It turns out you don't have to be doing anything illegal to piss off the criminal-taunting Capt. Clay Higgins. The Cajun John Wayne, as he's come to be known, can have a very short fuse.
On March 14, 2007, while a SWAT officer with the Opelousas Police Department, he turned his tough talk into action, specifically multiple instances of unauthorized use of force against an innocent bystander.
But that's not the way Higgins tells the story. In a late September interview with The Independent, Higgins, the former Crime Stoppers spokesman for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff's office who resigned in February and is now running to replace U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany in the 3rd Congressional District, left out a number of critical details when recounting what led to a 30-day suspension connected to his behavior on that day in Opelousas nine years ago.
Shortly after publishing the story, "Clay Higgins resigned from OPD in 2007 on cusp of major disciplinary measures" The IND talked by phone with Perry Gallow, who was then the chief of police in Opelousas. "I am disappointed," Gallow said at the time. "I really thought that Clay had turned the page. He preaches a lot about redemption, but his claims are, for the most part, inaccurate."
Internal affairs records from the investigation, obtained last week through a public records request to the OPD, confirm that there is much more to the story than Higgins was willing to admit.
For starters, Higgins was not given a 30-day suspension for simply knocking a cigarette out of the mouth of a man who breached the perimeter of a drug bust, as Higgins claimed in the interview with The IND.
From The IND's story:
The incident in question occurred when he and fellow SWAT Team members were guarding the perimeter of a drug bust and a car breached the perimeter. The man in the car, Higgins says, claimed to have cash in the suspected drug house and wanted to retrieve it. The man was detained and handcuffed, according to Higgins, and became belligerent with officers and threatened team members, at which point Higgins slapped a cigarette out the man's mouth.
The man was eventually released and, according to Higgins, went to the hospital - although he had no injuries, Higgins maintains - and filed a complaint. When a higher-up called Higgins into his office some time later to inform him of an internal affairs investigation into the incident, Higgins says he couldn't believe it.
"I was in shock that this was happening," Higgins recalls.
Higgins admits that he denied the accusation in an initial report he submitted to internal affairs and repeated the lie when questioned by the captain, but says he felt guilty about it within days. "I couldn't live with that," Higgins says. "I couldn’t sleep."
The IA records, however, reveal that Higgins only came forward to correct his statement after learning one of his fellow officers told the truth. It's also important to note that nowhere in the documents is there any mention of then-20-something year old man who drove up at the scene, Andre Richard, who was a cousin to the homeowner whose home was being searched, telling officers that he had cash in the house, as Higgins told The IND. In concluding that Higgins used unnecessary force that March 14 day in 2007 and "committed several batteries upon Mr. Richard," Capt. Craig Thomas, who headed the IA investigation, wrote to Chief Gallow:
"Officer Higgins also failed to tell the truth by saying that Mr. Richard committed a battery upon Officer Higgins prior to their scuffle and tried to deceive the investigation by plotting and staging facts that did not take place in this incident. It was also determined that Officer Higgins only told the truth about this incident after speaking with Sgt. [Bill] Ortego and learned that Sgt. Ortego did not go along with the original story that Higgins and [John] Chautin told to Capt. Thomas. Capt. Thomas recommends that mentioned officers be brought in front of the Discipline Review Board for discipline."
In his statement, which Thomas deemed truthful after talking to other witnesses, Sgt. Ortego said that he, Chautin and Higgins were all standing outside of the home at 602 Planters St. in Opelousas when Richard, a young black man, pulled up in a red vehicle, got out of the vehicle and approached the three officers.
Thomas, who still heads up internal affairs for the OPD, tells The IND Richard did not breach the perimeter, as Higgins claims. "He was parked in the street; there was no perimeter set up for Richard to see," Thomas says.
When Higgins walked to the driver's side of the vehicle and started looking in the car through the open door, Richard attempted to close the door while Higgins was still standing in the doorway, at which time Higgins and Chautin took Richard down to the ground, Ortego wrote in his statement. Ortego made it clear that Richard had not placed his hands on Higgins before trying to close his car door.
Once Richard was on the ground, Higgins asked for handcuffs and when the cuffs were on, Higgins grabbed Richard by the hair and told him to contact his lawyer, Ortego said. Ortego said Higgins and Chautin began searching Richard's vehicle (which they did not have permission to do) and noted that Ortego himself and Lt. Graig Leblanc, who was also on the scene, helped Richard off of the ground, at which time Richard told Higgins, "It's alright, everybody got to die someday." A threat, it seems, that really pissed Higgins off.
Higgins then removed the cuffs and pushed Richard onto the car and put his hand around Richard's neck before slapping Richard in the face and telling him to leave, according to Ortego’s statement to investigator Thomas. Only after all of this did Higgins pull the cigarette out of Richard's mouth and push him toward his vehicle, Ortego said.
The records indicate that Thomas spoke with Ortego at 4:37 p.m. on March 15. To this day, Thomas is confident that the phone call he got from Clay Higgins at 11 p.m. that night was the direct result of Higgins' knowledge that Ortego told the truth about what happened and that other eyewitnesses had contradicted both Higgins' initial statement and that of Chautin, who apparently had agreed to stick with Higgins' "version" of the events of the day.
When Higgins called Thomas late that night, however, he told the investigator that he had contacted a counselor from Las Vegas and confessed to him and now needed to tell the truth to Thomas, who told Higgins to come in the following day to be re-interviewed. According to Thomas' statement from the second interview, Higgins admitted to placing his hand around Richard's neck but said he did not choke him. He also admitted to hitting Richard on the side of the head "using 10 to 15% force, not an actual strike," Thomas wrote of Higgins' description. Additionally, Higgins acknowledged that he jerked the cigarette out of Richard's mouth. He then apologized for lying, according to Thomas' report. (For unknown reasons, only the first page of Higgins' second statement remains in the file, making it impossible to know whether he fully fessed up to Thomas.)
"It angered me in my meeting with Higgins when he stated, 'You are going to suspend me for that trash?' It angered him that he was going to have that on his record," Gallow tells The IND.
Four disciplinary measures were recommended and approved by the Opelousas City Council for violations of general orders in the police code of conduct:
- Demotion from Patrolman First Class to Patrolman
- Reassignment to a Patrol Shift for more direct supervision and training
- Immediate removal from the SWAT Team
- 160 hours suspension from duty without pay
But before Higgins could serve the punishment, he abruptly resigned. His retelling to The IND of the reasons for his resignation also left out several key facts.
A PEACOCK, MY ASS
Though he was nowhere near as incensed about Clay Higgins' trouble with the truth as Higgins' most recent boss, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz (Read "Guidroz to Higgins: 'Put your big boy pants on'"), Perry Gallow was a bit perturbed by Higgins' claim to The IND about why he abruptly resigned from the OPD. On May 18, 2007, Higgins tendered his resignation, which meant the disciplinary action that was approved by the council only a few days before couldn't be imposed.
"I referred to Chief Perry Gallow as a peacock - a peacock - a colorful, flightless bird," Higgins told The IND for the Sept. 29 story, explaining that the comment was made during a light moment around a swimming pool in LaPlace. He was in LaPlace for a SWAT competition he was allowed to participate in while awaiting the council's approval of the disciplinary recommendations against him. Higgins continued: "What we did not know is that Perry had someone recording that conversation, and when the competition was over, the entire SWAT Team was brought into the presence of the chief, and the entire SWAT Team was disbanded," Higgins says, his voice rising in the now-characteristic way he can make an ordinary utterance sound like Moses waving the 10 Commandments. "That's why the SWAT Team was disbanded - because I called Perry a peacock - and everybody laughed about it."
It is true that Higgins called Gallow a "peacock," and the records show that Gallow wasn't happy about it, but that's not why Higgins, who had worked for the department since late 2004, found himself yet again in hot water with his boss. (The IA records also indicate that no one secretly recorded Higgins' comment, as he told The IND. Another officer who attended the SWAT competition reported it.)
Higgins, Gallow maintains, resigned because he was facing additional disciplinary action for buying beer while in uniform and driving an OPD unit when he and his co-workers took off for the SWAT competition on May 6, 2007.
Internal affairs records and video footage from the Huddle House, a Shell convenience store in LaPlace, show Higgins and Chautin buying three 12-packs of beer that day - Higgins in a green SWAT T-shirt and Chautin in a black SWAT T-shirt with his weapon visible - and then placing the beer atop the OPD unit before loading it in the back of the vehicle and driving off.
A customer at the store witnessed the purchase and called Gallow to complain, which prompted the internal affairs investigation. The investigation revealed that Higgins and Chautin's SWAT supervisors had also purchased beer on a separate occasion while in uniform, and all of the officers were recommended for disciplinary action.
That poor judgment is what ultimately led to the dismantling of the SWAT team, Gallow says. "At no time were we not SWAT ready," Gallow insists, saying the team was reconstituted.
Though he is running in a crowded field of 12 on Nov. 8, Higgins has a real shot at making the runoff, likely against fellow Republican Scott Angelle. Read more on the controversial candidate, who is now a reserve deputy marshal in Lafayette, here.
A Facebook message left for Higgins earlier today and read at 2:28 p.m. asking for his response to the IA reports was not immediately returned.