Taser death ignites racial tensions
Not far from Jena, La., suspicions rise of a cover-up mount
By Howard Witt | Tribune correspondent
4:16 PM CDT, July 19, 2008
WINNFIELD, La. — At 1:28 p.m. last Jan. 17, Baron "Scooter" Pikes was a healthy 21-year-old man. By 2:07 p.m., he was dead.
What happened in the 39 minutes in between — during which Pikes was handcuffed by local police and shocked nine times with a Taser, while reportedly pleading for mercy —is now spawning fears of a political coverup in this backwoods Louisiana lumber town infamous for backroom dealings.
Even more ominously, because Pikes was black and the officer who repeatedly Tasered him is white, racial tensions over the case are mounting in a place that's just 40 miles from Jena, La.---site of the racially explosive prosecution of six black teenagers charged with beating a white youth that last year triggered one of the largest American civil rights demonstrations in decades. And in a bizarre coincidence, Pikes turns out to have been a first cousin of Mychal Bell, the lead defendant in the Jena 6 case.
No novelist could have invented Winnfield, a place so steeped in corruption that they built a local museum to try to sanitize it all.
Here in the birthplace of two of Louisiana's most colorful and notorious governors — Huey and Earl Long—the police chief committed suicide three years ago after losing a close election marred by allegations of fraud and vote-buying.
Four months later, the district attorney killed himself after allegedly skimming $200,000 from his office budget and extorting payments from criminal defendants to make their cases go away.
The current police chief is a convicted drug offender who got a pardon from Edwin Edwards, the former Louisiana governor who is serving time in federal prison for corruption convictions.
All of that tangled history is now wrapped up in the Pikes case, because Scott Nugent, the officer who Tasered him, is the well-connected son of the former police chief who killed himself—and the protege of the current chief, who hired him onto the force.
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