BATON ROUGE, La. – A day after two unarmed Louisiana insurance fraud investigators were gunned down while looking into a case, the state insurance commissioner said on Wednesday that his department may have their agents carry weapons.
Kim Sledge and Rhett Jeansonne had been on what appeared to be a routine assignment to collect records from suspended insurance agent John Melvin Lavergne at his office half a block off Ville Platte's main street. State police say Lavergne shot the investigators, holed up in his business and shot himself to death while the building was surrounded by officers and SWAT team on Tuesday.
Investigators don't carry weapons but can request that they be accompanied by state police on such visits, state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said. But there had been no indication that there would be trouble.
"We are seriously considering arming our investigators," a visibly shaken Donelon said during a news conference in Baton Rouge to discuss the deaths.
First the department would review safety and security procedures, but Donelon didn't know how long that would take.
Jeansonne, 39, leaves behind a wife a daughter and three sons; Sledge, 44, a husband, a daughter and two stepdaughters, Donelon said.
In Ville Platte, a city of about 8,000 people in the heart of Cajun country, the shootings were stunning.
Lavergne grew up in the town and had been an insurance agent for almost 35 years. The police chief described him as a friendly man who never caused trouble.
"I've known him all my adult life, at least 25 years," said chief Neal Lartigue. "We never had a problem with him. I don't think anyone did."
But the record for the 67-year-old Lavergne was not as good with the insurance department, cited a couple times for fraud.
Donelon asked Gov. Bobby Jindal to have flags at state offices flown at half-staff in memory of the two slain investigators and spoke haltingly of having to tell their spouses what had happened.
He said he did not know Jeansonne and Sledge but that they were respected and loved by coworkers. It was the first attack on insurance investigators in Louisiana and grief counselors worked with department employees, Donelon said.
"Yesterday was the darkest day in the history of the Department of Insurance. And I'd have a hard time thinking of a tougher day in my lifetime," he said.
Donelon said state Sen. Eric LaFleur, a Democrat from Ville Platte, planned to see whether the investigators' families were eligible for a $250,000 payment the state makes to the survivors of fallen law enforcement personnel. If they are not, an effort would be made to pass legislation making them eligible, Donelon said.
Offers of help from commissioners in other states were being made as well, Donelon said.
The state Department of Insurance in 2009 had suspended Lavergne's insurance license and fined him $16,500, saying he provided fraudulent proofs of vehicle insurance several times. He appealed that suspension and had his license reinstated, Donelon said.
In January, state police arrested Lavergne and charged him with unfair trade practices. In October 2010, police received complaints that Lavergne was not sending payments from his customers to their insurance companies, according to a news release. As a result, at least four customers had seven of their policies cancelled, police said. Lavergne was appealing that suspension at the time of his death, Donelon said.
"I would have never guessed he did any of those things," said Greg Brignac, 60, a life-long friend of the family who had a policy with Lavergne. "He was a friendly man, very friendly. No one would have guessed he would have done something like this."
State Police spokesman Trooper Stephen Hammons said he could not provide any more information about the shootings, or if the two investigators were shot inside or outside the building. He also said no autopsies would be performed on the victims.
"The coroner was here and determined they all died of gunshots," Hammons said.
Although Ville Platte had three previous murders this year, Lartigue said normally one in five years was about the average.
"This is a quiet little town so something like this was just stunning," he said.
Foster reported from New Orleans