KENNER, La. – A 73-year-old diabetic grandmother and church elder who fled Katrina's floodwaters for the safety of a hotel ended up in prison instead for more than two weeks — all over a bite of food.
Police in this New Orleans suburb arrested Merlene Maten (search) the day after the hurricane on charges she took $63.50 in goods from a looted deli. Though never before in trouble with the law, her bail was set at a stiff $50,000 and she was shipped away to a state penitentiary.
Family and eyewitnesses insist Maten's prison odyssey was unwarranted, claiming she only had gone to her car to get some sausage to eat when officers cuffed her in frustration, unable to catch younger looters at a nearby store.
Despite intervention from the nation's largest senior lobby, volunteer lawyers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) and even a private attorney, the family fought a futile battle for 16 days to get her freed.
Then, hours after her plight was featured in an Associated Press story, a local judge on Thursday ordered Maten freed on her own recognizance, setting up a sweet reunion with her daughter, grandchildren and 80-year-old husband.
"I'm just gonna hug her and say 'Mom, I'm so sorry this had to happen,'" Maten's tearful daughter, Elois Short, told AP shortly after getting the news.
Prison officials planned to release Maten by this weekend. She must still face the looting charge at a court hearing in October. But the family, armed with several witnesses, intends to prove she was wrongly arrested outside the hotel.
"There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them. Instead of chasing after people who were running, they [police] grabbed the old lady who was walking," said Short, who works in traffic enforcement for neighboring New Orleans police.
Defense attorney Daniel Becnel, family members and witnesses said police snared Maten in the parking lot of a hotel after floodwaters swamped her New Orleans home. She had paid for her room with a credit card and followed authorities' instructions to pack extra food, they said.
She was retrieving a piece of sausage from the cooler in her car and planned to grill it so she and her husband, Alfred, could eat, according to her defenders. The parking lot was almost a block from the looted store, they said.
"That woman was never, never in that store," said Naisha Williams, 23, a New Orleans bank security guard who said she witnessed the episode and is distantly related to Maten. "If they want to take it to court, I'm willing to get on the stand and tell them the police is wrong. She is totally innocent."
Police Capt. Steve Carraway said Wednesday that Maten was arrested in the checkout area of a small store next to police headquarters.
The arrest report is short and assigns the value of goods Maten is alleged to have taken at $63.50. The items are not identified.
"When officers arrived, the arrestee was observed leaving the scene with items from the store. The store window doors were observed smashed out, where entry to the store was made," police reported.
Maten's husband was left at the hotel, until family members picked him up. He is too upset to be interviewed, the family said.
Christine Bishop, the owner of the Check In Check Out deli, said that she was angry that looters had damaged her store, but that she would not want anyone charged with a crime if the person had simply tried to get food to survive.
"Especially not a 70-year-old woman," Bishop said.
Short, Maten's daughter, did not witness the incident. She said her mother has led a law-abiding life. She is a deaconess at the Resurrection Mission Baptist Church (search) and won an award for her decades of service at a hospital, Short said.
"Why would someone loot when they had a car with a refrigerator and had paid with a credit card at the hotel?" asked Becnel, Maten's lawyer. "The circumstances defy the theory of looting."