Shunick case one of his biggest
“A great prosecutor has retired and I hope he has other hobbies and/or interests to keep him busy because I pray he does not cross-over to the defense bar.” PAT MAGEE, assistant district attorney
LAFAYETTE — After 28 years as a prosecutor and more than two weeks removed from negotiating a St. Landry Parish man’s guilty plea in the killings of two Lafayette women, Keith Stutes is retiring from the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
Stutes handled some of Acadiana’s most-high-profile cases, including serving as the lead prosecutor in the disappearance of Michaela “Mickey” Shunick.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my career but this has been the most profiled and publicized case (I’ve worked on),” Stutes said. “I stuck it out and pressed to get to the end and I’m just honored to be a part of it.”
Stutes, 60, spent about four years prosecuting misdemeanors, eight to 10 years prosecuting drug offenses and the remaining years as a felony prosecutor. He estimated that he has handled between 120 and 125 trials, about one third of which involved serious felonies, such as homicides.
On Friday, the husband, father of two and amateur photographer spent much of his final day in the office tying up loose ends, cleaning out his desk and saying his good-byes.
“A lot of people in here have expressed some kind words to me, so I’m feeling like I’ve left a mark,” Stutes said. “The words humble and gracious come to mind today.”
Some of Stutes’ photography has been hanging for years behind the receptionists’ desks inside the District Attorney’s Office. Many of those photographs have been earmarked as gifts for his coworkers, he said.
Stutes declined to comment about an ongoing investigation by the FBI into the District Attorney’s Office, although he acknowledged that it factored into his decision to retire. He also said he has been considering retirement for some time.
Stutes said he launched his own investigation into the office after he learned that potentially fraudulent community service documents were submitted in some DWI pleas. The investigation focuses primarily on the DWI cases.
“I did conduct an investigation and I have reported those results to the appropriate authorities,” Stutes said. “What will or will not happen is in the hands of other agencies.”
District Attorney Mike Harson has said those findings have been forwarded to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.
Harson thanked Stutes for his service to his office and to the people of Lafayette Parish.
“He has always displayed the highest degree of integrity and diligence to the performance of his duties and responsibilities,” Harson said in an email Friday. “He will be missed and I certainly wish him the best of luck in all of his future endeavors.”
Fellow prosecutor Daniel M. Landry III said Stutes will “be missed.”
Landry has worked at the District Attorney’s Office for 29 years. He described Stutes as an “extremely competent prosecutor.”
“When he walked into a trial, he had his guns to bear,” Landry said.
Landry said Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton will take over Stutes’ spot on the felony prosecutor track.
“To conclude your prosecution career with the Shunick case would be an appropriate way to end a successful career as a prosecutor,” Landry said. “That was one of the most well-orchestrated, plea-arrangements and investigations that I’ve seen since I’ve been at the District Attorney’s Office.”
Brandon Scott Lavergne, 33, pleaded guilty Aug. 17 to two counts of first-degree murder in the May 19 slaying of Shunick, whose body was found in Evangeline Parish, and the 1999 slaying of Pate, whose body was found in Acadia Parish. The guilty plea came about one month after the grand jury indicted Lavergne and about 45 days after he was was arrested in Shunick’s killing. He reached a plea agreement where he will be sentenced to life in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Pat Magee also shared kind words for the departing prosecutor.
“Keith’s reputation as a tough-as-nails prosecutor precedes him and his stoic bearing makes him appear unapproachable,” Magee said in an email Thursday. “However, his cool, almost assassin-like temperament masks a very kind heart and most of all, a good man.
“A great prosecutor has retired and I hope he has other hobbies and/or interests to keep him busy because I pray he does not cross-over to the defense bar,” Magee said.
Stutes, who was a full-time prosecutor, said he does not intend to move into criminal defense work, start an outside practice or enter the political arena.
“I’m honored that people think that I might be a good candidate for (district attorney), but as it stands right now I don’t have aspirations for that, but I don’t know what next week or next month holds,” he said.
The 15th Judicial District Court covers Acadia, Lafayette and Vermilion parishes.