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3 arrested in evacuee park check: Sheriffs Office visited Baker site

Author(s): KIMBERLY VETTER Date: February 9, 2006 Section: Metro

Three unregistered sex offenders were arrested Tuesday night during an unannounced visit by the East Raton Rouge Parish Sheriffs Office to the FEMA trailer park on Groom Road near Baker. Sheriff deputies arrested Owen Barthelemy, 26, Catherine Caufield, 47 and Romalis Jefferson, 29. Deputies had prior knowledge of Jefferson and found out about Barthelemy and Caufield after running their names through a database of convicted sex offenders, said Col. Greg Phares, chief criminal deputy with the Sheriffs Office.

Sex offenders who do not register with the state can be charged with a felony and serve up to five years in jail or pay up to a $1,000 fine, according to Louisiana law.

Other names and personal information voluntarily given to the Sheriffs Office by park residents will be run through such databases and more arrests could be made, Phares said.

The park’s residents are people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and Rita.

“We were told that there is a large number of people on probation or parole from New Orleans who are unaccounted for as well as sex offenders,” Phares said. “We have reason to assume some might be there (at the park).”

About 40 Sheriff Office’s deputies and detectives knocked on about 500 trailer doors between 7 p.m. and midnight Tuesday.

The purpose of their visit was to gather information about the almost 2,000 people living at the park, also known as Renaissance Village, Phares said. Deputies talked to about a third of the park’s population, most of whom were cooperative, Phares said.

However, “It’s reasonable to assume that the third who talked wanted to; it’s those who didn’t answer and didn’t talk that we want to talk to more,” he said.

Park resident David Butts, 47, voluntarily gave his information to sheriffs deputies and said he hasn’t had any problems at the park other than noise, which was taken care of by the park’s security guards.

“I feel safe living here,” he said. “I walk my dog at 2 a.m.”

The method the Sheriffs Office used to gather information does not appear to be a violation of the law, said Tommy Damico, a Baton Rouge lawyer.

“They don’t have the right to demand, they do have the right to ask,” Damico said about Tuesday’s visit. However, he said there is the potential for abuse because people might feel pressure to give up information being that law enforcement authorities are asking for it.

Phares said he contacted an office attorney before making the visit so no mistakes would be made.

“Any time you do an operation like this, there is a potential for legal ramifications,” he said. “That’s why we contacted an attorney.”

James Mclntyre, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that the agency supports the Sheriffs Office’s efforts and will continue to work with them “to ensure the security of the residents of Renaissance Village.”

Citing the Privacy Act, FEMA denied a request from the Sheriffs Office in October for a list of those living in the park. The federal agency also rebuffed the Sheriff Office’s request to ban guns from the site, though it did outlaw their use.

The Sheriffs Office wants the names so it can check for sex offenders, parole violators and fugitives. Phares said he still is trying to get the list from FEMA and the park’s management company, Keta Group LLC, whose majority owner is the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana. Tie said he hasn’t given up on the idea of filing a lawsuit.

The Sheriffs Office, which is the primary law enforcement agency for the park, has a deputy patrolling its more than 60 acres periodically day and night.

Since the park opened in October, the Sheriffs Office has received 160 calls from the park and has made 28 arrests, including the three most-recent arrests of unregistered sex offenders.

Copyright (c) 2006 Capital City Press, Baton Rouge, La.