Mary Tutwiler

Murder rate rises in New Iberia

by Mary Tutwiler

Sleepy little New Iberia, known for its oak-shaded Main Street, historic downtown, and as the home of Tabasco sauce, is developing a reputation no city wants. A rising crime wave that has resulted in five homicides this year as well as numerous home invasions and commercial break-ins has residents nervous and Mayor Hilda Curry angry. She lays the blame squarely on the sheriff’s department, which is the sole law enforcement agency for the Iberia Parish city of 32,000. “I would venture to say all the homicides are drug related. There are not enough officers patrolling, and they don’t have a full fledged narcotics department,” she says. Last year, there were no homicides in the city. In 2006, there were three killings.

Wendell Raborn was appointed spokesman for the sheriff’s department on May 15 of this year; previously Hebert, who has become increasingly difficult to reach, handled inquiries from the press. Raborn disputes Curry’s assessment of the reason for the rise in homicides. “We looked at the motives for the murders,” he says. “The first one was a fit of anger, the second was a domestic situation, the third was narcotics related, the fourth was a robbery, and we don’t have a motive for number five.” Raborn says that it’s impossible to prevent these sorts of one-on-one crimes. “There is a rise in violent tendencies in society today. Even the best equipped police department cannot prevent all crime, all the time. But why now? I can’t give a rational explanation.”

There is bad blood between New Iberia city government and the sheriff’s department. In July 2004, led by Mayor Ruth Fontenot, the city council voted to disband the New Iberia city police department and contract for law enforcement with Iberia Parish Sheriff Sid Hebert. The following September, Fontenot lost her bid for re-election to Curry, largely based on community anger over the move. Curry says the rise in crime is a result of the loss of the city’s department, which provided high profile security for the city. “It took time for it to get this bad,” she says. Hebert declined to run for a fourth term last year. A hotly contested race between Hebert’s chief of staff David Landry and retired state trooper Louis Ackal played out the lingering resentment in the city over the dissolution of the city’s police department. Ackal won with 52 percent of the vote.

Curry has made no bones over her frustration with Hebert, and she welcomes Ackal as someone she can work with. Hebert steps down in July. “I am confident the new sheriff will turn things around,” she says. “He is well aware of the problems. It will take a little time, but I’m sure things are going to get better.”