Politics, policing collide in La. town where boy was killed

MARKSVILLE, La. (AP) — When a 6-year-old autistic boy died in a hail of bullets fired by a pair of moonlighting deputy city marshals, many residents of this central Louisiana town were surprised to learn that local police weren’t the only ones patrolling their streets.

The city’s deputy marshals — a small group of part-timers who normally serve court papers — had been stopping cars and writing traffic tickets since summer, after a budget battle between the city’s mayor and an elected judge gutted the court budget.

Derrick Stafford and Norris Greenhouse Jr. were out on patrol on Nov. 3 when, for reasons that still haven’t been explained, they began pursuing a car driven by Chris Few. His son, Jeremy Mardis, was in the passenger seat beside him. The marshals unleashed a stream of bullets, killing the boy and severely wounding Few.

A coroner initially said that authorities were trying to serve Few, a boat pilot on the Red River, with a warrant. But state police quickly refuted that, saying no such warrant existed. Video from another officer’s body camera showed Few had his hands up inside the vehicle and didn’t pose a threat when the officers fired at least 18 rounds, an attorney for the father told The Associated Press.

A gag order now imposed on the case has kept many details under wraps, leaving many questions unanswered.

One thing is clear: The case has exposed long-simmering political rifts and rivalries among local officials and underscored the intertwined relationships that exist in small-town America.

“This is a personal fight between this mayor and the city judge. That’s all this is about,” said Wilton Desselle, 68, a lifelong Marksville resident who lives about a block from where the deadly shooting occurred.

Court records show that Stafford, 32, and Greenhouse, 23, had been issuing traffic tickets to other drivers on the night of the shooting. Few’s girlfriend also told one newspaper that Few and Greenhouse had a run-in after the deputy marshal showed her some attention, though it’s not clear if that played a role in the shooting.

Writing traffic tickets is normally a job left to local police. But this past summer, city Marshal Floyd Voinche Sr. began dispatching his deputies on patrols and the deputy marshals acquired police cruisers after the City Council slashed the city court’s budget at the recommendation of Mayor John Lemoine.

The court — which presides over traffic citations — sued the city over the deep cuts in July, saying that Marksville had stopped paying the salaries of Voinche, Judge Angelo Piazza III and the court’s clerks. The mayor has asked the attorney general to review the authority of the marshal’s office to issue tickets.

“I don’t know why they want to duplicate something that we’re doing already,” Lemoine told AP during an interview at the auto repair shop he owns.

Records kept by the state Supreme Court offer a possible motive: The number of traffic cases filed in Marksville City Court remained fairly steady for years before a steep drop last year, from 1,977 cases in 2013 to 829 cases in 2014.

Piazza said his court only keeps a modest cut of the money generated by each ticket — no more than $20 for court costs. He called it a “misguided notion” that his court had a financial incentive for deputy marshals to begin writing tickets.

Piazza referred questions about the deputies’ tickets to Voinche, who didn’t return a call for comment.

If the city marshal was banking on tickets to ease the court’s six-figure budget cut, his deputies were barely making a dent. Records provided to AP by the city court show that Stafford, Greenhouse and a third deputy issued a total of 55 tickets between Aug. 11 and Nov. 3, including four on the night of the shooting.

Marksville, with a population of roughly 5,500, looks like many rural towns of its size. The main drag through town is dotted with fast-food restaurants and a Walmart, but it also has a casino that attracts visitors from across the region. The bad blood between the mayor and the judge was hardly a secret in town.

Lemoine said he considered Piazza a friend, but their relationship began to deteriorate when he decided to run for mayor in 2010 after 27 years on the local school board. He said Piazza discouraged him from running.

Lemoine said he asked Piazza to remain neutral. “Well, he didn’t stay out of it. He got involved,” he said.

Lemoine and Stafford, one of the deputy marshals arrested in the shooting, also have a rocky history. Lemoine tried to get Stafford fired in 2011 from his job as a Marksville police lieutenant after he intervened in a confrontation between the mayor and another officer. In a report on the incident, Stafford described the mayor as “unprofessional and rude.”

Later that year, Stafford was indicted on rape charges. He returned to the department in 2012 after the charges were dismissed.

Greenhouse, whose father is a longtime prosecutor in Avoyelles Parish, where Marksville is based, resigned from the Marksville Police Department last year and had been working as a deputy marshal in Alexandria, about 30 miles to the west. His personnel file, obtained by the AP, shows he accused a Marksville city councilman of threatening to fire him in 2012 if he didn’t stop writing tickets “because the city only gets five dollars on every ticket and the court gets the rest.”

“I come to work to do my job,” Greenhouse wrote in a report riddled with typos. “I am tire3d of coming to work and getting theaten that I will lose my job if I do not stop enforing the law.”

Greenhouse also apparently had a previous run-in with Few, according to Few’s girlfriend, Megan Dixon. She told The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge that Greenhouse and Few argued after Greenhouse, a former high school classmate, sent her messages on Facebook and stopped by the house she shared with Few.

“I told Chris and Chris confronted him about it and told him, ‘Next time you come to my house, I’m going to hurt you,'” said Dixon, who declined to be interviewed when an AP reporter approached her outside her Marksville home.

The shooting occurred in a neighborhood known locally as “the Quarters,” where rows of modest homes abut a historic embankment of Indian mounds. Orange spray paint and a makeshift memorial — a wooden cross surrounded by a pile of stuffed animals, candles and balloons — mark the spot in the road where the deadly confrontation ended.

Jeremy Mardis was by all accounts a happy first-grader at Lafargue Elementary in Effie, Louisiana, where he attended school after his parents split and he moved to Marksville.

Mike Nichols, a 26-year-old resident of “the Quarters,” said he went to grade school with Greenhouse and lives around the corner from Greenhouse’s grandmother.

“This town is its own little world,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “If you know the right people here, you can get out of damn near anything.”

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