Taser Death Ignites Racial Tensions
WINNFIELD, LA. - At 1:28 p.m. on Jan. 17, Baron "Scooter" Pikes was a healthy 21-year-old. By 2:07 p.m., he was dead.
What happened in the 39 minutes in between -- during which Pikes was handcuffed by police and shocked nine times with a Taser while reportedly pleading for mercy -- is spawning suspicions of a political cover-up in this lumber town infamous for backroom dealings.
Racial tensions also are mounting; Pikes was black and the officer involved is white.
No novelist could have invented Winnfield, 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. Just 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 pardoned by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is in federal prison for corruption convictions.
All that history is wrapped up in the Pikes case because the officer in question, Scott Nugent, is the son of the former chief who killed himself and the protege of the current chief, who hired him.
"A lot happens in this town and it just gets swept under the rug," said Kayshon Collins, Pikes' stepmother, who has participated in several protests over the case.
"What the police did to Scooter just isn't right. They would never have Tasered a white kid like that."
According to the local newspaper, Winnfield Police Chief Johnny Ray Carpenter said Nugent spotted Pikes walking along the street that afternoon and attempted to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for drug possession; Pikes took off running, but another officer cornered him outside a nearby grocery store. Pikes resisted arrest and Nugent subdued him with a shock from a Taser.
On the way to the police station, Carpenter said, Pikes fell ill and told the officers he suffered from asthma and was high on crack cocaine and PCP. The officers called for an ambulance. Pikes died at the hospital.
The Louisiana State Police are investigating, and Nugent has not been charged with a crime in the case. The City Council fired him in May. Winn Parish District Atty. Chris Nevils said he expected to present the case to a grand jury after receiving the results of the state police investigation.
An autopsy determined there were no drugs in Pikes' system and that he did not have asthma, according to Dr. Randolph Williams, the Winn Parish coroner.
Moreover, according to Nugent's police report, Pikes did not resist arrest, and he was handcuffed while lying on the ground.
It was after Pikes refused Nugent's command to stand up that the officer applied the first Taser shock in the middle of his back, Nugent wrote.
Several more Taser shocks followed, Nugent stated, because Pikes kept falling down and refusing to get back up. Grocery shoppers who witnessed the incident told Pikes' family that he had pleaded with Nugent: "Please, you all got me. Please don't Tase me again."
Williams said police records showed Nugent administered nine Taser shocks to Pikes over a 14-minute period. The last two jolts, delivered as police pulled Pikes from a patrol car at the police station, occurred while the suspect was unconscious, Williams said.
Police called for an ambulance after Pikes was carried into the station and slumped into a chair.
He was pronounced dead soon afterward.
Death ruled a homicide
Williams ruled last month that Pikes' death was a homicide. On the death certificate, he listed the cause of death as "cardiac arrest following nine 50,000-volt electroshock applications from a conductive electrical weapon."
"God did not just call this young man home," said Williams, who has been parish coroner for 33 years. "Fourteen minutes elapsed between the first shock and the last. If somebody can tell me anything else that killed this otherwise perfectly healthy young man in 14 minutes, I'd like to know it."
Williams is no stranger to controversy. He says he has been shot at 19 times by people upset with his investigations, and his garage was firebombed in 2004. He wears a gun holstered at his waist even while sitting at his desk.
"This case may be the most unnecessary death I have ever had to investigate," Williams said.
Nugent, 21, declined to be interviewed. His attorney, Phillip Terrell, said Nugent "acted within the ambit of his training and Winnfield Police Department policies."
The official department policy, however, says "the Taser shall only be deployed in circumstances where it is deemed reasonably necessary to control a dangerous or violent subject."
In less than two years on Winnfield's 20-officer force, records show, Nugent has been the department's most aggressive Taser user.
Among the recipients were a 15-year-old black boy who was not charged with any crime. Joe Heard said his son was Tasered twice by Nugent last August, after Heard reported the youth as a runaway.
"He snuck out of the house to be with a girl," Heard said.
"I asked the police to bring him home, and they did, but in pieces -- he was all scraped up and bruised.
"They told me, 'The next time he runs, you know we're going to shoot him.' "
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times