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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Three federal civil rights lawsuits charge that a group of New Orleans police officers in the chaotic days after Katrina turned into vigilantes and gunned down unarmed civilians.
The lawsuits focus on an incident that happened on a bridge in east New Orleans. Two men were killed, including a mentally retarded man who was shot in the back. Two others were maimed. The police say they were firing in self defense. Now a grand jury has begun looking into the shooting.
As NPR's John Burnett reports, there are serious doubts about the police account of what happened.
JOHN BURNETT: It's come to be known as the Danziger Bridge incident. At 9 a.m., Sunday, September 4, six days after Katrina, police received a Signal 108 - two officers down - under the concrete lift bridge that spans the Industrial Canal.
Seven officers rushed to the scene.
Police say when they arrived, at least four persons were shooting at them from the base of the bridge. Officers took positions and returned fire. The official police report identifies two sets of gunmen going up the east side of the half mile long bridge.
The investigation hinges on whether these people were the shooters, as the police maintain, or whether they were innocent civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the lawsuits claim.
One of the suspects, Lance Madison, has been arrested and charged with eight counts of attempted murder against police officers. The 49-year-old former college wide receiver stands at the foot of the bridge where it all happened.
Mr. LANCE MADISON (New Orleans resident): I didn't do anything wrong and I had no reason to be arrested. I'm up here trying to seek help for me, trying to get help for me and my little brother, trying to evacuate from the devastation that was going on down here.
BURNETT: Police claim Madison and another perpetrator were running up the bridge and firing at officers.
Madison is a 25 year employee of Federal Express and a member of a respected New Orleans family with no criminal record. The man he was with, who police called the unidentified gunman, was his brother, 40-year-old Ronald, who had mental retardation. He was a childlike soul who loved the family's two dachshunds and watched Three Stooges videos.
Lance says on that morning, he and Ronald, with their homes, flooded were crossing the bridge on their way to another brother's dental office where they were staying after the storm.
Lance says there was a group of teenagers near the bridge shooting at people. He says when the police arrived, they never identified themselves. They just opened fire.
Mr. MADISON: And we just kept running up the bridge and that's when I noticed one of the guy's jumped out of the truck had a rifle pointing towards me and my little brother, and shot my brother in the shoulder, the right shoulder.
BURNETT: Police say an officer saw Lance toss a handgun into the canal. Lance says neither he nor Ronald was armed. The police report says that when the pair reached the other side of the bridge, an officer approached Ronald, at which point he reached toward his waist and turned toward the officer, who shot him dead with one bullet.
Autopsy findings refute the police assertion. The pathologist found that Ronald Madison had seven gunshot wounds, five of them in his back.
The Madison family has left a spray of plastic flowers at the spot where Ronald was killed in front of the Friendly Motel.
Mr. MADISON: He was like the sunshine of our family. We really miss him. It's just unbelievable what happened. And I hope nobody has to go through what we've been through.
BURNETT: But the second group on the Danziger that morning went through a similar ordeal.
According to the police account, six other individuals ran up the bridge, jumped behind a low concrete barrier onto a walkway and fired at officers. Police say that group was the Bartholomew family - Leonard Sr., a longtime employee of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, his wife, Susan, their teenage son and daughter, their nephew and his friend.
The family contends they were unarmed, that they had been stranded by the storm and were walking to a Winn-Dixie supermarket for supplies. Susan Bartholomew, speaking out for the first time, says the attack was unprovoked.
Ms. SUSAN BARTHOLOMEW (New Orleans resident): I never thought that I would be shot. And I never thought I'd be shot by the police. I thought the police were there to protect.
BURNETT: Her statement echoes Lance Madison's - that officers opened fire without warning. Five out of six people in her group were hit. Terrified, Bartholomew says, they took cover behind the concrete barrier on the side of the bridge.
Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: When I looked, we were all on the ground and all you can see is blood. Everywhere. You can hear everybody's just hollering and moaning. You know, everyone been shot and in pain. And I look over, my right arm was on the ground like lying next to me. The only thing that was attached to it was a piece of skin. It had been shot off.
BURNETT: The interview took place in a Texas city she asked not be named because she fears retaliation. Bartholomew, a slight woman wearing a crucifix around her neck, had a gray sweater draped over the stump of her right arm.
She says after the gunfire, officers ran up onto the bridge, pointed weapons at them and told them not to look up. But she says she clearly saw blue shirts emblazoned with NOPD.
Her basic account was confirmed by her nephew, Jose Holmes, a 19-year-old high school dropout working at McDonald's. His police record shows he had two minor, non-criminal charges.
Holmes says a bullet struck him in the right arm, shattering his bone. As he cowered behind the low concrete wall, he says a police officer walked over to him.
Mr. JOSE HOLMES (New Orleans resident): He leaned over the cement block. He put the rifle to my stomach and shot me twice. They left and about a minute later, an ambulance came and picked us up.
BURNETT: Hospital and paramedic records confirm that Jose Holmes had four gunshot wounds, including two to his abdomen. He now wears a colostomy bag and has limited use of his right hand.
Police say they shot and killed another member of that group. The Bartholomew family says it was Holmes's friend, James Barset, a 19-year-old high school senior from the Ninth Ward.
Again, Susan Bartholomew.
Ms. BARTHOLOMEW: I'm sure if they got any kind of a heart that they realize that what they did was wrong. And it's something they can't call back. And lives are changed as a result. My arm is missing, I have to live with this and I can't help but see it every day. Only thing I can do is try to forgive these people and move on. And that's what I've been trying to do.
BURNETT: Fact checking the police report reveals that critical information is wrong. First, there were never two officers down at the scene, the cause of the original call.
Second, the main complainant is a man named David Ryder, who was posing that day as a St. Landry Parish deputy sheriff. He is the person who identified Lance Madison as a shooter. But Ryder is not an officer. He's a private citizen from Opelousas, Louisiana, who drove to New Orleans after Katrina to help out with rescues.
Finally, records show that Ronald Madison, mentally retarded since birth, was shot seven times, not once, as the police say.
Police Superintendent Warren Riley through his spokesperson declined repeated requests for an interview. His office referred questions to the Orleans Parish district attorney, Eddie Jordan, who was investigating the incident.
Mr. EDDIE JORDAN (Orleans Parish District Attorney): Well, anytime there's a shooting involving law enforcement officials and actually a death in this instance, it's something that's very serious, and we certainly want to determine if there is any criminal conduct involved.
BURNETT: The Danziger Bridge incident needs to be understood in the context of a major American city that had disintegrated.
Anthony Radosti is vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. He spent 23 years as an investigator in the NOPD.
Mr. ANTHONY RADOSTI (Metropolitan Crime Commission): The New Orleans Police Department was overwhelmed. Radio communications were at a minimum. They felt isolated, abandoned. They had no place to live or sleep. Rumors were just wild. Sniper fire, armed individuals on the street. And in some cases, that information was true.
BURNETT: An Arkansas paramedic who rode to the Danziger Bridge with police that morning told NPR that officers were involved in a five-minute gun battle. He heard people shooting back, but he says he was hiding and he couldn't see who they were.
Radosti sympathizes with embattled officers who were trying to take back their city - up to a point.
Mr. RADOSTI: But aggressive law enforcement has to come with common sense. If the officers there acted in good faith, the grand jury is going to exonerate them. But if the officers acted in bad faith, playing cowboys, that has to be seriously looked at.
BURNETT: The district attorney has not indicated whether or not he will prosecute Lance Madison. Jose Holmes was never arrested, despite the police insistence that he was a shooter.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Madison, Holmes and the Bartholomew family last month filed federal civil rights lawsuits against the city over the Danziger Bridge incident.
John Burnett, NPR News.