about whether
officials have full knowledge of any sex crimes, Baldwin said his men
turned over one alleged child molester to New Orleans police - only to
find him again inside the Dome two days later, reportedly attempting to
molest other children.
"We ran into the same guy a couple days later," he said. "The crowd came
to us and said, 'You better do something with this guy or we're going to
do something with him.' ... That kind of re-confirmed (the first
allegation), when the crowd came to us saying he was putting his hands
But other accusations that have gained wide currency are more
demonstrably false. For instance, no one found the body of a girl -
whose age was estimated at anywhere from 7 to 13 - who, according to
multiple reports, was raped and killed with a knife to the throat at the
Many evacuees at the Convention Center the morning of Sept. 3 treated
the story as gospel, and ticked off further atrocities: a baby trampled
to death, multiple child rapes.
Salvatore Hall, standing on the corner of Julia Street and Convention
Center Boulevard that day, just before the evacuation, said, "They raped
and killed a 10-year-old in the bathroom."
Neither he nor the many people around him who corroborated the killing
had seen it themselves.
Talk of rape and killing inside the Dome was so pervasive that it
prompted a steady stream of evacuees to begin leaving Aug. 31, braving
thigh-high foul waters on Poydras Street. Many said they were headed
back to homes in flooded neighborhoods.
"There's people getting raped and killed in there," said Lisa Washington
of Algiers, who had come to the Dome with about 25 relatives and
friends. "People are getting diseases. It's like we're in Afghanistan.
We're fighting for our lives right now."
One of her relatives nodded. "They've had about 14 rapes in there," he
The official word
In many cases, authorities gave credibility to portraits of violence
broadcast around the world.
Compass told Winfrey on Sept. 6 that "some of the little babies (are)
getting raped" in the Dome. Nagin backed it with his own tale of
horrors: ''They have people standing out there, have been in that
frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching
hooligans killing people, raping people.''
But both men have since pulled back to a degree.
"The information I had at the time, I thought it was credible," Compass
said, conceding his earlier statements were false. Asked for the source
of the information, Compass said he didn't remember.
Nagin frankly acknowledged that he doesn't know the extent of the mayhem
that occurred inside the Dome and the Convention Center - and may never.
"I'm having a hard time getting a good body count," he said.
Compass said rumors had often crippled authorities' response to reported
lawlessness, sending badly needed resources to respond to situations
that turned out not to exist. He offered his own intensely personal
example: The day after the storm, he heard "some civilians" talking
about how a band of armed thugs had invaded the Ritz-Carlton hotel and
started raping women - including his 24-year-old daughter, who stayed
there through the storm. He rushed to the scene only to find that
although a group of men had tried to enter the hotel, they weren't armed
and were easily turned back by police.
Compass, however, promulgated some of the unfounded rumors himself, in
interviews in which he characterized himself and his officers as
outgunned warriors taking out armed bands of thugs at every turn.
"People would be shooting at us, and we couldn't shoot back because of
the families," Compass told a reporter from the (Bridgeport) Connecticut
Post who interviewed him at the Saints' Monday Night Football game in
New York, where he was the guest of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"All we could do is rush toward the flash."
Compass added that he and his officers succeeded in wrestling 30 weapons
from criminals using the follow-the-muzzle-flash technique, the story
"We got 30 that way," Compass was quoted as saying.
Asked about the muzzle-flash story last week, Compass said, "That really
happened" to Winn's SWAT team at the Convention Center.
But Winn, when asked about alleged shootouts in a separate interview,
said his unit saw muzzle flashes and heard gunshots only one time.
Despite aggressively frisking a number of suspects, the team recovered
no weapons. His unit never found anyone who had been shot.
Many soldiers and humanitarian workers now agree that although a number
of bad actors committed violent or criminal acts, the evacuees responded
well considering the hell they endured.
"These people - our people - did nothing wrong," said Sherry Watters of
the state Department of Social Services, who was working with the
medical unit at the Dome and noted the crowd's mounting frustration. "No
human should have to live like that for even a minute."
Crowds pitch in
As the authorities finally mobilized buses to evacuate the Dome on Sept.
2, many evacuees were nearing the breaking point. Baldwin said soldiers
could not have controlled the crowd much longer. They ejected a handful
of people attempting to start a riot, screaming at soldiers and pushing
crowds to revolt.
"We're not prisoners of war - y'all are treating us like evacuees and
detainees!" he recalled one of them shouting.
But many others sought to quiet such voices. On the deck outside the
Dome on Sept. 1, the day before buses arrived, preachers took it upon
themselves to lead the agitated crowd in prayer and song.
"Everybody needs to help the soldiers," Baldwin recalled one of them
saying. "We're all family here."
About 15 others joined the medical operation, as people collapsed from
heat and exhaustion every few minutes, Baldwin said.
"Some of these guys look like thugs, with pants hanging down around
their asses," he said. "But they were working their asses off, grabbing
litters and running with people to the (New Orleans) Arena" next door,
which housed the medical operation.
As the Dome cleared out Sept. 3, Beron, the National Guard commander,
fashioned a plan to deal with the dead. He knew of the six bodies in the
freezer, but expected far more. He and an Ohio National Guard commander
sent 450 Ohio troops to search every nook of the Dome, top to bottom.
They told them to mark locations of bodies on a map of the Dome, to rope
off suspected crime scenes, and leave a chemical light sticks next to
each one so they could be retrieved later.
"I fully expected to find more bodies, both homicides and natural
causes," he said.
They found nothing.
Staff writers Jeff Duncan and Gwen Filosa contributed to this report.