Why? Missed connections cited as possible reason for tragedy

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Bagpipe chanters skirled the Scottish air “Going Home,” their drones moaning toward the heavens, as the remains of Sgt. Rick Riggenbach were reverently borne last week from a Franklin church to the white hearse that carried him to a Morgan City grave in a miles-long procession.

Riggenbach, a Chitimacha reservation police officer, was killed Jan. 26 on a rural Charenton road, where a 78-year-old resident named Eddie Lyons had already been shot. Two St. Mary Parish deputies were wounded as a result of the same incident.

As State Police make the case for murder against the suspect, identified as 48-year-old Wilbert Thibodeaux, disturbing questions arise that reach far beyond the narrow, pot-holed blacktop where a hero cop was killed.

Interviews with people who knew Thibodeaux reveal claims that pleas for official intervention in the weeks and months preceding the tragedy, prompted because of a deterioration in his mental state, went unheeded. Detailed accounts indicate that in some cases the lack of response was a matter of missed connections and misunderstandings. Advocates for mentally ill people and national leaders in law enforcement caution against finger-pointing in this or any other case. But the potential that tragedy might have been averted, they maintain, is nonetheless worthy of discussion.

• Thibodeaux was arrested for disorderly conduct days before the shootings, and neighbors report pleading with staff at the jail where he was held to have his mental state looked into before he was released back into the community.

• A report to police that Thibodeaux was endangering himself by walking in traffic received no response.

• Reports to the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office that Thibodeaux was decompensating, from neighbors asking what could be done, did not result in a police response that might have brought about an intervention.

“I was telling them he was not on his medication and that he was acting strange,” said Lamonika Dwyer, a medical office worker who has known Thibodeaux since she was a little girl. She was one of several people interviewed who called the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office and, on one occasion, the neighboring Baldwin Police Department. “At least send someone out to evaluate him and see if they felt like he was strange or pick him up and bring him to the hospital to have someone evaluate him.”

Law enforcement experts and advocates for the mentally ill say that if the claims are correct, the Charenton tragedy is indicative of problems that reach far beyond the cane fields and oak groves of rural St. Mary Parish. That is significant nationally, they say, due to national discussion arising from incidents like last year’s carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

“There is a vast need for education about mental health in Louisiana inclusive of law enforcement, the medical community and the general public,” said David Precise, director of the Louisiana branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, based in Baton Rouge. “Given the fact that 1 in 4 Americans experience some level of mental illness every year, a full one-quarter of our entire population, this isn’t a problem we can just sweep under the rug anymore and expect it to go away …

“Imagine if the police officers in St. Mary Parish were well trained in this area, how initial reports of this shooter might have been handled differently. Without the training, how are they to know what to do?”

Whether the killings in Charenton could have been prevented is a question that will never be answered. But experts say that in communities where there is dialogue involving police, medical professionals and the public – including people who have experienced issues involving mental illness with family members or friends – can save lives.

St. Mary Parish authorities have refused to discuss what policies or procedures they have in place for dealing with mentally ill people in crisis, and have referred all questions relating to the case to State Police. Troopers and deputies were informed of the claims made by residents but will neither confirm nor deny those allegations, because the investigation is ongoing.


That some people knew something was not right with Wilbert Thibodeaux became clear in interviews conducted on and around Flat Town Road.

North of Ralph Darden Memorial Parkway, Flat Town Road is a pockmarked stretch of blacktop, lined by a large open field to the east, across from which a spire of a sign indicates the presence of the Cypress Bayou Casino. On Flat Town’s western flank is a mélange of newer homes and dilapidated shacks and trailers. Some people called him “Thib” and others by his full last name.

Eddie Lyons owned a tract on Flat Town Road’s western side, on which were a handful of abandoned autos, a few trailers and an old wood-frame house. Another house once stood nearby, the one in which Wilbert Thibodeaux grew up, raised by foster parents who died years ago.

The home he grew up in, according to neighbors, accidentally burned down about a dozen years ago.

For the past year, Thibodeaux slept in a car on Lyons’ property. Neighbors were aware that he had mental problems for which he took medication.

“Way back, he had a breakdown, when he was in his 20s,” said Cassandra Carter, a neighbor. “He used to shake a lot and tremble. Sometimes he would say, ‘I’ve got to go and take my meds.’”

Carter and other neighbors said Thibodeaux performed odd jobs ranging from landscaping to minor auto repairs.

“Nobody feared him,” Carter said. “He was trustworthy. I would leave him with my 3-year-old.”

After the car broke down, Thibodeaux still obtained his medication, catching rides to go to a pharmacy. Dwyer, neighbors said, was one of the people who occasionally drove him to places he needed to go.

Thibodeaux also walked long distances, sometimes stopping at the Trading Post convenience store on the Chitimacha reservation about two miles away, where clerks said he would buy candy bars.


Thibodeaux also walked frequently to the Cypress Bayou Casino. Employees there said he did not gamble, but ate at the casino’s restaurant, generally keeping to himself or engaging in pleasant conversation.

It was around Christmas that something changed.

“He was not himself,” said neighbor Rushara Richard.

Others noticed as well.

According to neighbors, Thibodeaux began speaking gibberish, sometimes likening himself to God. He became easily agitated; his facial appearance changed and his eyes would buldge.

Eddie Lyons had told neighbors of a troubling discussion, in which Thibodeaux reportedly said he was fasting, and had done so for 31 days.

Lyons, they said, told Thibodeaux that he needed to eat and could not fast for such a long period.

“He said God fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, and Eddie Lyons told him, ‘You are not God,’” Lamonika Dwyer said she was told. “Thibodeaux got upset with him.”

Cassandra Carter, who had always been friendly to Thibodeaux, was confronted by him in an odd way.

“He said what do you do if a person harasses you,” she said he asked her, responding that avoidance was probably the best course of action.

Thibodeaux told her that he had a problem with her, that he felt she was harassing him.

For the first time in years of knowing Thibodeaux, Carter became frightened.

When she learned of Carter’s encounter and heard other accounts from neighbors, Dwyer asked a friend who is a St. Mary Parish deputy what the best course of action was, relating that neighbors had said Thibodeaux was off his medication.

Dwyer called the neighboring Baldwin Police Department on Jan. 14, she said, and asked for Chief Gerald Minor but he was not available.

So she then called the St. Mary Parish Sheriff’s Office jail in Centerville.

“It was the jail, but they are the police, they should know the process,” she said.

A deputy related to her the procedure for getting a person civilly committed for observation, and said she would have to go to the St. Mary Coroner in Morgan City, 30 miles away.

In Louisiana, authorities confirm, it is possible to have a person taken into protective custody if deemed a threat to self or others.

Dwyer then called the coroner’s office to ask if the paperwork could be faxed, but was told that to do so she would have to come in personally.

The deputy Dwyer first spoke with – the one she knew – asked two days later if she had found out what to do about Thibodeaux and his behavior. She told him what she had learned, and he told her he would check further. But she never heard back from him.

Then on Tuesday, Jan. 22, Thibodeaux showed up at the casino. According to neighbors – some of whom are casino employees – Thibodeaux had been making outrageous statements and refused to leave. Because the casino is on the Chitimacha reservation, tribal police officers – including Riggenbach – responded when called. They arrested Thibodeaux on a disorderly conduct charge and he was booked at the St. Mary jail in Centerville.

Dwyer learned of the arrest the next day, Jan. 23, and called the jail.

“I said I want to find out will you be able to get him back on his medication, that’s the reason why he is in jail,” she said, stating that she spoke with a jail employee who told her Thibodeaux was not cooperating, and not informing officers what kind of medication he was on. Dwyer said she was transferred to a nurse.

“The nurse told me we can’t get a medical history, so that we can try to see if we can get him on medicine. I told her he used to go to St. Mary Mental Health in Morgan City. The nurse thanked me and said it was too late to call there, but that she would call first thing in the morning.”


Cassandra Carter had also called the jail, on Jan. 24, but was told that Thibodeaux had been released. She called Dwyer, who called the jail herself.

“The woman there said he was released, and I asked did y’all make sure to put him back on his medication,” Dwyer said. “The woman there told me that’s not what he was arrested for and I said the only reason he is acting like that is he is not on his medication. Why would you let him out? He will be back in the same situation. They just left it like that.”

The next day Dwyer got a call telling her that there was a new problem.

“Cassandra told me Wilbert was walking on Ralph Darden Road and all the cars had to slow down,” said Dwyer, who called the Baldwin city police when she got to her job.

The dispatcher there knew who Thibodeaux was.

“She told me Wilbert was such a nice guy and that she didn’t realize he was on medication,” Dwyer said. “I asked for her to send someone out to check up on him, that he’s not right in the head. She told me if he would come in our territory we would, but that Ralph Darden is not in their territory.”

A call to the Baldwin Police Department seeking confirmation or details was not returned.

The next morning, Rushara Richard, who lives on Flat Town Road and who has also known Thibodeaux for decades, looked toward the property where he lived.

“I seen the truck in the shed on fire and he was standing in the yard,” she said. “When I seen him coming out the yard he had a gas can and the shotgun.”


Police received a report of a man walking on Flat Town Road with a shotgun. Although Flat Town is not on Chitimacha property, Riggenbach, patrolling close by, heard the radio dispatch and responded. St. Mary deputies, Jason Javier and Matthew Strickland, in the same patrol car, also responded.

According to authorities, Thibodeaux shot and killed Riggenbach. When Javier and Strickland arrived at the scene shots were exchanged. Both deputies and Thibodeaux were wounded. Officers later found the body of Lyons in a burned trailer on his property. Authorities have not yet disclosed whether Lyons died from a gunshot wound or from the fire.

Thibodeaux was to have been held at the Iberia Parish jail, but was instead moved to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He is charged with two counts of 1st-degree murder, two counts of attempted 1st-degree murder and arson.

During his closed circuit television arraignment, Thibodeaux reportedly made delusional religious references. It is likely that he will be examined by doctors to determine if he is competent to stand trial. If it is determined that he cannot assist his attorneys, then he could be civilly committed to a hospital. In the event he is restored to competency, Thibodeaux would be tried and could face the death penalty.

Whether there was an opportunity for authorities to intercede prior to the day shots were fired would likely have little effect on the outcome of the criminal case.

But advocates for mentally ill people and law enforcement executives in some other jurisdictions say an honest critique, and a look at local policy, could avert tragedies yet to come, not only in St. Mary Parish but elsewhere.

“Having a serious, focused conversation is the first step,” said Ron Honberg, legal director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ national office in Alexandria, Va.

“These are not problems that can be solved by the police alone, the churches alone, by mental health systems alone. It is very tempting to proffer simplistic solutions … What we need to figure out is how to ease the burden on the police. There are ways for effectively identifying mental illnesses and intervening before these situations become crises.”

A three-mile motorcade of police, fire and other official vehicles escorted Chitimacha Police Sgt. Rick Riggenbach’s remains from a Franklin Church to the Morgan City Cemetery where he was laid to rest as a hero.