Mardi Gras week ends with a shudder of fear

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

March 10, 1995|By Cox News Service

NEW ORLEANS -- After a shocking week in which 21 people were slain, including a police officer allegedly killed by a fellow officer, the mirth and joyful excess of Mardi Gras have quickly dissolved into an uneasy sense of fear and lawlessness.

"It's like the Wild West out here," said New Orleans resident Mike Bechet, 44.

The bloodshed shows no signs of abating. With 83 victims so far this year, New Orleans' homicide rate is on pace to break last year's record total of 421 homicides, which earned the city the unwanted title of "nation's murder capital."

"We are in a war for the soul and spirit of this community," Mayor Marc Morial said.

The most stunning of the slayings came Saturday. New Orleans police Officer Antoinette Frank, 23, and Roger Lacaze, 18, were arrested and charged with killing three people during a robbery of a Vietnamese restaurant. Officer Frank, a two-year patrol officer, worked as a security guard at the restaurant two nights a week and apparently ate dinner there the night of the slayings.

She allegedly returned with Mr. Lacaze and shot and killed a fellow officer, Ronald Williams II, who was working security. Witnesses said Mr. Lacaze shot Officer Williams first, then Officer Frank stood over him and shot him in the head. The two officers worked in the same police precinct.

Two members of the Vietnamese family that owns the restaurant, 18-year-old Cuong Vu and his older sister, Ha Vu, were also killed. The sister was reportedly kneeling in prayer when she was shot.

"Everyone is in shock," said police Lt. Sam Fradella. "To think a police officer would first of all think of committing a crime in itself is pretty disgusting.

"But to include in the plan the killing of another officer is beyond belief."

Officer Frank is the fourth New Orleans Police Department officer charged with murder in the past 12 months. Most recently, Officer Len E. Davis was charged with ordering the killing of a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him. Despite deep public cynicism toward the department, most people continue to praise the new police superintendent, Richard Pennington, a reformer charged with cleaning up after an era of corruption and cronyism.

"We are reaping what we've sown," said Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a police watchdog group. "We are probably paying for 10 years of neglect in law enforcement. You just don't change the captain of the ship and expect everything to be all right over night."

In all, there were 21 homicides from Mardi Gras weekend, Feb. 25-26, through Saturday, all but six coming after Fat Tuesday, Feb. 28. Four men were killed by a gunman who burst into their home on March 1. On March 2, three gunmen shot and killed a man in a robbery after he left a popular restaurant on the edge of the French Quarter. The shooting, witnessed by a bus of dTC tourists, occurred in an area where police had decreased patrols to shift officers to higher crime areas.

Beverly Gianna, a spokeswoman with the city's tourism commission, said the mayor has promised to install additional lighting on the periphery of the French Quarter and to reinstate the full patrols. Despite the crime, Ms. Gianna said this year's Mardi Gras was a great success, attracting record crowds and generating $660 million for the city. Still, she said, the city must continue the reforms instituted by Mr. Pennington and Mr. Morial.

Evan Plauche, 37, a lawyer and lifelong resident, has seen his brother and many of his childhood friends move to the suburbs because of crime.

Mr. Plauche himself never stops at convenience stores or drugstores after dark. He says the volume of killings makes it easy for locals to become desensitized toward killings, particularly when they happen in the projects or other sections of town. Then he reads about the man shot outside the French Quarter restaurant and shudders.

"The guys just walked up and shot him," Mr. Plauche said. "No provocation.

"It could happen to me, to you, to anyone."

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