Waffle House shooting draws sharp response from Sheriff Larpenter

The wounding of two people during a Sunday morning melee in a Waffle House parking lot has Terrebonne Parish’s sheriff publicly expressing a desire for the 24-hour eatery to close its doors at a peak weekend business time.

The incident is the most serious to date involving swarms of people crowding the restaurant parking lot and surrounding areas when bars and taverns close up at 2 a.m. on Sundays in accordance with local ordinances. Deputies have been dispatched to the restaurant for fights and disputes – most often in the parking lot – as well as traffic issues resulting from the crowding, said Sheriff Jerry Larpenter.

“It’s an on-going problem, has been for years all over the parish and in Thibodaux and other areas,” Larpenter said. “After the bar-rooms close, some people want to eat breakfast and some want to go shoot each other … What they need to do is shut the doors down between one and three.”

A company spokesman says such a closing is not in the cards for the Waffle House on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Houma. But he did indicate that Waffle House could be stepping up security to cope with the issue.

“We are a 24-hour restaurant and everywhere we operate is on a 24-hour basis, we have been that way since we began in 1955,” said the Waffle House spokesman, Pat Warner. “We do keep them open and we do work with local authorities on making it safe while also keeping it open. A lot of other people are out late at night and they frequent us and we want to be there for them. People across the nation know that and require us to be there.”

Terrebonne Parish deputies were patrolling in the vicinity of the restaurant at around 1:45 a.m. Sunday when they heard “multiple shots” being fired in the area of the parking lot at 1728 Martin Luther King Boulevard.

They learned that a woman, who has not yet been publicly identified, was shot in the buttocks and had been rushed to Terrebonne General Medical Center. As they attempted to secure the crime scene at the rear of the restaurant lot, deputies then quelled a large fight, during which a suspect from the shooting took off running, while pulling a gun from his waistband.

The gun discharged, causing a bullet to be lodged in the man’s leg. He was rushed to a landing location by Acadian Ambulance, where an Air-Med helicopter took him on board and carried him to a New Orleans-area hospital.

As a precaution, the IHop restaurant on the opposite side of MLK – also packed with late-night weekend patrons – locked its doors, but a manager there said the precaution was brief. A fight was reported in the vicinity of the IHop, and a woman later complained that another woman had attacked her with a stun-gun and also punched her. That incident, like the shooting, is under investigation.

One of the difficulties encountered by law enforcement is the gathering of autos and trucks in the Waffle House lot even if their occupants are not inside the restaurant dining, resulting in traffic control and public order issues.

Trooper First Class Jesse LaGrange of Louisiana State Police Troop C acknowledged that traffic and related issues are “a weekly occurrence.”

Although MLK is a state highway, LaGrange said he is not aware of any proactive program involving Troop C relating to addressing congestion or assembling of autos.

“When they go there the Sheriff’s Office calls whenever they need assistance,” LaGrange said.

He and Larpenter both acknowledge that problems are not limited to Waffle House in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday. The Waffle House in Gray fills up, largely with traffic from Thibodaux bar closures. There is a paucity of 24-hour spots for actual congregation and dining in the Bayou Region, aside from the Houma IHop and the Waffle House locations.

“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,” Larpenter said. “That bullet can have anyone’s name on it. It’s a disturbance waiting to happen.”

Officers in the field as well as Larpenter have expressed concerns that the gatherings create a safety issue for the general public as well as law enforcement officers, who might come into conflict with people. Law enforcement officials have said an incident like the one Sunday was not a question so much of “if,” but rather “when.”

A major concern is the drain on resources, Larpenter said. Sending all hands to MLK on a Saturday night or Sunday morning strips other communities of protection, he said. Patrols are covering communities throughout Terrebonne’s 1,250 square miles of land, not only in Houma, Schriever and Gray but less-accessible bayou communities like Chauvin, Dulac and Dularge.

“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.”

Waffle House’s Pat Warner noted that Sunday morning’s incident was in the parking lot, where there is less control that can be exercised by the restaurant itself, as opposed to something occurring inside. He said also, however, that while the Houma location is an independent franchise, the corporate arm of the company has security resources and strategies that can be utilized to alleviate the problem without requiring closures.

“We are a chain of 1800 restaurants, and while there are things that we do that are consistent throughout each one, we like each to have its own personality and encourage our management teams and senior management to have good relationships with the local authorities,” Warner said. “We will be working with the local restaurant to help them. We have been running 24 hour restaurants for 61 years and we have some good procedures in place for crowd control inside and outside. We do have them and we will be following them at this location with this management team. The director of security will reach out them. We will have to evaluate it and see what needs to be done. We do that on a case-by-case basis, it is hard to do as a blanket thing.”

Terrebonne Sheriff’s Office detectives are still in the process of investigating Sunday morning’s incident and ask that anyone with information call them at 876-2500. •

Waffle House shooting