Witness tells new version of 1995 massacre at N.O. restaurant

For nearly two decades, Kim Carter never told a soul about the day she allegedly picked up the phone and heard a friend confess to killing three people in cold blood.

Rogers LaCaze called her from jail 18 years ago, Carter testified on Friday, to admit that he and rookie New Orleans police officer Antoinette Frank were guilty of one of the most notorious crimes in the city’s often bloody history.

But she said nothing of it at the time. Nor did she mention, for 18 years, that LaCaze allegedly told her that he forced Frank, against her will and at gunpoint, to murder two young siblings — a story entirely different from the narrative prosecutors presented years ago at Frank’s trial.

Carter looked at her former friend from the witness stand Friday in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

“Rogers, you know what you did,” she barked.

Her testimony was the latest twist in the saga surrounding the 1995 massacre at the Kim Anh restaurant in New Orleans East.

Frank’s partner, officer Ronald “Ronnie” Williams II, and siblings Cuong and Ha Vu, who both worked at the restaurant, were shot dead during a robbery.

LaCaze and Frank were both tried, convicted and sentenced to death, but LaCaze’s case recently returned to court.

His attorneys with the Capital Appeals Project claim that his conviction, obtained under former District Attorney Harry Connick, was so corrupted by withheld evidence and an incompetent defense attorney that he deserves a new trial.

For eight days in June, his attorneys tried to prove that LaCaze is innocent and mentally incompetent, and that Frank actually carried out the massacre with her brother Adam, who was an initial suspect but was never charged. Adam Frank, serving time for armed robbery, was later caught in northern Louisiana, where he reportedly bragged about killing a police officer in New Orleans and carrying the pistol used in the triple murder.

Prosecutors maintained that LaCaze is guilty and should remain exactly where he is — on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

“LaCaze is an unapologetic sociopathic killer, and he is right where he belongs,” Assistant District Attorney Matthew Kirkham told ad hoc Judge Michael Kirby.

The evidence against LaCaze remains overwhelming, Kirkham said: His alibi fell apart, he was caught using Williams’ credit card and he is more than a foot shorter than Adam Frank, making it inconceivable that witnesses might have confused the two.

Carter became prosecutors’ 11th-hour attempt to thwart his bid for a new trial.

Kirby was originally expected to rule shortly after the eight-day hearing ended in June. But the next day, a mystery witness, previously unknown to police or prosecutors, came forward with information that “wholly refutes” LaCaze’s claims of innocence, the District Attorney’s Office told the judge. Prosecutors kept her identity a secret, had her testify before a grand jury and surreptitiously sent a transcript to the judge.

Kirby criticized their unorthodox procedures but grudgingly postponed his ruling to allow the woman to testify publicly on Friday.

She told the court that she was a friend of both LaCaze and his brother Michael. She and another woman were living with Michael LaCaze after his brother was arrested for the murders, she said.

Rogers LaCaze wrote his brother a letter from jail including a map of Orleans Parish Prison, complete with details about a failed escape plan, and a request that a ladder, a bag of guns and a rope be left below a window, she said.

Then he called the house to follow up, Carter said, and she ended up on the phone with him. He told her that he was guilty and couldn’t beat the charge, so he had decided to break out of prison, she testified.

Then he told her the real story of the crime, she said: Frank was angry that the restaurant was giving her partner more paid-detail hours than it was giving her, so he went with her to the restaurant on the night of March 4, 1995.

But from there, her story diverged from the one prosecutors presented at the original trial, where Frank and LaCaze were portrayed as a murderous duo, equally indifferent to the lives of those in the restaurant that night.

Carter said that LaCaze told her he waited in the car outside the restaurant for several minutes but got antsy and knocked on the door. He said officer Williams answered and LaCaze immediately shot him in the head, Carter testified. Defense attorneys, however, later pointed out that the officer’s body was actually found on the other side of the restaurant.

Frank then tried to save the family working in the restaurant, LaCaze reportedly told Carter. So LaCaze, 18 years old at the time and with an IQ of 71, put a gun to the back of Frank’s head, Carter said. He told her that he’d kill her if she didn’t shoot the siblings, Cuong and Ha Vu. She did, but they didn’t die, so LaCaze shot them too.

LaCaze’s attorney, Blythe Taplin, told the judge that Frank had tried to use a similar defense at the original trial. Prosecutors mocked the notion that she’d tried to save the family, and one juror laughed out loud at the suggestion.

Now prosecutors were adopting the very story they once dismissed.

Taplin tried to cast Carter as a mentally unstable liar, with an odd history of testifying about years-old, previously undisclosed confessions.

Two years ago in Houston, Carter testified against the father of one of her children. Roderick Fountain was tried there for murdering his 3-year-old son, whose body was never found. Prosecutors presented evidence that Fountain was also suspected of killing a 16-year-old boy in New Orleans 10 years earlier.

Carter testified at his trial that Fountain had confessed to her that he had, indeed, murdered the teen but that she told no one for more than a decade.

Taplin presented the judge with signed affidavits from acquaintances of Carter who said the woman had a history of acting erratically and violently, and that she had acknowledged suffering from bipolar disorder. She was once arrested for smashing the windshield of LaCaze’s brother’s car with a baseball bat, they noted.

Carter denied having a mental illness and said she’d only joked about it before. In each murder case where she has gotten involved, she said, she’d been afraid to come forward earlier.

However, she said, a friend called her this summer and told her to read an obituary on the website nola.com. She went to the site and saw coverage of LaCaze’s claims of innocence.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “You can’t kill people and then just say ‘Oh, I didn’t do it, I wasn’t there.’ ”

She texted the district attorney who had prosecuted Fountain in Texas, and that prosecutor put her in touch with the local District Attorney’s Office, leading to her revelations about her alleged jailhouse phone call with LaCaze. Pressed by defense attorneys, however, she could not say which friend had directed her to the obituary or whose obituary it had been.

Prosecutors said the woman had no reason to lie, but the defense maintained that her incredible story had little to do with the issues at hand: whether LaCaze received a fair trial, whether his attorney was incompetent and whether the state hid a witness who might have bolstered his case. They asked the judge to grant a new trial, where a jury could decide whether to believe Carter’s story.

Kirby gave both sides time to file additional evidence, but indicated he intends to soon decide whether LaCaze should be offered a new trial.