Murder, Chaos, and Cover-Ups After Hurricane Katrina, with Ronnie Greene

January 30, 2017

Ronnie Green is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and author whose latest book is Shots on the Bridge: Police Violence and Cover-Up in the Wake of Katrina. His book follows the true story of an innocent family seeking help and security in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but was instead ambushed by New Orleans police officers’ gunfire. Further outrage comes not just from the massacre itself but that the officers and their supervisors at the New Orleans Police Department planted evidence in an attempt to cover up the murders.

In a city overtaken my chaos and police officers overcome by fear, catastrophe ensued, leaving the surviving family to pick up the pieces left by the hurricane that ran through their lives. The victims’ family endured over a decade of legal battles before the officers at fault pleaded guilty to the charges. This story is a clear account of how the very people meant to protect and serve citizens can break the law, cover their tracks, and manipulate the legal system.

This is point of inquiry, welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is Ronnie Green. He’s here today to talk to us about his new book, Shots on the Bridge, Police Violence and Cover Up in the Wake of Katrina. Ronnie, welcome to the program. 

Thanks for having me. The seminal events of the book took place on September 4th, 2005, on the Danziger Bridge. Can you set the scene for us? 

I can. And of course, this was during the chaotic, really kind of cosmic period right after Hurricane Katrina. This was the first Sunday morning after Katrina struck earlier in the week. And what you had happening on the Danziger Bridge, a small bridge in New Orleans, was really the confluence and connection of a couple of families and police all coming together in one tragic moment. That morning, the police had gotten what they call a one hour wait call, officer under distress. Officer down was was how the call was heard by officers. And these officers were operating from a banquet hall in East New Orleans. 

That was their headquarters after the hurricane. So a couple of days earlier, Lindsay, a fellow officer, had been shot in the head. Police were way beyond high alert. Many of the officers involved had been carrying their own weapons and they went out into the streets. New Orleans after Katrina. One officer carried a 30 inch AK 47 assault rifle with him. 

They got the call this morning and they once again think that an officer is under fire. They hop in a giant budget rental truck that got them around during the very difficult days in storm to the Danziger Bridge, about three miles away. And they were going there. There were two families who just happened to be on on the bridge that morning. One of them is the Bartholomew family. The family that didn’t leave New Orleans before Katrina because there were like 10 or 11 family members, only one van. So they decided to all stay and they had taken refuge in a really dumpy hotel room off the bridge that morning there they were going to walk over the bridge to a grocery store that just opened up to get some medicine and some cleaning supplies. 

And then the other family on the bridge that morning was two brothers, the Madison brothers, Landes and Ronald. Ronald was a 40 year old with a mental development of a six year old who would not leave New Orleans with Katrina coming because he wouldn’t leave his dogs. And he begged and pleaded and even sobbed. So ultimately, the family was very proud. New Orleans family decided that Ronald would stay with his older brother, Lance, and Lance’s condo. Lance was a onetime NFL football player. Both families Bartholomews in the Madisons were swept away literally by the storm. Both were sent to the roofs looking for help. And on this morning, Lance and Ronald had tried to walk over the bridge to the family home to get on bikes. And right away they couldn’t get there. So they then were walking back over the bridge. You had this moment where you have police two officers in front, nine officers in back of this budget rental truck racing to the bridge, taking shots are being fired. And you have two families just trying to survive the storm. 

How did the police come to the idea that shots are being fired? Who told them? Did anybody? 

Yeah, that was part of the crazy series of events that morning. Apparently earlier that morning nearby, there were a couple of guys who had guns and had been firing. And what this whole thing began when a whole nother set of officers unrelated to the shooters on the bridge, the Danziger Bridge, were going down the ITN and a man waved them down. A man in the sheriff’s uniform waved them down and said, people are firing at me. 

So that led to a series of calls up to leading to shots fired. So one away, officer under distress. So at the Crystal Palace, which was this banquet hall where these officers were stationed, they got the call. They went away. They then hustle into this bridge puzzlements into the truck, I should say, a race to the bridge. One of the many crazy moments in this and this whole tragic series of events was the guy in the sheriff’s uniform who flagged down officers initially, wasn’t even a sheriff’s deputy. He actually was going had a police record and was posing as an officer. But he indeed said in those motions that led the officers to the Danziger Bridge where they encountered these two families. 

Can we just take a little sidebar here? How is this fake? Police officer Fallon came to be accepted by the police as one of their own, at least temporarily? 

Well, you know, the rules were just there were no rules, essentially after Katrina. The rules were out the window. And everyone who is still in New Orleans then, whether it’s police or residents, were in a panic state, say the least. Police certainly were. As I had mentioned, several police officers went out not only with the police as you’ve Glocks, but with their own high powered weapons. And they weren’t getting around in police vehicles. We’re getting around and in this case, you know, a budget rental truck. Anything they can commandeer to get by. And so it was beyond chaos. So when another unrelated set of officers are going down the ITN and someone in the police uniforms as shots fired, there’s not a whole lot of questions being answered, is looking for who who were who was firing the shots. 

And this guy just commandeered a police uniform for himself. 

He must have. Yeah. And apparently there were shots being fired that were not part of the equation was true. But the fact that the guy who flagged down an officer initially was not even a deputy, just one of the many bizarre, surreal moments. And as I said, this truly catastrophic, tragic series movements. 

And so the police in their van pulled up to the van and then just emptied out and started firing, essentially. 

Well, it even actually started firing before they stopped. So they’re in this budget rental truck. They’re raising to the foot of the bridge. And they say a couple of groups of people, the Bartholomew family, were the closest to them. And I should say there were six members of the Bartholomew family that morning. There was the mother, Susan Bartholomew, who had made the decision that her family. They couldn’t all leave together. They would stay. She was there with her husband, their two oldest children, one of their nephews, a name Hoh’s A and Hoess good friend, JDA percent. 

So there was a group of six at the foot of the bridge. And then further up the bridge were the Madison Brothers. So as the bus, your own truck is careening to the bridge. The driver, a former Marine, he’s the officer who put his AK 47 in between the seats every time he went out into the community. He sees them ahead, didn’t see any any weapons that he can detect. But there’s a feeling there’s a frenzied feeling in that by your own truck that police were heading to a shootout that just a couple of days earlier, a colleague of mine had they believed honestly that there had been an officer down, that there had been shots fired. There apparently had been some shots fired earlier nearby, but they are expecting the worst. So when the driver pulls out before he even brings the budget rental truck to a stop, he stared with his right hand and leaned out the window with his left and fired what he described as warning shots with his left hand at the family ahead of them. The family, of course, have no idea why it or someone shooting at them. They start to scatter. They start to jump over a railing at the bridge and then the budget or truck screeches to a halt. We’ve got to remember, there were nine officers in back. They couldn’t see in front of them. The back doors are open. They can only see what’s behind them. So they hear shots. So they they jump out. And all of sudden the officers, many officers in the truck peeled out and started firing at these families. And by the time that the shooting was done, two people were killed. Ronald Madison, the 40 year old who wouldn’t leave his dogs. He had seven gunshot wounds in his back on one end of the bridge. He was dead and the other under the bridge. James Precent Jr., the family friend, 17 years old, on the customers of his life, was shot, was killed as well. Of the eight people, four others were seriously injured. Susan Bartholomew, the mother who wouldn’t leave because she wouldn’t leave family behind her arm, was shot off not to be amputated. And then. After that, not long after that, police announced they were charging Lance Madison, who’s lost his brother in this gunfire and charging Hosie Holmes, who was within a breath of his life. The police allege that they had fired first. It was part of a massive cover up where police planted a gun and rented witnesses and create a truly phony story, trying to explain away what happened that morning, who planted the gun? 

There was a supervising sergeant. One of the sergeants who investigated right after the shooting as the victims were still laid out on this bridge. 

Of course, dozens and dozens and dozens, maybe more police officers all descended on the bridge, including a couple of supervising lieutenant in sergeants who were then investigate the shooting. See what happened right there on the bridge. One of the supervising sergeants whispered to a colleague, I got a gun, meaning I can plant a gun. Because as officers were looking at all the victims, several officers not related, not involved in the shooting, those who came up later to look around, there were no guns near any of the families because the families were armed. They had no guns. So as part of this truly massive and stunning cover up that New Orleans police conceived, they planted a gun a day later. They said they found a gun on the side of the bridge and they said it was Lance Madison’s gun and that was a fiction. 

Do you think that this is something that could have happened in any city under such a crisis, that it’s a product of police culture? Or do you think that there are specific facts about the New Orleans Police Department that made this happen? 

You know, that’s a really good question. There’s no question you have to take into account the time. This was an unprecedented time after Katrina. You know, this devastating hurricane which flooded the streets and left everyone truly in survival mode. Everyone, police and residents. And you also have to take an account, which I really gave it a lot of thought to the police heading to that bridge suspect that they are going to be in a gunfight. They expected that it was gonna be a life or death situation. There’s no doubt about that. So you can certainly understand the fear going to the bridge. But what no one can explain is to cover up the cover up that happened. And I think a big part of that in my research shows I think, well, it has to do with the leadership that this time the mayor and the city was Ray Nagin. He was a populist mayor, first time elected official, a businessman who had no prior political experience. He really sent the word out that the police were in charge of police can control themselves. There was a much different culture than years earlier when Marc Morial, who now is president of the National Urban League, was the mayor of New Orleans. And he at one point had the FBI embedded within the police to make clear that the police were there to protect and serve, but they were not going to skirt the laws or are not going to get away with abusing residents. The culture, I think, was different, was significantly different in New Orleans after Katrina. And I didn’t get you can’t get really any sense at the officers involved were looking over their shoulders at what their bosses were going to do. They felt comfortable enough to create this fiction. I need to add that the fiction may very well have held, had it not been for the families of the Madison family, the Bartholomew family and James Besets mom, Cheryl Johnson, pushing for answers and really creating a whole different narrative of what happened that morning. 

If you would separate the shooting from the cover up in the final analysis. After all the research that you’ve done, would you say that shooting the people on the bridge was criminal in itself, outside of procedure in itself? Or would you separated and say the police were justified or excusable for what they did? 

No, no, I think both both acts, the shooting and the cover up of both criminal action. That’s very clear. You know, I try to keep in mind the fear the officers had going to the bridge, no doubt. But you can’t shoot first and ask questions later. And there’s no evidence, in fact, that any questions were asked. The police started firing before making sure they knew who they were dealing with in that opening. 

Clear that nobody ever saw. I mean, obviously, no one was armed. We can conclude that they never saw anything that could be. Was there ever anything that could have been construed as a weapon or through perceptual miscues or anything like that? Could anyone have claimed plausibly that they did see a weapon? 

Yeah, I think the police tried to make that case that they thought they thought that some of the victims are wrong. But there’s no evidence the victims were not armed. You know, beginning and end of story. They were not armed. And the federal prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department Justice who took this case made it very clear, yes, there was panic. Yes, it was a crazy time, but you can’t shoot first and ask questions later. They made very, very strong case that the shooting itself was a criminal act in in the consequences to dead and for maimed. I think demonstrate that. And then beyond that, of course, the cover up with its own set of criminal activity lands. Madison, the protector of his younger brother, spent 25 days in jail on phony charges in the police would have charged. I’m sorry, would have charged Holmes a Holmes junior. He’s the nephew of the Bartholomew family. But he was in the hospital that. Fighting for his life. So both act a the shooting, an act B, the cover up were both criminal acts. 

What role this race play into this story? 

Well, all the victims in this case, the eight residents are all black. The police officers responded and fired their weapons or a mix of black and white. I think one thing Marc Morial told me Leighann Lord, you know, about these events was that he called the blue line. The blue line of the police officers is what held the officers together more so than their own race, that once they once they decided to do what they did, they all stuck together. And that really showed Lindsay in the cover up. One of the lieutenants who showed up at the bridge after the shooting was a very well respected officer, lots accommodations in his file. He started looking at what happened. These two sets of victims on both ends of the bridge. He saw no weapons by them. He knew right away there was something deeply wrong with this. And then some of the officers who fired their weapons were answering his questions in his own words. He knew this was a, quote unquote, bullshit story, but he stayed with it. He said essentially later on said all of these were my friends and I decided to stick with the police. So it’s the brotherhood, the sisterhood of that blue line of their uniform that held them together. I think more so than race. But the victims in this case, all were black. 

But do you think that there’s a certain cultural presumption of guilt of black people from a certain neighborhood in New Orleans being shot dead by police on the bridge, that the police have a certain amount of plausibility and simply say, well, of course, they were shooting at us? 

Well, that that’s a good question, because one of the one of the sergeants who played a key role in the cover up, he ordered a records check on the victims on the bridge, assuming it would come back with hits. And when it came back clean, he was startled. 

He. So there were assumptions there. There’s no question there were assumptions and think perhaps that were perhaps based on race. But what happened here was these were good families, the Madison family and some family of 10 brothers and sisters, several of whom died way too young in life. But this is a very proud family. One of the brothers, the oldest brother in the family, was at one point the president of the National Dental Society another. Other members of the family were engineers and studied chemistry. They were very proud family. So when Ronald was shot dead, his brother looked after like like an angel. And Lance was arrested. They knew the truth was wrong. I mean, the brother who was a dentist, he had treated several officers as patients. One of the sisters had been married to a police officer. So there are assumptions to the CCRI they were made were truly dead wrong in this case. 

What’s there the officers response say about the Tritton level of training and professionalism within the New Orleans Police Department at the time? Were officers trained to respond to emergency situations adequately? 

That’s a really good question that came out this. The Department of Justice, apart from this case, apart from some other cases that happened. Former Justice separately, the civil rights division that a thorough investigation into the policies and protocols of the New Orleans police. And found significant weakness. Found patterns of discrimination against minorities in the way the police dealt with the community. That ultimately led to a consent decree between the city and the DOJ, Department of Justice, where the city has promised a great deal of reforms. So I think the policies and procedures, some degree that they were not really firm factored into with the response and factored into the way the officers dealt with this cover up. 

At every turn in the book, it seems like the breakdown of communications was central to each of the tragic links in this chain. Whose fault was it that the New Orleans Police Department had no backup communication system when their initial communication system was destroyed? 

No, you’re right. They were they were communicating through handheld radio and you didn’t even know who was talking on the other. And it was static. 

It was crazy. People talking over each other, which clearly would have contributed to the chaos in the way officers responded in cases like this after Katrina. The top leaders of the New Orleans Police Department fired what they called after action reports, talking about how well-prepared the city was for this. And I think a lot of this has to go on the city sort of as the umbrella over the department. And they were devastatingly unprepared for this. The police department was not ready for this. From the mayor on down, the city was not ready for a tragedy on this level. 

Katrina was an anomalous event. But neurons is a city that’s the most famous drink is called the hurricane. I mean, it seems. How is it possible that New Orleans could not be prepared as a city in the modern world for a big hurricane? 

Yeah, they they weren’t. I mean, the city was in the city and the department were were so unprepared. They didn’t think about officers need for drinking water for restrooms. I mean, there was just chaos. And it’s really unexplainable in some ways unfathomable. I should also say that the state was very slow to respond. The state was very slow to respond to the city’s request for help. Federal government, FEMA was very slow to respond. I think you could look at from the city to the state, the federal government across the line, that none of them were ready for this and that it was in some ways an indictment of the government writ large response. And it showed I mean, it showed essentially officers were on their own officers. New Orleans were on their own. Early on, I went to my research, so I went to the sentencing of five officers who were convicted in federal court. And none of those officers spoke at the sentencing. Several other officers who patrolled Katrina at that time did, and several of them said no, go to excuse. What happened as far as the cover up? Some of them said this could have been me and the words it was so chaotic, the rules were out the window that there really were no rules. And I think that lack of planning factored in ultimately to the lack of an organized response to two calls like this to want away calls like this with tragic circumstances. JDA Overset was killed in Ronald Madison, was killed. 

How did the family go about pushing back against the police narrative, asking questions? 

The Madison family hired both criminal and civil lawyers who were veterans in in Louisiana. The other families did as well, the Bartholemew families and DRL Johnson Jayjay small. And they just ask questions. And they they knocked on doors. They walked over the evidence. And they all the family started filing lawsuits. About a year after the events of September 2005 or 2006, summer of 2006, they started filing lawsuits that said none of us were armed. The police didn’t ask any questions. They they shot first and ask questions later. This was a breakdown in the way New Orleans police operated. And those lawsuits were filed before any charges were filed. And I really think it changed the narrative of events. One of the lawyers involved is Mary, how she represents the massive family on the civil end. She has represented families and civil rights lawsuits against police in New Orleans and Louisiana for decades and was really well practice and looking into the fine print in other lawyers for other families were as well. So they really pushed a narrative. You know, the lawsuit alone is not going to change the outcome. It took prosecutors willing to take a look. I should mention that two waves lindsy of prosecutions. The first was by was locally by the state in that case fell apart in state court. And the officers, when they went to their first state court procedure or literally hailed as heroes in the streets. That case fell apart. But the U.S. DOJ Civil Rights Division took its own look in the. I got heavily involved in the Department of Justice ask questions and had not been asked before and knocked on doors and have not been knocked on before and in helped really expose its cover up. But honestly, it was the families pushing that was the first instigator to all that. 

Do you think it’s fair to say that if the families hadn’t had the means to hire such seasoned lawyers to file these lawsuits, that the police narrative would have prevailed? 

I think that’s a distinct possibility. If the family didn’t have the means to do it, I think that’s that’s a very fair point. If the families didn’t have the means to push and push to push, would the truth have ever come out? Maybe not. Maybe not. 

One of my favorite parts of the book is the account of how the conspiracy itself took shape. You describe it as almost writing a fictitious screenplay. Can you? It’s fascinating to me because you rarely get to see Sted detailed postmortem on how a real life conspiracy comes together. Can you give us a rundown on the step by step there? 

Sure, yeah. Actually, you know, it started right there on the bridge with when you had the victim still sprawled out and the supervising lieutenant who was a bullshit story, decided to stick with the team, you know, to stick with the put the police officers. And they talked about that. What would happen is there was a meeting very shortly after that. All the officers who spilled out onto the bridge in one of the first things that was said was, you know, we only want to have people here who fired their weapons for a couple of officers who spilled out of that blow, your own trumpet didn’t fire their weapons. They were excluded from the session. And really, it was almost like a strategy session. It wasn’t an investigation. I don’t think you could call this an impartial investigation. It was a strategy session where the officers who fired weapons got together so that all their stories stayed together. And then as the officers and the supposed investigators were writing their reports describing what happened, you know, they weren’t doing and sitting alone. They were sitting around with some of the officers who fired their weapons. And they worked together to write a story that gave me the image of writing a screenplay of, you know, working it all together and sending it up the line for edits. Even the reports would go up the line and get edits. All the edits were done to make it more believable, to make the police account more believable. And it was really striking. It was brazen. And so at one point, the sergeant who was investigating, he wanted to come up with a quote unquote, witness who saw Lance Madison with the gun. Of course, Lance did not have a gun. And he yelled out in a meeting with other officers. Give me a name. 

And so one of his underlings just blurted out the name Leticia because I saw the name you always assigned to random black people if you’re a crooked cop. Right. 

So suddenly, location was a witness, was an eyewitness who saw, you know, the Madison shooting first. And that’s the way it went down, the official police report. And, of course, the police report, they said they interviewed Lakeisha, but they couldn’t tape recorded because of the hurricane. And she has since relocated to Texas and was unreachable. So when the feds got involved later on, they tried to find location and found that she didn’t exist. But that’s how brazen it really was. A brazen cover up was at the end and then the cover up or real families who lost sons and brothers. And so they ultimately or were held to account by the truth, came out. 

And that’s the legal process moves along. Where did the police story first begin to unravel for the court? 

Well, when the case was initially filed in state court, they were the judge in that case, found there were some procedural errors and dismissed the case. So there, you know, it still held firm. And then when the federal department justice gotten bold, got heavily involved, I think the truth really came out in court. They pushed buttons. They pressed heavily. Several of the officers who fired weapons that day, they went to them and said, we know the truth. We know the truth. In one after another, a few those officers entered a plea agreements with Department of Justice and agreed to testify. And so in the federal. I would say a federal trial in New Orleans in 2010 is when the truth finally came out. 2010, 2011. 

I thought it was fascinating that in the in the screenplay, the white officers managed to frame their black colleagues for actually actually shooting the victims. You describe how that went down. 

Yeah. So as these internal Ripley’s reports were being written to justify what happened. Know wonder out after another. Ultimately, the way it was being described was that the black officers were the ones who were firing the weapons and the white officers were laying down, quote unquote, suppression fire, not not shooting at the victim. So that really came across. And that was striking to some of the officers for sure. Know that divide came out. 

Did any of the officers comment on that afterwards? 

They at trial, there was some discussion about that. 

But it was ultimately sort of pass the buck that this is ultimately what, you know, the supervisors deemed. But there was a divide. And I would say that there was also there was a divide racially, which was also divide based on where the officers were located, which which district they reported to. Some of the outside officers and officers outside this main district were being the ones obviously blamed, their lawyers felt that this was patently unfair and a really troubling to them. 

And how was what was the final verdict in the second trial? How many years in prison did each of the perpetrators get? 

Yeah, that’s a that’s a simple, straightforward question with a not so simple, straightforward answer. So five officers who refused to enter a plea agreement with DOJ went to trial for the shooters and one of the supervisors, and they were all convicted in federal court. And it was in August of 2011 that they were convicted. And that was the one moment that there was some sense of relief, no joy because of lost, but once had some sense of relief for the families of the victims. And I went to their sentencing in April of 2012 in the officers got up to six one off. You got 65 years. Some old officers got 40 years and 38. And the supervisor got six, which is far less than prosecutors wanted. So those were other than the supervisors, the sergeants sentenced, the other two sentences were significant. Thirty eight to sixty five years. Right away, the defense filed appeals and a number of a number of reasons. One of the things the defense cited in their appeal was they allege that there had been this total unrelated series events where there are some prosecutors working for the Department of Justice in New Orleans who were anonymously commenting on on any stories about police abuse, including Danziger. They would go on to the stories of Times-Picayune at the bottom. Right. Anonymous comments many times really ripped into police in defending the prosecution of those cases. The defense argued that this was part of a conspiracy to sort of convict the officers before they got caught. The DOJ would say the officer, the main officer wrote those on his comments had nothing to do with this case. But ultimately, the judge, the federal judge who presided over the trial, he ordered a new trial, largely citing these anonymous comments, saying that they could have given an unfair benefit unfairly against the officers. He ordered a new trial. This was in 2013. And so the victims girded for having to go on the witness stand. Again, the whole city braced for another reliving of this tragic event. And so last year, on the eve of potential eve of a second trial, the officers who were convicted in court because that trial, things stood in court and they for the first time said they were guilty of charges and in turn for saying guilty, they got reduced prison sentences. God’s like 10 and 12 years. So ultimately, the justice was justice was a long time coming and was really unsettling for many. But I should add that there was a whole nother twist to this. We talked about the families filed lawsuits in 2006 that were the first real sign that there was another story here. Because there was a criminal proceeding, those lawsuits were put on hold until the criminal proceeding was finished. But of course, the criminal proceeding took more than a decade to conclude, which was really, really stunning. So the criminal proceeding concluded when those officers pleaded guilty and said we did it and got reduced sentences. Just very recently, over the last couple of months, the city settled the civil cases. And it really was, I think, noteworthy for so many years, the police said we didn’t do it. These families had guns. They were shooting. There was a real denial that this year these events even took place. But maybe a month ago, the new mayor. I should say the current mayor, not new, but he’s current. He’s not. Ray Nagin in the police chief stood in a church with the families in a couple of Katrina cases, including Danziger, and said we’re sorry, in announce settlements when the city was paying millions of dollars to victims in several cases. And it was really for the for the families was such a significant thing to have the city say we’re sorry. So it took eleven years, but ultimately reached some sort of closure from this case. 

That’s all the time we have today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Ron Lindsay. Thanks for the questions. I appreciate it. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.