15 face charges in racketeering indictment
The so-called teenage “mafia wife” of the bloody New Orleans street gang the 110ers will remain in jail awaiting trial, as part of a state racketeering case that swept up her boyfriend and more than a dozen other accused gangsters.
The group is charged in a 51-count indictment that alleges they committed shootings, armed robberies, drug dealing and 15 killings, including the killing of 5-year-old Briana Allen by a stray bullet last year at a Central City birthday party. All are being held at the Orleans Parish jail without bail.
Ja’on Jones, 18, was denied bond Friday, despite her attorney’s pleas that she’s an otherwise well-behaved and hard-working high school student.
Jones and her 14 co-defendants were all brought shackled into the courtroom, packed with their families, a dozen deputies and the private attorneys assigned to defend them.
The vast racketeering indictment, criticized by defense attorneys as an attempt to shoehorn disparate and weak cases into one provable conspiracy, is so sprawling that their lawyers on Friday were ordered to provide their own hard drives to collect the state’s evidence against them: 196 hours of recorded jailhouse phone calls and more than 8,000 pages of police reports and other documents.
The case began as an investigation into the birthday party shooting that left little Briana Allen dead, along with a 33-year-old mother of three named Shawanna Pierce who was driving down the street by the party. Both were caught in the crossfire of what police described as a brazen turf war.
The investigation spread to focus on the 110ers, an alliance group of three gangs that police say control the 10th and 11th wards. Its alleged members, rounded up in the indictment, range in age from 17 to 39: Rico Newman, Sam Newman, Demond Sandifer, Antonio Johnson, Kerry Pittman, Joshua Pittman, Eric Shelbia, Ronald Thompson, Charlie Brown, Kevin Calhoun, Joseph Bienemy, Tyron Harden, Charles Lewis and Stanton Guillory.
Jones, Sandifer’s girlfriend and the only woman among them, is not accused of ever pulling a trigger, only lying about crimes to investigators and helping her boyfriend and his alleged conspirators hide from the law after the killings.
She asked a Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judge on Friday to set a bond so she could get out of Orleans Parish Prison. Before her arrest, she was just young student from a loving family, who worked part time and made decent grades, Peter Theis, her attorney, argued. Before the indictment in May, Jones had previously been charged with 13 counts of perjury before a grand jury. Judge Laurie White had set her bond at $19,500, and she appeared for every hearing, Theis said.
But prosecutors resisted.
Jones is charged with seven counts of perjury, accessory after the fact to second-degree murder, racketeering and if convicted faces an additional “gang enhancement” penalty if convicted. Prosecutors accuse her of lying to an Orleans Parish grand jury in October, claiming she did not recognize or had not spoken to certain members of the gang when she had.
Assistant District Attorney Alex Calenda told the judge Friday that she protected the alleged killers, hiding them from police. When she got to jail, she did not call her mother, but instead a member of the gang to warn him about what police knew.
“She has just as much blood on her hands,” Calenda said.
Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier sided with the state, denied Jones’ bond and the teenager was led away back to OPP.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the defendants complained after the hearing about how they are overwhelmed by the 196 hours of jailhouse calls and 8,000 pages of documents, which they will need to sort through before Oct. 18, the next date the crew is scheduled to appear before Flemings-Davillier.
Listening to the calls, and doing nothing else for 40 hours a week, would alone take a single attorney five weeks. The 8,000 pages, of police reports, Facebook postings and other evidence, would add days or weeks more.
The judge said Friday that she intends to treat the case more like complex civil litigation, where reams of paperwork and flurries of motions are common. Except in this case, the attorneys representing the 110ers aren’t getting paid.
The public defender’s office withdrew from the cases, citing a myriad of conflicts with each defendant.
The reasons are varied: They’ve represented them before, or defended a victim or a witness.
So the court turned to the private bar. Many volunteered to take on the case on a pro bono basis, though they said Friday that it is quickly becoming the most voluminous, expensive and time-consuming matter on their calendars.
Racketeering cases that accuse large numbers of defendants of operating complex criminal enterprises are often taken up by the federal court system, which has a better resourced, although currently struggling, indigent defense system. Although that federal public defenders have been hit hard by recent federal budget woes, when private attorneys are tapped to represent defendants who can’t afford lawyers, they get paid.
The state public defender system, in comparison, has less reliable means of paying private attorneys who step in to handle cases that the traditional public defender’s office cannot take on.
A landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandates that states are required to provide attorneys for poor defendants.
But the local public defender’s office is routinely hamstrung by budget woes and the state board has declined to offer additional funding.
So more than a dozen volunteers packed the courtroom Friday, just the start of litigation that will likely stretch on for years: Theis, Benjamin Sanders, Craig Mordock, Stavros Panagoulopoulos, Amy Yacorzynski, Townsend Myers, Keith Sanchez, Michael Idoyaga, Samantha Griffin, Richard Schroeder, Sherry Dolan, Eusi Phillips, and LaShanda Webb.
“If we don’t step up, who’s going to step up?” Mordock said. “There are too many people getting screwed.”