May 2, 2016 11:05 AM

Last year’s runoff election for Lafayette sheriff was uglier than we imagined — just ask Troyce Thorla.

Troyce Thorla

Just days before the Nov. 21 runoff for Lafayette sheriff between attorney Mark Garber and Scott Police Chief Chad Leger — a contest won handily by Garber, 55-45 percent — Lafayette resident Troyce Thorla, a former police officer and sheriff’s deputy in Mississippi who had recently moved back to Lafayette Parish to care for his elderly mother, filed suit in state district court seeking to unseal the divorce files of Mark and Rachel Garber.

The files Thorla sought access to were actually the 2013 divorce proceedings between the Garbers, who had secretly separated again in July 2015, three months before the four-man primary election for sheriff but well into the campaign; Rachel Garber would again file for divorce on Nov. 30, just a week after the runoff.

By November of last year it had become not-toouncommon knowledge that the Garbers were ending their rocky marriage and were merely playing “family” for the sake of campaign appearances — a keen political maneuver from the perspective of candidate Garber, who would have understandably worried what being in the middle of a divorce involving two small children would do to his election prospects.

Candidates for Lafayette Parish sheriff – from left, Mark Garber, John Rogers, Chad Leger and Rick Chargois – participate in the Stump Speech at the Horse Farm last September. Rogers endorsed Leger while Chargois endorsed Garber in the runoff.
Photo by Robin May

Naive to Lafayette politics and favoring a fellow cop for sheriff, Thorla supported Leger in the race, and he had standing as a resident of the parish to file suit seeking to have the Garbers’ divorce files unsealed. Thorla had met City Marshal Brian Pope, who we now know from The IND’s ongoing public records battle with the marshal conspired deeply and to the detriment of his own career with the Leger campaign throughout the primary and runoff elections.

Pope, according to Thorla, convinced him to file the suit seeking to open up the Garbers’ divorce files. We can probably see this as a desperation move by Camp Leger: By the time the legal work was done and the suit was filed, it was clear that a judge wouldn’t consider the suit until after the runoff; the suit, in other words, wouldn’t have affected the runoff even if it were successful in getting the divorce files unsealed, assuming there was dirt in those files that made Garber look bad.

However, a source tells The IND that shortly after the runoff, with Garber then the sheriff-elect, Pope inquired with a local election official about how many signatures would be needed on a recall petition against Garber after he is sworn in as sheriff, which takes place this summer.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

On April 5 of this year, Thorla went to Garber’s law office — Garber wasn’t present — and signed a 13-point affidavit fingering Pope and a Leger supporter identified as David Prejean as the heavies in the lawsuit to unseal the Garbers’ divorce files. Paraphrasing the points in the notarized and witnessed affidavit signed by Thorla:

• Thorla was approached by Pope and Prejean to initiate the lawsuit.

• Pope and Prejean indicated they supported Leger in the sheriff runoff and believed the Garbers’ divorce proceedings would discredit candidate Garber.

• Pope and Prejean believed Thorla was the ideal candidate to file suit because Thorla also supported Leger and had recently moved back to Lafayette Parish.

• Pope believed there was a compact disc among the divorce files that could prove damaging to Garber. (This is likely the rumored video copy of Garber and a mistress’ “sex tape” that evidently never actually existed.)

• In collaboration with Pope and Prejean, Thorla filed suit to unseal the divorce files.

• Thorla advised Pope that he didn’t have an attorney and couldn’t afford one.

• Pope assured Thorla he would handle the legal costs associated with the suit.

• Pope told Thorla the legal work would be done at a Downtown Lafayette law office. (The office on Stewart Street identified in the affidavit belongs to the firm Goforth & Lilley, but it’s also where Pope’s original attorney in his public record battle with The Independent, Charles Middleton, rents office space.)

• Thorla went to Middleton’s office on Stewart Street with Prejean and was given an envelope containing legal papers.

• Pope personally paid for the cost of filing the suit with the clerk of court.

• After Garber was elected, Thorla on several occasions approached Pope about discontinuing the suit but Pope advised him that the proceedings could not be stopped.

• Days before the suit was to be heard in state district court, Thorla again tried to back out but Pope again insisted the trial couldn’t be avoided.

• Thorla attended the trial before District Judge David Blanchet who ruled in favor of unsealing the divorce files; Thorla reported this outcome to Pope.

The 13th and final point, verbatim: “I regret this action I have taken against Mr. Garber and feel that due to my ignorance of the political environment in the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s race coupled with my lack of fully understanding the ramifications of such a suit, I was manipulated by Marshal Pope and David Prejean in an effort to discredit and impugn the reputation of Mr. Mark Garber.”

But wait, it gets weirder.

City Marshal Brian Pope

After this newspaper obtained a copy of the affidavit, which was notarized and signed by Thorla in front of witnesses but was never entered into any official court record, we tracked down Thorla, who works in the scrap metal business in south Lafayette Parish.

Thorla tells us that he was approached by Rick Chargois, a former state trooper who ran in the primary for sheriff and later endorsed Garber, about signing the affidavit. But, Thorla suggests, he signed the affidavit more because he felt harassed than out of any true feelings of regret for meddling in the runoff election.

“They told me that little statement that they drew up, that I wouldn’t be bothered no more,” Thorla recalls. “I had Rick Chargois coming around my house taking pictures and stuff, and I just got tired of it. I went and filed that deal with the court to open up the sealed records, and then I got into something that I just really, I don’t know, I did it on my own but I got involved in something that went a little bit too far I think, and then next thing I know I had Chargois coming around, taking pictures of my house.

“Supposedly [Chargois and/or Garber] done an investigation on me and called my old chief and sheriff where I used to work in Forrest County, Miss., and called my police chief where I used to work in Petal, Miss., done this big investigation on me just because I went and filed some stupid papers to unseal the thing, and I went over there just so they’d quit harassing me about the whole thing; I wanted to be out of it, done with it. I said, ‘You know what, I don’t want any more to do with it,’ and Chargois said, ‘Well, this will solve the whole thing; just sign this and you’re done — you won’t be involved anymore.’ Because I don’t want to be involved with this anymore — I’m sick of it.”

Chargois disputes Thorla’s claim that he was in any way harassed, telling The IND he merely went to Thorla’s house to speak with him after Thorla sought out Garber’s attorney to say he had been pushed by Pope to file suit against Garber. Chargois adds that on his initial visit to Thorla’s house, Thorla wasn’t home, so he talked briefly with Thorla’s mother and daughter-in-law and took the photo of the house only because the home is located in a remote, new subdivision and he wanted to remember the house for future reference.

Chargois did eventually make contact with Thorla. “When I asked him about it, he said he wanted to back out [of going forward with the lawsuit] but was encouraged not to. He felt that he was between a rock and hard place,” Chargois says, denying that any background check was conducted on Thorla.

“I did no background on him — I did no background in Mississippi,” Chargois says. “I went and talked to him direct, and after I had talked to him and went and explained to Mark about what he had to say, how he was in a bad place, Mark said, ‘Have him come in and put down everything he said, that way we’ve got it on record.’ It was just for Mark’s personal knowledge.”

Thorla, Chargois says, reviewed the affidavit point by point before signing it.

Ultimately, the whole episode, from filing suit to unseal the divorce to signing the affidavit, had no effect on who will be sworn in as sheriff. It did, however, sour Troyce Thorla on Lafayette politics.

“I just want it to be over with,” he confesses.