Tragedy hits River Parishes in ’99

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 29, 1999

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / December 29, 1999

The year 1999 will be remembered in the news as a year of tragedy and hope.

There horrible traffic accidents, explosions, political scandals, serial killers and sexual predators that affected the River Parishes. On the otherside of the coin, St. Charles and St. John parishes will be starting the newcentury with a sign of hope -they both elected new presidents and new councils to take them into the new millennium.

The top ten stories of 1999 in the River Parishes, as selected by L’Observateur’s editorial staff, are: 1. Mother’s Day Bus CrashA bus trip from LaPlace to Casino Magic in Mississippi on Mother’s Day, May 9, turned to disaster when the chartered bus careened off Interstate 610 in New Orleans and smashed into a concrete embankment. The accidentleft 22 dead and 21 others injured. Most of the fatalities were residentsof Place DuBourg in LaPlace.

The bus driver, Frank Bedell, maintained he was trying to avoid a car, but an investigation showed Bedell was sick and had marijuana in his bloodstream at the time of the crash. It also turned out Bedell had beenfired from several other bus driving jobs because of poor health.

Bedell died from a heart attack before the investigation could be completed.

2. Kaiser Plant ExplosionOn the morning of July 5 a huge explosion in a processing unit at the Kaiser Plant shook up the towns of Gramercy and Lutcher. A red cloud ofbauxite ore coated the surrounding area, causing a general panic about caustic substances in the air, but other than a few sore throats nobody in Garyville, Lutcher or anywhere else outside the plant were injured.

Many broken windows were reported from the explosion.

Inside the plant over 22 workers were injured, four of them seriously burned. All survived. The Kaiser plant was shut down while the MineSafety and Health Administration conducted hearings into the explosion and Kaiser executives decided what to do next. The Kaiser companydecided to rebuild the plant, much to the relief of the community. MSHAshould release a report on the explosion in the near future, and the plant is still shut down while repairs are being done.

3. St. James High School BoycottAt the St. James Parish School Board meeting on July 27, newly-appointedSuperintendent Edward Cancienne shuffled his staff and ended up angering a lot of parents. He took the principal of St. James High School, RidgleyMitchell, and put him in charge of a new “alternative” school for troubled students.

Mitchell was very well liked and respected by both students and parents at St. James High, and the parents, outraged by Cancienne’s actions,demanded Mitchell be re-instated as principal of St. James High.Cancienne and the School Board refused, and the parents threatened action.

On the first day of school angry parents kept their children out of most of the St. James public schools on the west bank. About a third of the studentbody was kept out of school while parents marched in protest in front of St. James High. Despite threats of legal action by Cancienne, the parentskept up the boycott for several weeks.

The protestors were arrested for illegal parading, but a federal court said they had the right to protest. Almost all the students finally returned toclass, but the parents have sued the St. James School Board and they stillwant Mitchell back as principal of St. James High.4. School Coach Arrested for MolestationThe town of Norco was rocked to its very foundation on Aug. 5 when St.Charles Parish Sheriff Brian Champagne announced the arrest of a popular coach and teacher at Sacred Heart Elementary School on charges of child molestation.

Brian Matherne, 46, was charged with 300 counts of molestation, 60 counts of sexual battery, 30 counts of oral sexual battery, 10 counts of indecent behavior with a juvenile, nine counts of contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and two counts of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. After an investigation by Champagne and the Archdiocese of NewOrleans, it was discovered that Matherne had been molesting students aged 11 to 17 for the past 13 years. Most of the molestations took placeat a fishing camp that belongs to the school out on Airline Highway.

Matherne is in the St. Charles jail under $1.5 million bond awaiting trialset for Feb. 22, 2000.5. St. John Parish Housing ScandalDisgruntled tenants of the St. John Parish Housing Authority made avideotape of the deplorable living conditions in several of the housing developments in the parish in June. They were prompted when theexecutive director of the SJHA, Patrena Ester, reported to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that there was nothing wrong with the St. John public housing. The tape was sent to HUD, and the Parish Councilwas informed that HUD was investigating charges of impropriety and falsifying of federal records in the St. John Housing Authority. The council then hired an attorney and began its own investigation. HUD’sreport blamed the council and the residents for the housing authority’s problems. The council’s investigation led to the firing of the entire Boardof Commissioners for “negligence.” The council also fired Ester, whichHUD said was illegal since only the Board of Commissioners could fire her.

Parish President Arnold Labat declared himself head of the Housing Authority after Ester was fired, and he was arrested and charged with trespassing by HUD for illegally entering the Housing Authority office.

A new board was appointed and on Sept. 13, the board fired Ester, herassistant, Clara Lewis, and the Housing Authority’s legal counsel, William O’Regan. The board claimed that Ester and O’Regan had conspired to makean illegal and secret employment contract for Lewis without asking the board’s permission.

The new board, under the leadership of chairperson Sheila Morris, has slowly turned the Housing Authority around in the past two months. Theyare hiring a new executive director, all sub-par housing has been repaired and new rules have been instituted that will be fair to all housing tenants.

6. Plant LayoffsAt the beginning of December IMC-Agrico announced it would begin scaling back its operations at its three plants in St. James and St. John parishes. This resulted in the layoffs of 250 local residents.

Despite a booming national economy, IMC-Agrico blamed the slow down on the world market whose economy has not kept up with the United States.

Lower farm prices and lack of orders from overseas forced the company to lay off its workers.

7. ElectionIn November, St. Charles and St. John parishes entered a new era ofpolitics when the electorate voted in new parish presidents and new parish council members.

In St. Charles, Albert “Punk” Laque was elected parish president, a post heheld from 1988 to 1992. There are also three new faces on the St. CharlesParish Council – Clayton “Snookie” Faucheux Jr., Desmond Hilaire and AprilBlack.

In St. John Parish, Councilman Nickie Monica won his bid for parishpresident in a run-off against Carl “Butch” Baloney. Monica will be workingwith a brand-new council that will have six new members, including the first female ever to sit on the St. John Parish Council. New members are Allen St. Pierre, Melissa Faucheux, Lester Rainey Jr.,Job Boucvalt, Cleveland Farlough and Steve Lee.

St. John Parish voters also elected a new Clerk of Court, ElianaDeFrancesch.

In the Legislative races, the district got a new senator when Joel Chaisson beat out incumbent Sen. Ron Landry. Gary Smith beat BrianChampagne for Chaisson’s old representative seat.

8. Old and New School Superintendents in St. John and St. JamesParishes Both parishes saw a changing of the guard in their respective school districts for 1999.

Walter Landry was the interim superintendent for St. James Schools andhad been acting in that capacity for a year following the retirement of John Boughton. The St. James School Board refused to evaluate hisperformance at the end of the interim year and voted not to re-new his contract.

After a lot of discussion, some board members did evaluate Landry, but the group still decided to look for a new superintendent. In May, the St.James School Board selected P. Edward Cancienne as the newsuperintendent. Cancienne is the former superintendent of AssumptionParish Schools.

Landry has filed a federal lawsuit against the school board claiming his civil rights were violated and that the St. James School Boarddiscriminated against him because of his African-American heritage.

Cleveland Farlough was superintendent of the St. John School System forthree years. During his tenure, he had started several magnet schools andbrought the school system out of a $1 million deficit. In fact, when heleft, the schools had an extra $1 million dollars in its coffers.

However the School Board voted not to extend his contract when it ran out on June 30. Instead the board picked Assistant Superintendent ChrisDonaldson to take the reins as superintendent. Farlough, who retired, didnot let this deter him from public service. In November he was elected thenew Councilman-at-Large in Division A for the St. John Parish Council andwill be sworn in on Jan. 10, 2000.9. Guilty verdict for Daniel BlankSerial killer Daniel Blank was tried and sentenced to death in September for the murder of Lillian Phillippe, a 71-year-old Gonzales woman who Blank stabbed to death in 1997.

Blank is also accused of five other murders in Ascension, St. James and St.John parishes that shocked the River Parishes from 1997-1998.

Blank’s motivation for the killings was to feed his gambling habit. Blank isscheduled to go on trial for three murders in St. John Parish on March 8,2000.

10. Kaiser StrikeA year after they declared a strike, 345 workers of the Gramercy Kaiser plant are still walking the picket lines along with 3,000 other Kaiser employees nationwide. A candlelight ceremony was held on Sept. 30 tomark the anniversary. The workers’ union claims Kaiser is guilty of unfairlabor practices, and Kaiser says it has made fair offers over the year. Theon-again, off-again negotiations continue with no real progress in sight.

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