Arrest made in 1990 cold case

Twenty-two years later, Ryan Lavigne finally has some closure.

Kenneth Lavigne, 47, 14491 Harry Savoy Road, St. Amant, was arrested in McComb, Miss., about 7:15 p.m. Monday and was transported back to Ascension Parish on Tuesday afternoon to face prosecution in the December 1990 death of 38-year-old Jeanie Lavigne, Ryan Lavigne’s mother.

Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tony Bacala said in a news conference Tuesday that Kenneth Lavigne was booked into the Ascension Parish Jail on counts of first-degree murder, aggravated rape and kidnapping. Kenneth Lavigne was the nephew of Perry Lavigne, who was Jeanie Lavigne’s ex-husband and Ryan Lavigne’s father, and was Ryan Lavigne’s first cousin.

“I’m numb right now,” said Ryan Lavigne, who choked up and was unable to speak several times during the news conference.

Jeanie Lavigne was abducted from her home at 14419 Harry Savoy Road, in St. Amant, sometime between 9 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1990, and 3 a.m. the next morning, Bacala said. Ryan Lavigne, who was 11 years old at the time, and his cousin, Jerika Linville, who was then 9, awoke around 3 a.m. to find that Jeanie Lavigne was not home and a window in the living room was open. The phone line had been tampered with, so the children went to a nearby uncle’s home to report Jeanie Lavigne missing.

“I got a call from Ryan saying, ‘My momma’s gone. My momma’s gone,’ ” said Shontay Gautreau Laiche, Jerika Linville’s older sister, who was 14 at the time.

Jeanie Lavigne’s partially nude body was found, with her throat slashed, by three hunters in a wooded area near La. 431 and the Amite River on the afternoon of Dec. 17, 1990.

Bacala said following Jeanie Lavigne’s slaying, the Sheriff’s Office undertook an “intensive investigation” during which deputies “chased suspect after suspect.” Detectives briefly contacted Kenneth Lavigne, who was 25 at the time, as a person of interest, Bacala said.

He had an extensive rap sheet that included arrests for drug possession, burglary, forgery and theft, and he also owned a red car.

An eyewitness reported a red car being parked on Harry Savoy Road near the Lavignes’ residence the night of the abduction, Bacala said, but detectives didn’t have enough evidence to carry the investigation any further.

Several months ago, through a partnership with the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab, Sheriff’s Office personnel began looking at cold cases to see if they could use new DNA technology to find any possible suspects, Bacala said. In October, detectives approached Kenneth Lavigne for a DNA sample, but he declined to provide one.

“We didn’t have enough probable cause to force Kenneth Lavigne to give us his DNA,” Bacala said. “It had to be voluntary.”

So they came up with a different plan, using Ryan Lavigne’s DNA to establish a paternal DNA link to the killer. Bacala said the crime lab determined on Friday that “the killer was a Lavigne,” which was enough to get a warrant for Kenneth Lavigne’s DNA.

After his DNA was collected, Kenneth Lavigne fled Ascension Parish, Bacala said. His wife reported him missing, and after test results determined Monday morning that he was indeed the man authorities believed was responsible for the killing, detectives tracked him down at the Chameleon Motel in McComb, Miss., where he was arrested Monday evening.

Jeanie Lavigne’s death was the third tragedy in less than six months for Ryan Lavigne. His older brother, Chad, was crushed to death by a road packer in July 1990, while his father and stepmother died in a boating accident a month later. Jeanie Lavigne’s body was found not far from where her eldest son was killed.

With both of his parents dead, Ryan Lavigne went to live with his cousins Laiche and Linville and their mother, Carol Roy, who was Jeanie Lavigne’s sister. Laiche said her mother, who died five years after Jeanie Lavigne’s homicide, continued pursuing justice for her sister and would be proud that authorities finally caught the suspected killer.

“I think for the most part our family knew it had to be someone who knew the layout of the home or was familiar with the family,” Laiche said.

Ryan Lavigne, now 34, said he had given up hope that his mother’s killer would ever be found. He admitted it had been “rough” accepting that one of his relatives could have been the culprit, but he is hopeful he can eventually move forward.

“I never would’ve dreamt in a million years it would’ve been someone so close to my family,” he said.

Ryan Lavigne said he eventually would like to talk to his cousin, with whom he said he had no relationship, and ask him why he killed Jeanie Lavigne. Bacala said that at the moment, no motive has been established, and he didn’t expect that Kenneth Lavigne would be forthcoming with that information.

It’s the second major cold case slaying from 1990 that Ascension Parish officials have been able to close. In October, the second of two suspects in the March 1990 kidnapping, rape and murder of Dutchtown resident Tammy Laine Bowers was convicted, and Bacala said there are other cold cases that he and other Sheriff’s Office officials hope to close in the future.

“There are people here in this department who this case meant a lot to,” Bacala said. “I’m one of those people. This wasn’t just another case. This one meant a lot. ... These cases have to be solved. They stay in our hearts and in our minds.”