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Trial opens over police chief sex scandal

Posted: 1:51 AM, Jun 06, 2016
Updated: 2016-06-06 08:51:55Z
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A small Cajun community disbanded its troubled police department a year ago, but the town hasn't shaken a sex scandal that ousted its police chief.
 
A federal trial is scheduled to start Monday for a civil lawsuit that accuses former Sorrento Police Chief Earl Theriot of sexually assaulting a woman in his office while she was drunk and he was on duty.
 
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge will hear testimony without a jury before deciding if Theriot or the town violated the woman's constitutional rights.
 
The woman's accusations already have ended Theriot's elected tenure. They also fueled the collapse of a police force plagued by other allegations of officer misconduct.
 
In 2014, Theriot was sentenced to two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his sexual encounter with the woman. The plea deal required him to resign from his post in Sorrento, where sheriff's deputies now patrol the town of roughly 1,500 residents.
 
Mayor Mike Lambert, who took office in 2013, said the town's police department spiraled out of control under Theriot and became "one hell of a mess."
 
"The people of Sorrento were scared of the police department," Lambert said. "We had to make some drastic changes."
 
A court filing that accompanied Theriot's guilty plea said he had "inappropriate sexual contact" with the woman on Nov. 1, 2013. His accuser, now 44, claims Theriot detained her, forced her to perform sexual acts and physically restrained her after she called for help.
 
On the night before she crossed paths with Theriot, the woman went out drinking with friends. One of them dropped her off at a gas station, where she fell asleep.
 
The next day, Theriot responded to a 911 call and found the intoxicated woman in the gas station's parking lot. He placed her in the front seat of his police vehicle — without handcuffs — and briefly stopped in front of her home before driving her to the police station.
 
That's where their accounts diverge.
 
The woman claims Theriot took advantage of her condition and used the threat of jail to coerce her into having sex. Her lawsuit also accuses Theriot of taking off her belt and restraining her with it, forcing her to wait under his desk while he met somebody outside his office.
 
"Theriot did not allow (her) to say no to his advances," her lawyers wrote in a court filing last month.
 
Theriot denies restraining the woman and says he allowed her to call her boyfriend from the station.
 
"At no time during these calls did she allege that she was being assaulted," his attorneys wrote last month.
 
Instead, Theriot's lawyers claim the woman initiated the "unconsummated" sexual encounter to save herself from jail.
 
Her "story has inexplicably changed to allege that Mr. Theriot physically restrained her with her belt and forced himself upon her, when she originally portrayed herself to the FBI as initiating sexual contact," his attorneys wrote.
 
Theriot initially lied to the FBI about the encounter but ultimately "admitted his wrongdoing" and cooperated with investigators, said a court filing in his criminal case.
 
Court documents name Theriot's accuser, but The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault. The woman's attorneys say the episode humiliated her and left her suffering from severe depression and anxiety.
 
Sorrento was known for its annual "boucherie" festival, featuring traditional Cajun food. Lambert, a former sheriff's deputy and volunteer fire chief in Sorrento before becoming mayor, said it also earned a reputation for being a speed trap.
 
Ticketing practices weren't the worst of it. The town fired an officer who shocked a college student with a stun gun in 2009 to demonstrate how the device worked; it also fired an officer whose patrol car's tracking device showed it exceeding 75 mph more than 700 times in two months, The Advocate newspaper has reported.
 
The six-officer department was dogged by so many lawsuits and other problems that an insurance company dropped its coverage, Lambert said. Residents voted in November 2014 to abolish the department, which officially disbanded last May.
 
Lambert said Sorrento now contracts with the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office to patrol the town for nearly half of what it cost to operate its own police force. The new arrangement ensures residents get a "competent, well-trained officer to answer their call," the mayor added.