Sorrento police chief pleads guilty to lying to FBI

Former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. admitted in federal court Monday that he had “inappropriate sexual contact” with a woman and pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent about the incident — which the woman has called a “sexual assault.”

No longer in his familiar police uniform but dressed in gray slacks, a maroon shirt and dark tie with maroon stripes, Theriot entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson under a Jan. 31 agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baton Rouge.

Before the plea, Jackson reminded Theriot that he could face up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and other conditions.

U.S. Attorney Chris Dippel read out the facts supporting Theriot’s guilty plea. In the signed agreement, Theriot admitted to contacting a nonresponsive woman Nov. 1 at a local gas station, placing the woman in the front seat of his police unit and taking her to his office at the Sorrento Police Department “where he engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with her.”

Theriot also admitted to “later making numerous false statements to an FBI special agent and a deputy with the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office” who were investigating whether Theriot violated the woman’s civil rights. Those false statements were made Jan. 2 and Jan. 9.

After the facts were read, Jackson asked Theriot if he was “pleading guilty because you are, in fact, guilty” of the allegations laid out by prosecutors.

Theriot’s answer was short and direct.

“Yes, your honor,” he said.

Jackson set Theriot’s sentencing for 9:30 a.m. May 22.

Jackson released Theriot on his own recognizance but placed several restrictions on him, including limiting his travel to Louisiana and prohibiting the longtime lawman from possessing a firearm.

Theriot’s plea agreement holds out the possibility for a reduced sentence. U.S. attorneys also agreed they will not file federal charges against Theriot in the sexual encounter that occurred in the former police chief’s office.

Filed Wednesday, the prosecutors’ bill of information accused Theriot of lying in early January to an FBI agent about the sexual encounter with the woman Theriot had picked up after a 911 call Nov. 1.

A lawsuit filed Jan. 17 in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge by the Ascension Parish woman claims the incident was a sexual assault that occurred when she was heavily intoxicated.

Days after the suit became public last month, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said he and district and federal prosecutors opened a state criminal investigation into the claims.

Twenty-third Judicial District Attorney Ricky Babin said Monday the state investigation is still underway.

Theriot, who began his fourth term July 1 after serving as Sorrento’s elected chief for 12 years, retired Friday after resisting calls from other town officials to resign after the Police Department’s insurance was canceled in November.

Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert said Theriot is not part of any public retirement plan.

Under the plea agreement made public Monday, federal prosecutors required that Theriot step down from office before he entered his guilty plea.

“Today Chief Theriot accepted responsibility for his conduct. He apologizes to the community and the citizens of Sorrento for his lapse in judgment,” Theriot’s attorney, Roger W. Jordan Jr., told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Baton Rouge.

With Theriot by his side on the courthouse steps, Jordan said Theriot had 40 years in law enforcement and was a Vietnam War veteran.

“And he hopes this singular event does not forever cloud those years of service that he gave to Sorrento and his community,” Jordan said.

Jordan declined further comment. Theriot did not comment. The men walked away from reporters side by side Monday afternoon down a courthouse sidewalk.

The guilty plea caps a trying four months for Sorrento, a community of nearly 1,500 on Ascension Parish’s southern end.

The Police Department’s loss of liability and vehicle insurance on Nov. 19 and, more recently, the allegations over the sexual incident against Theriot continued to raise questions about Theriot’s and his department’s future in the town.

Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert declined comment Monday about Theriot’s plea. But Lambert did say town officials are working on finding someone to appoint to fill Theriot’s term until a special election can be held.

Sheriff Wiley reassured Sorrento residents in an open letter Monday that they would continue to have police protection.

“Right now, the town still has a full-time police officer whose job is to patrol from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and the Sheriff’s Office will be on duty in Sorrento at all other times,” Wiley wrote in the letter.

The woman’s lawsuit claims Theriot gave her vodka and forced her to perform oral sex over a four-hour period Nov. 1 while she was bound under the desk in his office.

According to the lawsuit, Theriot picked up the woman after a 911 caller reported the woman was heavily intoxicated at a Sorrento store. Theriot asked the woman for sex in exchange for not taking her to jail, the suit said.

Plaintiff’s attorney Tregg Wilson was present for Theriot’s plea Monday.