St. Tammany sheriff shuts down work-release program

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain abruptly shut down a controversial work-release program Thursday as the search for an escaped inmate in the program suspected of kidnapping his girlfriend continued in Tangipahoa Parish.

Strain announced the closure of the program operated by Northshore Workforce LLC, of Covington, which oversaw about 150 inmates, shortly before 6 p.m.

He said several inmates had recently walked away from their work-release jobs — including Christopher Ricker, 35, who was being sought in Tangipahoa — and suggested “reckless journalism” might have emboldened them to do so.

Northshore Workforce has been the subject of a joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV in recent months; the organizations have run stories detailing lax oversight and other state violations at the program, which is run by several people with ties to Strain.

Before Strain’s announcement Thursday, a handful of business owners had confirmed to The New Orleans Advocate that inmates they employ had either been picked up Thursday by employees of Northshore Workforce or simply had not shown up for work. Mike Nunmaker, owner of Nunmaker Yachts, said a driver showed up Thursday afternoon to round up the four or five inmates he employs.

“They came and picked up the guys we had here,” Nunmaker said. “There was no real warning.”

The sudden loss of a group of employees has left him in the lurch, he said. “We’re scrambling right now, but we’ll make it through,” Nunmaker said.

Nunmaker said he had put in a call to the Sheriff’s Office but had yet to hear back.

An official with the Mandeville business Edible Arrangements also confirmed that the inmates it employs had been recalled. So did the managers of several other businesses that employ men in the work-release program, but they said they did not want their businesses named. Shortly after 5 p.m., a school bus that appeared to be loaded with inmates from the program arrived at the parish jail.

Strain said his office started relocating the 148 inmates in the program at noon, when 43 participants were moved to the jail. Northshore Workforce personnel picked up 93 others from job sites and is still coordinating the return of 12 offshore workers, he said.

The Sheriff’s Office is working with the Department of Corrections to determine where the inmates ultimately will be reassigned. For now, they will be held in the parish jail, Strain said.

The sudden step came as an intensive search for Ricker continued in Tangipahoa Parish.

Ricker, who was serving a sentence for theft, left the Covington facility at around 4 a.m. and allegedly abducted his girlfriend from a nearby gas station and forced her to drive to Tangipahoa Parish, where he was spotted on La. 442 near Loranger. He crashed the car into a tree and fled on foot into the woods, authorities said. Deputies, K-9 units and a helicopter were searching for him Thursday, officials said.

Strain confirmed that Ricker had sent a threatening text message to his girlfriend and that she had called Northshore Workforce to report it. It is unclear how he was able to do so; inmates are not allowed to have cellphones.

Ricker’s escape marks the third time in recent weeks that law enforcement officials have had to pursue inmates from the facility. Bill Stites walked off his job at a nursery near the border between St. Tammany and Washington parishes late last month, a week after inmate Joshua Ponseti was arrested and booked with aggravated burglary for allegedly breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house while he was supposed to be at work.

Northshore Workforce is run by Marlin Peachey, Strain’s longtime campaign treasurer and the former warden of the parish jail. Last month, the facility was raided by deputies and officials from the Department of Corrections, and 19 inmates were sent back to jail, mostly for failing drug tests. Northshore has housed as many as 230 inmates at times, making it one of the largest if not the largest such program in the state.

It also had nine escapes in 2013, the highest number in the state.

The shutdown of the program, which has been in business about five years, came a day after Strain delivered a forceful defense of it in an email to WWL-TV. In his email, Strain argued that the program has done far more good than harm, and that focusing on several cases in which inmates violated program rules does “a tremendous disservice to our community.”

Strain also said in the email that he had taken previously undisclosed “bold steps to ensure that program operates as designed” — chiefly, designating a veteran captain with the Sheriff’s Office as a “compliance officer.”

The program run by Northshore Workforce is one of two work-release programs in St. Tammany Parish. Both are private. The second one, based in Slidell, had been handled in-house until last year, when Strain privatized it. It is now run by St. Tammany Workforce Solutions LLC, a company set up by a group of Strain supporters that received a no-bid deal to operate it. Strain said Thursday that there are no plans to close that facility, which thus far has drawn far less controversy than its counterpart in Covington.

The sheriff said he still believes that transitional work programs are an important tool for reducing recidivism and said he will remain in communication with the state Department of Corrections to determine if a similar facility can be reopened in the future. There are about 40 such programs in the state, Strain said, and there are lessons to be learned from what happened at Northshore Workforce.

The closure will hurt businesses that depend on the work-release program, he said, and it also will dim the prospects of inmates who are working hard to turn their lives around. But he said he felt he needed to close the program for public safety reasons.

“As you all know, there’s been a great deal of reporting of incidents that happened years ago,” Strain said Thursday afternoon. “And maybe that reckless journalism is some of the reasons that some of the inmates felt that it was an opportunity for them to take advantage of it. And sadly enough, the actions of a few idiots have hurt more than 100 men who were turning their lives around.

“But as sheriff, my No. 1 priority is public safety. And we’ve had, what, three incidents (involving Northshore Workforce) in the last few weeks. And I was convinced that if I couldn’t assure the public … or if I wasn’t assured that these incidents wouldn’t continue, I was not going to allow it to operate. And until I can be convinced as much as possible that we can protect the public, it’ll remain closed.”