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Arrests of 3 Grand Isle officers leave troubled department with just 3 to police town

The raiding deputies said they discovered marijuana was missing from an evidence bag and $4,000 was missing from a department cash box. They seized 32 guns, numerous items stored in the department's evidence room and police reports.

June 8, 2016

Recent months have been tough for the small police force patrolling Grand Isle. It was raided in the course of a Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office drug sting, its assistant chief accidentally drove into a beach sunbather, and its top cop was in the middle of a recently settled lawsuit alleging a child molestation cover-up.

Perhaps the worst blow landed Wednesday, when three of its officers were arrested by the Sheriff's Office on accusations of malfeasance, leaving the embattled department with just three cops to protect an island town of about 1,300 residents and numerous summertime visitors.

Police Chief Euris DuBois said he was "stunned" by the uncomfortable position he found himself in: probably being forced to ask the Sheriff's Office, the same agency that had just arrested half his department, to lend him some deputies.

The Sheriff's Office did not provide many details on the arrests of the Grand Isle cops, who were jailed along with the owner of a popular island nightclub as well as one of her employees.

But the Sheriff's Office did link the arrests to a probe accompanying a mid-March raid on the Grand Isle department's headquarters, executed amid allegations that local cops had been careless in safeguarding evidence and had interfered with parish deputies' undercover narcotics investigations.

The raiding deputies said they discovered marijuana was missing from an evidence bag and $4,000 was missing from a department cash box. They seized 32 guns, numerous items stored in the department's evidence room and police reports.

Sheriff Newell Normand discussed that raid in March at the same he announced the arrest and indictment of several people in Grand Isle in connection with a separate narcotics investigation that he said caught some of the island's biggest methamphetamine dealers.

Normand hinted then at broader potential misconduct among Grand Isle law enforcement officials, whose practices he said the Sheriff's Office began scrutinizing in the latter part of 2014, after another narcotics operation led to the arrest of 58 people, including two island firefighters. Normand said defendants involved in that case had informed deputies of improprieties at Grand Isle's Police Department.

Yet as recently as Tuesday, DuBois had said he was unaware of the status of the sheriff's investigation and was simply looking forward to his June 30 retirement.

DuBois said he realized the investigation was far from dormant when a Sheriff's Office lieutenant came to his office about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday and asked him to summon Capt. Tyson Gravette, 32; Lt. Elgene Gary, 72; and Officer Cameron Westbrook, 27, to headquarters.

"Then, maybe a half-hour later, that's when (the lieutenant) ... says, 'Look, chief, I've got some bad news,' " DuBois said — that Gravette, Gary and Westbrook would all be booked on counts of malfeasance, or breaking the law in the course of carrying out their duties.

Gravette and Westbrook were additionally booked on one count each of extortion.

The Sheriff's Office also booked Karrie Mulac, 49, and Tasha Eschete, 40, on one count each of extortion. Mulac owns Grand Isle's Club Oasis, which is frequently packed on weekend nights with youthful dancers and drinkers; Eschete works there as a bartender, DuBois said.

DuBois said Gary is a 12-year veteran, Gravette has eight years and Westbrook has been on the force for a little over a year. None has ever been the subject of a serious complaint, according to DuBois.

"That's why I'm puzzled and shocked at these charges," he said.

He said he planned to place the officers on leave with no pay, even if they are able to get out on bail relatively quickly.

It has not been a banner year for Grand Isle's first responders.

An audit report published after the March police headquarters raid found that the island's company of volunteer firefighters spent a significant chunk of its public funding from Jefferson Parish on things that had no valid purpose and on occasion were possibly illegal.

In April, the island's assistant police chief, Norris Esponge, drove into a woman as she was sunbathing on a local beach, critically injuring her. Prosecutors were still reviewing that incident as of Wednesday, but DuBois said he has since accepted the resignation of Esponge, who was once among seven police officers serving Grand Isle, including the three arrested Wednesday.

Then, last month, officials announced the settling of a lawsuit that claimed Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle and DuBois intentionally botched an investigation into whether an elderly boat captain with personal ties to both men had molested a 6-year-old boy in 2010. Details of the settlement have not been released.

When DuBois leaves office at the end of the month, he will be replaced by Laine Landry, who defeated Esponge and two other opponents in a March election to succeed the 67-year-old outgoing chief.

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