Found dead in her family's bathtub, Skylar Credeur's cries for help went unanswered for more than a decade. IND Monthly investigates how the justice system failed this bright, 20-year-old UL chemistry student.
Found dead in her family's bathtub, Skylar Credeur's cries for help went unanswered for more than a decade. IND Monthly investigates how the justice system failed this bright, 20-year-old UL chemistry student.
By Patrick Flanagan
Nov. 1, 2013**
When Skylar Credeur didn't show up for breakfast Aug. 21, her grandmother was a little surprised but not alarmed by her tardiness. Skylar was a college student enjoying the last days of her summer vacation, and though she was due in at work later that morning, her grandmother's initial thought was that Skylar had simply slept in. With her sophomore year at UL Lafayette quickly approaching, Skylar had plans to move out over the next year but was still living at her childhood home in rural Acadia Parish.
Skylar's grandmother typically refrained from knocking on the door at her daughter Alidia Credeur Bertrand's house - largely because her son-in-law had a thing for answering in the nude. But based on a call from the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office the night before, the possibility of seeing Kerry Wayne Bertrand's naked body was no more, as he'd reportedly been picked up and put in jail sometime that evening.
The grandmother knocked and knocked, Alidia's sister-in-law Cathy Credeur tells IND Monthly (the grandmother declined to go on the record for this story), and when Skylar didn't answer, she tried calling her phone, but there was still no answer. She went back to her house next door, called Skylar's phone a few more times and returned to the front door of the house to try knocking again. This time was different: As she knocked, she heard what sounded like a person moving around inside. At first the grandmother thought it was Skylar so she called out to her, "Skylar, it's me," but she still didn't answer.
That's when she knew something was wrong.
Alarmed by what she'd just heard, the grandmother phoned her daughter Alidia - the estranged wife of Kerry Bertrand - and relayed the message of the sound she'd heard on the other side of the front door, that Skylar hadn't shown up for breakfast that morning as planned, and that no matter how loud she knocked, no one was answering.
Alidia immediately rushed home. But when she went to unlock the door, her key wouldn't work. No doubt driven by Kerry's recent release from jail - where he'd spent the last few months fuming over his stepdaughter Skylar's decision to come forth with public accusations of long-term molestation - Alidia wasn't going to let a broken door stop her from finding her eldest child. So she smashed a window, crawled into the house and began calling out for Skylar; still, no answer.
Cathy says Alidia's search finally brought her to the bathroom, and there, lying in the tub, was Skylar, dead and naked with her laptop floating in the water above her body.
Kerry Wayne Bertrand's Aug. 21 mugshot bearing what appears to be fingernail scratches on the right side of his face.
"I'd say it was about 1 p.m. when we got the call that Skylar was dead," says Cathy, who reached out to IND Monthly after learning of our investigation into her niece's death, providing information from the family's perspective, and helping us in filling in some of the details excluded from the public record.
"We immediately left Carencro, headed to Rayne and probably got out there to the family property at around 2 p.m.," says Cathy. "There were easily more than 50 people standing around outside the house. The coroner had just got there with the hearse and had already loaded the body.
"What really got me though was how the detectives were already treating it as a suicide or an accidental death. Just because [Skylar's] laptop was found with her in the tub, and because it was plugged in, it's like they all thought she'd electrocuted herself."
Within an hour, Credeur says, the Acadia Parish Sheriff's detectives had seemingly made up their minds about Skylar's cause of death, and had given the OK for the family to return inside the home. The Credeurs are a big family - Skylar's grandparents raised about 16 kids in all, and most of them still live out on the family property along Victor Road. Cathy says there were about 20 family members at the crime scene, and after getting approval to go inside the home, her husband Edmond walked through inspecting the home for any signs of suspicious activity.
"There's an attic down at the very end of the hall, and my husband noticed a step-ladder had been propped against the wall," recalls Cathy. "So my husband asks Alidia, How long's that ladder been there, and Alidia says, No, they got clothes all over it, it's been there forever.' She didn't find anything suspicious about it, but somehow, by the grace of God, something told [Edmond] to check in the attic anyway."
Figuring it wouldn't hurt to look, Edmond, along with his 25-year-old sons, twins Corey and Carey, each took to the ladder for a quick check of the attic.
"It was dark so my husband, he shines his flashlight, and kept walking further in, and for all of us who were still downstairs, the next thing we hear is [Edmond] shouting, Let me see your hands or I'll shoot.' He then yells down to us that Kerry's in the attic, and of course that freaks out everyone downstairs, and they all started running out the house. When my husband found him he was all crouched down at the far end of the attic hiding behind an AC duct, and the reason it was so dark up there is because he'd unscrewed the light bulb so no one would see him up there. All Kerry had to say when they found him was, I'm coming out, I'm coming out ... It's too dam hot up here anyway.'"
As the family poured from the home after hearing of Edmond's discovery of Bertrand, only two of the more than 10 sheriff's deputies/detectives originally called out for the investigation had remained on the scene.
"I ran out and found one of the two cops who were left on the property, and if you could have seen the look of shock on his face when I shouted they'd just found Kerry Bertrand inside the house," says Cathy. "So then all the deputies start coming back to help drag him from the attic."
As Edmond and his sons neared the cowering Kerry Bertrand, Cathy says they each noticed a sign that he'd been involved in some kind of struggle - saying his face bore the fresh mark of what looked like a fingernail scratch. That, says Cathy, is likely the reason for the current holdup in the case, which is pending the results of a forensic examination by the Acadiana Crime Lab. Skylar typically wore her nails long, but at the funeral, says Cathy, she and other family members noticed the same peculiarity: All of Skylar's nails had undergone a considerable trimming.
"The sheriff's detectives told us after we'd found Kerry that day that they figured he'd been hiding up under the house, and had been there sometime between the time they tried picking him up the night before at the hotel and when they found her dead," says Credeur.
"If you ask me, finding him was nothing short of a miracle. There's no way God or Skylar's spirit or something didn't reach out that day and touch my husband and make him feel the need to go up there. Because you know, if they hadn't found him, he really would have gotten away with it and the detectives would still be thinking she committed suicide."
At press time, no charges had been filed in Skylar Credeur's death.
Kerry Bertrand was arrested Aug. 21, the day of Skylar's death, on six counts of violating protective orders, molestation and the introduction of contraband into a penal institution. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Skylar Credeur, top center of this family photo, with her mother, Alidia, stepfather, Kerry Wayne Bertrand, and her four half-siblings (all Kerry's biological children)
It is very likely Skylar Credeur would be alive today if not for fatal mistakes committed by the 15th Judicial District Attorney's Office, the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office and Louisiana State Police.
Perhaps the most critical of those mistakes was committed on Aug. 12 by District Attorney Mike Harson's office when it allowed Kerry Bertrand to be released from jail after being held on a molestation charge for 74 days.
Making matters worse is that Bertrand's release was so easily preventable, and only required the issuance of a bill of information by the DA's office to make the molestation charge official. According to anonymous sources close to the 15th JDC, the process comes equipped with a safeguard designed to remind the DA's office of any upcoming hearing in which a prisoner has filed a motion for release. The way it works, according to our sources, is that once the accused has been held for 60 days in jail without officially being charged, he is then granted the right to file a motion for release on the grounds of Habeas Corpus. The filing of that motion is typically followed by the assignment of a court date and the issuance of subpoenas, which Harson's office would have received, triggering a reminder for the prosecution that it's time to get the ball rolling.
In Bertrand's case, Harson's office even had an extra few days to react to Bertrand's motion for release, but when the Aug. 12 hearing rolled around, not only were the assistant district attorneys present in court that day not equipped with a bill of information, but they also made no objection to the motion for release and made no requests for more time from the judge, which in all likelihood would have been granted.
Harson disagrees, and in an emailed response to IND Monthly's questions, he explains the actions of his office at the Aug. 12 hearing:
[N]othing happened until Aug. 8 when an attorney allegedly representing Mr. Bertrand contacted our office inquiring about the status of his client's case. It was then that we realized that we had never received a report on the incident. We then contacted the [Louisiana State Police] Troop and the report was brought to us on the afternoon of the 8th ... some 70 days after the original arrest. No explanation was given for the delay. When we received the report we had been given no notice of any upcoming events or motions in connection with it. It wasn't until my assistant appeared on [Aug. 12] for bond reductions that we were told that the motion for a release was on the docket. The assistant then reviewed the file and determined that the report had numerous serious questions that did not justify the filing of a bill at that time and that it should be put [before] a grand jury. Thus the suspect was released.
Harson agrees that a bill of information, a written statement accusing someone of a crime (an alternative to bringing the case to a grand jury), would have kept Bertrand in jail. He disagrees, however, on whether charges were warranted against Bertrand, citing a lack of any hard evidence in the report provided by state police and what he calls the "ethical obligation" of his office to only pursue convictable cases.
"The filing of the bill [of information] would have prevented [Bertrand's] release," confirms Harson. "However," he continues, "that begs the issue that we also have ethical obligations to ... have reliable and persuasive evidence sufficient to convict. We did not feel that we had such. In addition, at that time, we were not advised of any impending danger to the parties."
Something about Harson's position, however, just doesn't add up.
For starters, Louisiana State Police made its first arrest of Bertrand on May 31, which means it got the signature of a district judge. Judges don't sign warrants without some type of affidavit (or police report) showing probable cause for the arrest.
Shortly after his release from jail, Kerry Bertrand created a Facebook account and began posting a string of bizarre photos (like the one above) in the days leading up to Skylar's death. Bertrand added this photo showing blood smeared on his chest and shirt on Aug. 20, one day before the discovery of his step-daughter's drowned body.
While Harson responded to our questions for this story by mostly dodging questions and pointing fingers at the other agencies involved in the case, State Police Public Affairs Commander Capt. Doug Cain was willing to admit one mistake committed by his agency in its handling of the case. "There was one thing, the victim notification sheet, that was not handled properly on our part, and we do take responsibility," says Cain.
Designed as an extra layer of protection for victims of violent crimes, a victim notification sheet is the responsibility of the law enforcement agency assigned the case. Cain admits that Skylar Credeur's name should have been entered by state police investigators into the Louisiana Automated Victim Notification System, which would have immediately alerted her of her step-father's Aug. 12 release from jail.
"Certainly we have a responsibility to investigate crimes and put the right people in jail, and we also have a responsibility to make sure the victim notification is filled out and submitted properly," says Cain. "The form wasn't done in this case, and that's a problem and we've since put steps into place to fix it. Our investigator fortunately had a good relationship with [Skylar], and she immediately called him when she found out about the release. We then took the additional steps to get another warrant issued."
Bertrand, suddenly free on Aug. 12 but with no car and nobody to call for a ride, set off walking along Rayne's rural highways in the direction of 140 Victor Road, for what seems a surprise reunion with his estranged family. His plan, at least for showing up solo, was spoiled when an Acadia Parish deputy spotted him walking in the dark, pulled over and told him to hop in for a ride home.
"One of our deputies ran across [Bertrand] walking in the dark along the highway, so he escorted him home," says Maxine Trahan, public information officer for the Acadia Parish Sheriff's Office. "When they pulled up at the house, that's how the family was notified of his release because state police never filed the victim notification report."
This photo was another one of Kerry Bertrand's strange Aug. 20 Facebook postings. The photo includes a comment from Bertrand reading "Skylar work at hand," which according to Skylar's boyfriend, Bryar Babineaux, was an attempt to make Skylar the culprit of the red marks on the back of her younger brother's neck. According to our interview with Babineaux, he and Skylar discussed the photo in one of their last conversations: "When she saw that she told me her stepfather was trying to make it look like she did that, like he was trying to pin it on her. I knew about what he'd done to Skylar, but as far as the rest of the household, I'm not sure if he did that or if it was because her brothers had just been rough-housing too much."
Upon arrival, the deputy quickly learned his passenger was not welcome back at the house on Victor Road. Anxious to see him go, his family gathered up some money, handed it over to the deputy, and Kerry Bertrand was taken away and booked into a room at the Crowley Inn.
The next morning, Skylar notified state police of the previous night's surprise visitor and then headed for the Acadia Parish Courthouse to file a restraining order to compel him to stay away.
That restraining order, filed Aug. 13, would prove to be Skylar's final cry for help against Kerry Bertrand.
In a section asking for specific instances of the alleged abuse, Skylar wrote:
Few months ago before pressing charges, March 2013, Kerry insinuated that I should not mention the sexual abuse because It never happened' and antagonized me about it before I went to work one morning ... I think it was a Thursday this past semester. He also recently made comments towards me in front of my family ... basically hitting on me.
He was currently in jail for two months because I pressed charges for child molestation and was released yesterday. Last night he went to the home and threatened if I went home I would be the one to be arrested.
Last summer I was pushed down getting in the way of him hitting/physically abusing a sibling and hit for getting in the way. I was sexually abused until the age of sixteen. He would come into my room at night physically abusing me when I would fight to get away. The last incidence of this was Mardi Gras morning of my sophomore year when he attempted to rape me and I got away and told my mom.
Before that, he would punch me/&siblings when we upset him and so on. Everytime that I can remember being sexually abused he threatened to Kill you and no one would ever know' ... Kill me and hide my body in a swamp.'
A full copy of the allegations Skylar made against her stepfather when filling out her Aug. 13 protective order.
A second protective order was filed against Bertrand two days later by Skylar's mom Alidia, which covered the entire household.
A handwritten statement from Alidia Credeur Bertrand found in the protective order she filed on Aug. 15 against her husband, Kerry Wayne Bertrand.
"Protective orders are unfortunately just pieces of paper - they're not going to stop bullets, knives and fists," says Ralph Peters, executive director of the Lafayette Family Violence & Intervention Program.
Peters is a former longtime law enforcement officer who retired as major with the Lafayette Police Department and, more recently, from the Natchitoches PD as police chief.
Peters continues: "The advantage of a protective order is it gives police a tool to use to arrest the guy if he's just merely standing where he shouldn't be. But very often, when a perp gets a protective order issued against him, he gets angry, and it really just turns up the heat even more. Sometimes the perp will get so angry they'll make an even more determined effort to see or contact or send flowers or harm the person seeking the protective order."
The second warrant issued for Bertrand's arrest from the DA's office wouldn't come until Aug. 16, and for reasons unknown, it took another four days before showing up Aug. 20 on the Acadia Parish Sheriff's fax machine.
Skylar Credeur had been waiting a week when the call from the sheriff's office finally came. It was Aug. 20, and for Skylar that phone call meant she could finally go home and spend the night with her family (she had been staying with her boyfriend).
Two Acadia Parish Sheriff's deputies were en route to the Crowley Inn with a warrant to put Kerry Wayne Bertrand back in jail.
According to Skylar's aunt Cathy, Bertrand had other ideas, and as the cruiser pulled into the parking lot of the Crowley Inn the deputies, not knowing they were being watched by one of the Inn's employees, exited their cruiser. Instead of taking pursuit, Cathy says, they stood in the parking lot and watched as Bertrand ran for cover in a nearby patch of woods.
Photo by Robin May
Cathy Credeur, Skylar's aunt
The deputies' refusal to give chase after seeing Bertrand flee is problematic, but media reports indicate that they did stay on the property a full two hours waiting, apparently thinking he would eventually return.
What's beyond explanation is why the two deputies didn't notify either Skylar or her mother about that evening's escape act.
Bertrand proved quite capable of ignoring the two protective orders filed by his wife and stepdaughter. According to a conversation between the Sheriff's Office and family members at the scene of Skylar's death, shortly after Kerry Bertrand's discovery in the attic, detectives, recalls Cathy Credeur, were theorizing that after escaping the night before, Kerry Bertrand walked about 12 miles before arriving at 140 Victor Lane and taking refuge underneath the home where he likely stayed until sometime the next morning, probably reemerging around 6 a.m., after his estranged wife and kids headed on their way to Branch Elementary.
Most people who knew Skylar would have never imagined she'd grown up a victim of child abuse. Even her boyfriend, Bryar Babineaux, who despite knowing about the abuse she'd grown up with, still didn't think his girlfriend's life was in danger.
Skylar and her boyfriend, Bryar Babineaux
"I never liked him, but I never knew he was that bad," says Babineaux, who believes Kerry killed Skylar. "There's no doubt in my mind."
Skylar, who was studying chemistry at UL, was a part-time teller at MidSouth Bank at the time of her death.
"She was vibrant, full of life, she went to UL football games, went out with friends and was really good at always keeping busy," one co-worker who asked not to be identified tells IND Monthly. "We know she helped pay for things for her little brothers, she was funny, always drawing or doodling something, and was just very, very involved with her siblings. You know the saying, the one about when you go to work you're supposed to leave your personal problems at the door, it's a good concept, but rarely is it followed, except for Skylar.
She actually lived that idea. With work, being a chemistry major of all things, and the devotion she had for her family all of that alone amazed me. But after everything happened and I learned what she'd been through, well, I just had so much respect for her. I mean, you really would have never known she was dealing with the kind of hand she'd been dealt."
Skylar's extended family, for the most part, was as clueless about her childhood as her co-workers at the bank. Aunt Cathy says before moving to Carencro in 2007, she and her family also lived out on Victor Road for about 12 years, along with five other Credeur families.
"As much as everyone living in our little section back then couldn't stand Kerry, if any of us had found out what was really going on, let's just say he wouldn't be walking around alive today. We really didn't know about any of this molestation shit until some time at the end of May, when we were all out in Florida for a nephew's wedding and learned Kerry was in jail for molestation."
Family suspicions of the shiftless Bertrand ran deep and created rifts in the family, problems that escalated with Bertrand's predilection for hanging around the house buck naked, sometimes even with the kids home. "He worked so seldom, it wasn't funny. He loved sitting in front of the TV playing his video games," Cathy says.
Skylar's maternal grandmother was perhaps one of the few who knew, or at least had a pretty good idea of what was going on in her daughter's household with her son-in-law.
Kerry Wayne Bertrand and Alidia wed shortly after Skylar's birth in 1993, and by the time her granddaughter could talk, the grandmother's suspicions of molestation had become too great to continue harboring, family members say.
State records show that the grandmother reported the alleged molestation to the Louisiana Office of Child Services, prompting an investigation of Bertrand in April 1998. A family member familiar with the case tells IND Monthly Skylar was an exceptionally bright child, so much so that OCS investigators didn't thoroughly probe the allegations, writing them off instead as the imagination of a precocious 5-year-old without so much as a physical examination of her. Though the state's findings from that investigation are sealed and unavailable for public viewing, it's clear the molestation allegations were not substantiated, allowing Bertrand to remain with his family.
With the OCS investigation behind them, the Bertrand family grew over the years, filling their small home in rural Rayne - located within a stone's throw of Alidia's parents - with four more children, Skylar's half-siblings.
In her now haunting statement - her desperate plea to the system to keep her stepfather from her - it's clear Skylar Credeur was also trying to protect her siblings.
Hopefully this massive failure of the judicial system won't come back to haunt them.