Drugs connect rash of East Bank murders
Sheriff Greg Champagne said in his time as the parish’s top law enforcement officer, the number of murders in any given year has fluctuated. Despite an increase of the number of murders in the past 11 months, it is nothing out of the ordinary.
"St. Charles Parish has experienced anywhere from one to four murders per calendar year. This is true for at least the last 20 years," Champagne said. "While the killing of any human being is unacceptable, thus far this year, the number of homicides has not exceeded the typical number."
The most recent murder took place on Saturday, March 23 in the Charlestowne section of St. Rose where Deaneal "Woodie" Rachal was found on the sidewalk on Summertown Drive at 12:45 a.m. dead from a single gunshot wound.
Rachal was a St. John the Baptist Parish resident and was thought to be living in the Ole Man River Apartment complex in St. Rose at the time of his death.
In an obituary released by Memorial Park Funeral Home in Metairie, Johnson was listed as a Reserve resident.
Due to the deceased’s connection to nearby St. John the Baptist Parish, St. John Parish Sheriff Mike Tregre said his office was working with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office.
"We’re working closely with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office to establish or determine if there is a link to the cases we are working in St. John," Tregre said. "I don’t know that we have established any definite connections as of yet, but we are working with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office."
St. John Parish has also experienced a recent upswing in the number of murders with eight killed in the parish so far this year.
Champagne confirmed the collaboration between the two sheriff’s offices.
"We are closely watching the incidents, including homicides, in St. John Parish and processing information we learn from them. They are doing the same with us," he said.
Tregre said his office has noticed more organized criminal activity in his parish.
"There are some young men that have certain initials for their groups," he said. "I don’t even call them a gang at this time, but they dress all alike and they travel in groups."
He said Rachal’s death may be connected to such a group.
Rachal had previously been arrested in St. John Parish for a litany of crimes including aggravated battery and assault, illegal use of weapons, possession of stolen goods and theft of a firearm.
"We are looking into the possibility of a relationship or an acquaintance or maybe people who have been known to hang out with each other. That is something we are looking at and trying to find that distinctive pattern," Tregre said.
The St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office has not noted such groups operating in St. Charles Parish and has made no connection between organized crime and the recent murders.
However, two of the four murders in the parish within the past ten months occurred within a two-block radius in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of St. Rose and appear to be connected.
First, Jared Mealey was found gunned down in his still running car on the evening of May 29, 2012. Sixteen-year-old Keywine Bradford and 19-year-old Leslie Reed were arrested and charged with the murder, but charges were never brought against Reed and Bradford is being held for the crime.
Reed was in a car with 18-year-old Michael McCray on Jan. 11 when multiple gunmen fired at least 17 shots into the vehicle killing McCray, but leaving Reed uninjured. Three St. Rose men and one Boutte man were later arrested and charged with first degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder.
Relatives of McCray said they believe Reed was the intended target for his alleged involvement in the Mealey murder.
In addition, 21-year-old Jay Bertucci was shot to death in Norco on Dec. 15, 2012 in a struggle with a gunman who appeared at his apartment door with the alleged intent on burglarizing Bertucci’s residence. Three black males were said to have fled from the scene and no one has been arrested for the murder.
Champagne said his office is doing everything they can to bring those responsible for murders occurring in the parish to justice.
"We have arrested every participant in both the Mealy homicide and the more recent McCray homicide. Now, the judicial process will run its course," Champagne said.
Although the Sheriff’s Office last sent out a request for information from the community on the Bertucci murder case in late February, no one has been apprehended for that crime.
However, in Rachal’s murder, Champagne said his office has been continuously investigating the crime since it occurred and believe they are close to major developments in the case.
"I can say that we do have significant leads and I expect that we will be making arrests at some point in the near future," Champagne said.
Champagne said he is disheartened by the recent murders.
"St. Charles has been fortunate relative to our historically low rate of violent crime. However, we are certainly concerned with the recent incidents. Homicide is perhaps the most difficult of offenses to predict and/or prevent. It is difficult to prevent someone who is hell bent on killing another human being from doing so," he said.
One link seemingly connects all four murders that have occurred in St. Charles Parish - drugs.
Tregre said early information they have received on Rachal’s case has centered on a possible drug connection.
"We’ve heard it is drug related. I have nothing to confirm that at this time. That is just word on the street. That is the only thing we have," he said. "As citizens are coming forward and are speaking to us it is supposed to be drug related, but we don’t have anything to confirm that at this time."
The St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office released information about Bertucci’s death that said the murder appeared to be drug related as well.
In the case of McCray’s murder, Reed and McCray are said to have been smoking marijuana in McCray’s car when the shooters opened fire. Although McCray had a clean criminal record, Reed was arrested at the scene of the murder for possession of marijuana and has an extensive criminal record including drug possession and weapons violations.
Mealey, the first murder victim, was also under probation for a marijuana possession conviction at the time of his murder and had previously been arrested for possession of crack cocaine as a juvenile, but those charges were later refused by the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office.
Since the Preston Hollow murders of Mealey and McCray, the Sheriff’s Office is said to have increased their presence in the neighborhood.
Keith Adams, president of the Preston Hollow homeowner’s association, said he and other community leaders met with Sheriff’s Office representatives earlier this year.
"We talked about community policing efforts and getting more of a police presence in the area," Adams said.
He said the recent presence of more deputies, as well as the way residents are treated by deputies, has changed for the better.
"You wouldn’t normally see any police officers or police cars. Now the (deputies) seem a little more friendly and it looks positive," Adams said. "They are making their presence known, and it’s not what you would expect."
Despite more law enforcement in troubled areas of the parish, Champagne said it takes more responsibility on behalf of the communities themselves, especially that of parents.
"This is a community and cultural problem, not just a law enforcement problem," he said. "Parents need to take control over their children and raise them properly at a young age. This is not happening with many families and the cycle of violence is perpetuated."
Champagne also said his office would continue to aggressively patrol the parish, but encouraged open and honest communication from community members who are witness to criminal acts.
"Citizens also need to take control over their own destiny by keeping the lines of communication open with law enforcement," he said. "In other words, they need to call us, call 911, call Crime Stoppers with any information they deem relevant to past or prospective criminal acts."
Those who may have information in the death of Rachal are asked to contact Det. Joseph Dewhirst with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office at (985)783-1135 or (985)783-6807
For those who may have information in the death of Bertucci, Det. Jeremy Pitchford with the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office can be reached at (985)783-1135 or (985)783-6807.
Citizens with information on either murder may also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at (877)903-STOP and could receive a reward of up to $2,500.
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