It is possible — even likely, some would argue — that had former Knight Oil Tools employee Russell Manuel kept his mouth shut last year, law enforcement may never have known about the conspiracy to plant illegal drugs on Bryan Knight in 2014 and have him arrested.
Now Manuel, who pleaded guilty late last week to his role in the 2014 plot, will have an opportunity to tell a jury exactly what happened two years ago when he testifies against his alleged co-conspirators.
The case began to unravel in March 2015 when Manuel, after being fired from the company for reasons that have not yet been publicly disclosed, threatened with physical harm Knight Oil Tools IT Director Barret Lemaire, whom Manuel learned had failed to delete some files associated with what was referred to as "the operation." The operation was the name of the aforementioned cockamamie scheme to get Bryan Knight in enough of a legal quandary that he would stop causing trouble for his older brother, who at the time was running the family-owned oilfield service company.
At Manuel's direction a year before, Lemaire had placed an order for the vehicle tracking device and magnetic box that law enforcement officials now say was later filled with drugs and planted under Bryan’s car to frame him.
Lemaire, who says in court documents Manuel threatened him and his family if Lemaire talked, was never charged in the case, and it remains unclear what he knew about the scheme and when he knew it.
Within days of the threat, however, a frightened Lemaire did indeed turn to law enforcement officials, who began piecing together the riveting made-for-TV drama. Allegedly Manuel had worked closely with Bryan’s older brother, oil patch millionaire Mark Knight, the longtime top executive of the company and respected businessman, and two law enforcement officials to set Bryan up for the 2014 arrest. The drug possession charges against Bryan were never pursued because the flimsy, questionable case against him eventually fell apart, even though he was a suspected drug user who had been on law enforcement's radar for some time, according to a local police department official. For starters, among the relatively small number of drugs police found were 25 Lortab pills; Bryan Knight had a prescription for Lortab.
All along, Bryan insisted that he'd been framed, mentioning immediately to the officer who pulled him over the family strife and explaining that he'd just left a mediation session in the Oil Center over the direction of the company, according to information later revealed in Manuel's arrest affidavit (though not included in Bryan's arrest affidavit). Bryan, according to his own arrest affidavit, also told law enforcement that he had recently loaned his Cadillac Escalade to a friend and thought the friend may have set him up.
With the help of his criminal defense attorney, Pat Magee of Voorhies and Labbe law firm, last year Russell Manuel was able to secure from the district attorney derivative use immunity, according to Kip Judice, who led the investigation for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Department before leaving to become Duson's police chief. By way of that agreement, any information Manuel provided independent of what investigators had already been able to gather could not be used to build the criminal case against him.
Late last week Manuel — whom the man he threatened had referred to as Mark Knight’s right-hand-man and “henchman” — and his attorney tied a bow around the agreement, securing Manuel's get-of-jail-free card via his promise of cooperation and guilty plea to conspiring to commit corrupting influence, intimidating a witness and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methadone and hydrocodone.
Manuel's 10-year prison sentence was suspended by 15th Judicial District Court Judge David Smith, and he was given supervised probation in exchange for his testimony against Mark Knight, former Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Kinch and ex-Louisiana State Trooper Corey Jackson. Like Manuel, all three were indicted in July 2015 by a Lafayette Parish grand jury.
Manuel will now help prosecutors prove what they allege — that Mark Knight paid all three men to plant drugs on Bryan and have him falsely arrested.
“Russ is sorry for his actions as they pertain to Bryan Knight, and he regrets his lapse in judgment,” Magee tells ABiz. “He does look forward to atonement by assisting in the prosecution of the law enforcement agents and businessman involved in this torrid affair.” Mark Knight, Kinch and Jackson are charged with racketeering, which carries a sentence of up to 50 years and a fine of up to $1 million.
The Advocate reported Thursday that the next scheduled hearing in the case is Feb. 16. No trial dates have been set.
Bryan Knight has since filed a federal lawsuit against his brother, Manuel, Jackson and Kinch, alleging they violated his civil rights.
Learn more about the bizarre Knight saga, which wreaked financial havoc on the behemoth oil services company and reads like a soap opera script, by clicking here.