Man pleads guilty to threatening former U.S. attorney Letten, family

Before a jury could be selected for his trial, a Baton Rouge man pleaded guilty Monday in federal court to a charge that he threatened to murder former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, of New Orleans, and members of Letten’s family.

Gerald P. Estrade, 57, served more than 21 years in Louisiana prisons for the 1988 manslaughter of his 10-year-old daughter, Melissa. The girl was reported missing in August 1988, and her body was discovered in a wooded area of southern Mississippi in December of that year.

“I am extremely grateful to U.S. Attorney Walt Green, his great staff and certainly the men and women of the FBI,” Letten said after the former Metairie postal worker’s guilty plea.

“It’s obvious to all of us that this individual, Gerald Estrade, is a dangerous individual. I look forward to his sentencing.”

“Our public officials should not have to live in fear for doing their jobs,” Green said after U.S. District Judge James J. Brady accepted Estrade’s guilty plea.

Green added that Estrade’s conviction carries a possible 10-year prison term and fines totaling as much as $250,000.

Assistant federal public defender Mark Upton, Estrade’s attorney, declined to comment after his client’s guilty plea.

Brady did not immediately schedule sentencing for Estrade and did not release Estrade from custody, who has remained in custody since his arrest in January.

Estrade was in the psychiatric ward at Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Mid City when he was arrested.

He walked into the hospital on Jan. 2 and told the staff he had swallowed pills in an effort to commit suicide, according to an FBI affidavit.

Brady ordered Estrade to be examined by mental health experts prior to a competency hearing. In late April, the judge ruled that Estrade was mentally competent to stand trial.

Four months earlier, FBI Special Agent Kobey McCall said in an affidavit that Estrade admitted to agents at Baton Rouge General that he planned on “killing Letten and his family, and then killing himself.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer M. Kleinpeter used that affidavit to obtain the indictment against Estrade for his threats against Letten and his family.

Former Baton Rouge Police Chief Jeff LeDuff, serving as Baton Rouge General’s security chief, notified Letten and the FBI of the threats in January, Green said.

Green said Estrade told LeDuff that, if released from the hospital, he planned to buy a gun, go to Letten’s New Orleans residence, hide behind a large oak tree, then kill Letten and his dog in front of Letten’s daughter.

According to McCall’s affidavit, Estrade told both McCall and FBI Special Agent Brett D. Skiles in January that he first threatened Letten’s life when he was a state prison inmate in either 2005 or 2006.

That threat was in a letter that Estrade wrote to the FBI, McCall said.

On Monday, Green said in a written statement that Estrade blamed Letten for problems he suffered in state prison after the inmate threatened the then-federal prosecutor in his letter to the FBI.

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Kenneth Allen Polite Jr., appointed to head the New Orleans office earlier this year, said prosecution is necessary for people issuing “threats against public servants in an effort to impede the administration of justice.”

Estrade originally was booked for first-degree murder in his daughter’s death.

T he charge was downgraded to manslaughter after he admitted he shook and struck the girl.

Estrade insisted he did not intentionally kill the 10-year-old.

The man was incarcerated at state prisons from April 1990 until October 1999 when he was released on parole, officials of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said in January.

Parole was revoked in April 2001, and Estrade remained imprisoned until June 2011.

After his arrest in January, the FBI affidavit states, Estrade said he was homeless and spent all “his time and money at (Baton Rouge) area casinos.”

While on parole from late 1999 until early 2001, Estrade told the FBI, he once approached Letten near his residence and engaged the prosecutor in conversation.

Letten confirmed the conversation, but could not recall the date or details of the conversation, according to the FBI affidavit.

“Letten later realized Estrade was the postal worker who was previously convicted of killing his own daughter,” the affidavit said.