Embattled Sorrento police chief calls it quits

Earl Theriot Jr., who only weeks ago told town officials calling for his resignation to “stick it,” abruptly stepped down Friday as Sorrento police chief and is facing a federal charge that he lied to an FBI agent about his alleged sexual assault of a heavily intoxicated woman last year.

Federal prosecutors in Baton Rouge filed a bill of information Wednesday in U.S. District Court and accuse him of lying over four aspects of the sexual assault allegations, which were first made public in a federal civil damages lawsuit Jan. 17.

Two attorneys said Friday it appears, based on how prosecutors charged Theriot Wednesday and the dual hearings planned Monday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, that Theriot will enter a guilty plea Monday.

The charge of lying to an FBI agent is a felony that can bring up to a five-year prison term with conviction.

Theriot did not return a call for comment Monday. His attorney, Roger W. Jordan Jr., declined comment until after the arraignment planned Monday.

Theriot has been at the center of controversy since his police department lost insurance this past fall and more recently as he became the subject of a criminal investigation into the sexual assault allegations that are now the basis of the federal criminal charge.

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, along with state district and federal prosecutors, opened the criminal investigation last month after the allegations came to light.

Twenty-third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said Friday that state investigation is expected to conclude next week. He declined further comment.

But even before the criminal probe began and the sex charges were aired, town officials openly discussed whether the town should dissolve the Police Department given its past woes and let Sheriff Wiley take over. In an open letter Jan. 13, the mayor and four of five council members called for Theriot’s resignation, prompting the then-chief’s “they can stick it” comment. By law, town officials couldn’t force out the chief.

Mayor Mike Lambert said he saw Theriot packing up his office Friday morning but did not speak with him.

“We had our differences. I’m a little numb about it right now. I know the chief made a decision based on what he thought was best for himself, his family and the town of Sorrento,” Lambert said.

Several council members did not return calls for comment Friday, but Councilman Donald Schexnaydre said he heard rumors Thursday that Theriot was leaving, though he didn’t get any official word until he read it on news websites Friday morning.

“I’ll say this. I wish him the best, and we need to move forward. Sorrento needs to move forward,” Schexnaydre said.

Theriot, who started his fourth four-year term as elected chief July 1, presented a notarized letter to the town on Thursday informing them of “my notice of retirement, which will become effective Feb. 7, 2014.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office released a copy of the bill of information shortly before 10:30 a.m. Friday, about an hour after news of Theriot’s retirement became public.

The retirement letter also was delivered to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office Friday.

Brandee Patrick, public information officer for the Secretary of State, said the town must appoint an interim chief within 20 days of Theriot’s retirement and then must call a special election to fill the remainder of Theriot’s term. An election would be set for the fall, she said.

If the town does not appoint an interim chief, Gov. Bobby Jindal will appoint one, Patrick said.

She said the only way to abolish the chief of police’s position is through an act of the Legislature.

The federal damages suit raising the assault allegations against Theriot that say he supplied an Ascension Parish woman with alcohol and forced her to give him oral sex on Nov. 1 while she was bound under a desk in his office.

Theriot is accused of picking up the woman he received a 911 call about her being severely intoxicated at a Sorrento store. He asked her for sex in exchange for not taking her to jail, the suit alleges.

Wiley has said his office is not aware of any record indicating that Sorrento police cited or arrested the woman in connection with the 911 call.

Federal prosecutors’ bill of information says Theriot lied to the FBI agent on Jan. 2 and Jan. 9.

Theriot told the agent he dropped the woman off at her residence on Nov. 1, did not know how the woman arrived and entered his office, that he never was alone with her in his office, and did not attempt and did not have sexual contact with her that day.

“In fact, as Theriot well knew, after L.H. entered his police unit, he personally transported her back to the SPD, escorted her into his office, and engaged in sexual contact with L.H.,” the court filing alleges.

The victim’s initials in the bill of information match those of the plaintiff in the Jan. 17 federal suit making similar allegations.

Theriot’s initial appearance on the charge is before U.S. Magistrate Richard L. Bourgeois at 1 p.m. Monday, prosecutors said in a statement Friday.

Theriot’s arraignment is expected to follow in front of Chief Judge Brian A. Jackson at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

Baton Rouge defense lawyer Thomas Damico, who has extensive experience in federal criminal cases, said one signal of an imminent guilty plea is the initial court appearance is before a magistrate but the subsequent arraignment is before a district judge.

Damico said a magistrate, who would normally hear the arraignment, too, is not authorized to accept a guilty plea, only a district judge is.

“That’s certainly a big tip if it’s ... before Judge Jackson,” Damico said.

Loyola University of New Orleans Law Professor Dane S. Ciolino added that having Theriot charged by bill of information, instead through a grand jury indictment, is a further indication. Federal prosecutors cannot charge a defendant by bill of information unless the defendant waives his Constitutional right to a grand jury.

“That confirms a guilty plea is afoot,” Ciolino said.

The town of Sorrento has been in turmoil over how to handle its law enforcement services since the police department and its vehicles lost insurance coverage in November 2013.

Theriot and assistant police chief Ricky Smith have been patrolling during daytime hourse on weekdays while the town pays the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office to patrol at night and on weekends. The police department remains without insurance, following a council meeting Feb. 4.

Wiley said Friday his office would continue to honor its patrol agreement with the town but also will respond to calls during the daytime. He said his office has been doing that for several weeks anyway since the lawsuit allegations became public.

Assistant Chief Smith has been on vacation this week, town officials said.