Late-night gunplay in Waffle House parking lot

Gunplay erupted early Sunday morning on Houma’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, forcing lockdowns of two popular restaurants and increasing concerns among Terrebonne Parish officials already concerned about large crowds on the popular strip after nearby bars close.

“It’s an on-going problem, has been for years all over the parish and in Thibodaux and other areas,” Sheriff Jerry Larpenter said. “After the bar-rooms close, some people want to eat breakfast and some want to go shoot each other.”

An unidentified woman was shot in the buttocks and her brother, in response, shot himself in the leg when violence erupted in the parking lot of the Waffle House at 1736 Martin Luther King Blvd., at around 2 a.m. The woman was transported to Terrebonne General Medical Center and the man taken to an undisclosed hospital by ambulance, officials said. The shooting, near the rear of the parking lot, drew a prompt response from deputies who flooded the area and had difficulty at times controlling a gathering crowd. Waffle House manager Jamal Charles confirmed that the restaurant was closed until 4 a.m. following the incident. The closing time rush on weekends – particularly Sunday mornings – is a particularly lucrative time for the Waffle House, Charles acknowledged. Across the street, at IHOP, manager Emma Escobar said customers and staff were locked in as a safety precaution while a fleeing gunman was sought.

“The police called us to keep the doors shut,” Escobar said. “This is the first time we were asked to do this. But I will be honest, I have noticed our Saturday nights have been challenging business-wise, and difficult. The bar crowd.”

Deputies took a complaint from a woman who had been at the IHOP and stated that a woman shocked her with a stun device and also punched her. The incident appeared unrelated to the shooting across the street, however.

Deputies have routinely prepared on Saturday night-Sunday morning shifts for heavy parking lot traffic – and occasional disputes and fights – at the Waffle House in particular.

At one time, Larpenter said, deputies were made available for extra-duty details at the restaurant to cope with issues at bar-closing time.

“We had details but it didn’t stop anything,” Larpenter said. “What they need to do is shut the doors down between one and three.”

Other Waffle House managers have confirmed in recent interviews that they have had to lock the doors during the peak post-midnight rush because of fights. This is the first recent report, however, of actual gunfire.

A reporter for The Times, monitoring the situation over the past few months in preparation for a story on the closing time issues, has observed deputies having to request that drivers of cars congregating in the Waffle House lot move on to ease traffic concerns. When possible, deputies routinely patrol near the restaurant on Sunday mornings in the pre-dawn. A deputy was on the scene almost instantaneously when the gunfire broke out this weekend.

“It’s not only the Waffle House,” Larpenter noted. “It could be a convenience store. It’s just wherever they decide to go. They ought to be going home. There needs to be a concern for safety. You have a crowd of 100 or 200 people and somebody pulls out a gun. That bullet can have anyone’s name on it. It’s a disturbance waiting to happen.”

The closing time capers are problematic, Larpenter said, because they draw police away from other areas in the parish.

“It opens the parish for other crimes, for burglars,” Larpenter said. “You use all of your resources handling a shooting or a big fight or a disturbance.”

An investigation into the shooting continues, Larpenter said. The man who was hospitalized after accidentally shooting himself will be charged when he is released from the hospital, and his sister’s injury was determined to not be life threatening. The other gunman is still being sought.

“At one time they would close,” Larpenter said. “But apparently they don’t care about people’s safety. Some lawyer is going to want to sue them, and police officers can’t be everywhere. We are not going to deploy all of our resources at the Waffle House. Other good, law-abiding citizens need protection.”

Crime scene tape on a tree at the Waffle House parking lot on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Houma. DEANNE RATLIFF/The Times