NEW ORLEANS – Lt. Michael Lohman knew police had a serious problem when he arrived at the scene of deadly shootings on a New Orleans bridge after Hurricane Katrina. Officers had shot and killed two people and wounded four others, but no guns were found on any of the victims.
Lohman, the ranking officer on the scene of the Danziger Bridge shootings, testified Tuesday that he didn't order officers to devise a cover story and wouldn't have objected if they had acknowledged wrongdoing. But instead of encouraging them to tell the truth, Lohman said he helped orchestrate a cover-up to make the shootings of unarmed residents on Sept. 4, 2005, appear justified.
"The guys who were involved in this were co-workers, and some of them were friends of mine. I didn't want anybody to get into trouble," Lohman testified on the second day of a federal trial of five other current or former officers.
Lohman retired last year and is one of five former officers who have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. Now he is a key government witness in the case against Sgts. Robert Gisevius and Kenneth Bowen, Officer Anthony Villavaso, former officer Robert Faulcon and Sgt. Arthur Kaufman.
Feeling remorseful, Lohman said he decided in December 2009 to cooperate with the Justice Department's probe of the shootings.
"I feel pretty horrible about all of it, but most particularly about the people who were killed and wounded," he said. "They were people who didn't deserve what they got."
Lohman said the gunfire had stopped by the time he arrived. He testified that Bowen told him residents had fired at officers before they returned fire on the east side of bridge, where 17-year-old James Brissette was shot and killed.
Bowen also allegedly told Lohman that 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, was seen reaching into his waistband before he was shot on the west side of the bridge. No guns were recovered from Madison or Brissette, however.
"They seemed to be unsure of what actually happened," Lohman recalled. "There was too much uncertainty, and things didn't add up."
Lohman said he told the officers to calm down, "get their story together" and come back to tell him what happened, although he didn't expect them to tell the truth.
"Did you order them to make up a story?" prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein asked.
"No," he responded.
Lohman said he assigned Kaufman to investigate the shootings but knew the goal of the probe would be to justify the officers' actions, despite his misgivings.
"I felt things had gone wrong on the bridge that day and inappropriate actions had been taken," Lohman said.
Lohman said he and Kaufman discussed a plan to plant a gun. He said Kaufman assured him the planted gun couldn't be traced back to police or a crime scene. Prosecutors say Kaufman took a gun from his garage and turned it into the evidence room, trying to pass it off as a gun found at the scene.
Police didn't collect any shell casings or other evidence from the bridge, one of many gaps in the probe.
"We can write it off on Katrina," Kaufman said, according to Lohman.
Lohman said he wrote his own false report on the shootings after Kaufman submitted a "horrible report" that cleared police of wrongdoing without justifying their actions in a believable way.
"It didn't make any sense," he said.
The suspected cover-up was in danger of unraveling when the New Orleans district attorney's office opened a probe of the shootings. Seven officers were charged in state court with murder or attempted murder in December 2006, but a judge threw out all the charges in 2008.
Federal authorities launched their own investigation afterward. Lohman said he wasn't surprised, adding, "The police reports were shoddy and there were too many holes in it."
In August 2009, prosecutors served him with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury. He initially refused to cut a deal, but changed his mind after a meeting with prosecutors in December 2009.
"At that point, I knew you had the truth," Lohman told Bernstein.
Lohman faces a maximum of five years in prison when he is sentenced, a fact that defense attorneys seized on during his cross-examination. Steve London, Kaufman's lawyer, pointed out that Lohman was "looking at 25 to 30 years" before making his deal.
London also questioned Lohman why he added Kaufman's name to a false report, asking if he intended to make it look as if Kaufman had written it.
"I wasn't trying to make it look like Kaufman wrote that," Lohman said. "We were working on it together. I didn't go off by myself and write this."
Lohman said he went along with the cover-up because he did not want anyone to get into trouble, but London implied a different reason Kaufman's name was on the documents.
"You actually hate Sgt. Kaufman, don't you?" London asked.
"No," Lohman responded. "We had disagreements, but I would not say it was a hate relationship."
Lohman is expected to return to the witness stand Wednesday to answer more questions from Berrnstein.