Patrick LeBranch Jr. had just viewed the body of his brother at the Richardson Funeral Home of Jefferson in River Ridge when the funeral director pulled him aside. Something strange had happened, LeBranch said the man told him. He handed LeBranch a bulky, clear plastic bag sealed with red tape. On the front, in all black capitalized letters, was the word “EVIDENCE.”
LeBranch’s brother, Markus Lanieux Jr., had been found dead in early September while in state custody at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport. Prison officials told the family Lanieux killed himself, but they wouldn’t say how, or provide any additional information.
Lanieux Jr. is the son of Markus Lanieux, who is serving a life sentence at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel and was the subject of a joint report on Sept. 8 by Verite News and ProPublica. Lanieux Jr. died the day before that story was published. The death is still under investigation, according to corrections officials.
LeBranch held the plastic bag, squeezing the contents gently as he continued to read. Next to a line marked, “Description and/or location,” someone had written, “Sheet modified into a rope.” Inside the plastic bag was the bedsheet his brother had allegedly used to hang himself the prior week. LeBranch said the funeral director told him it came with his brother inside the body bag.
From the moment Laborde’s warden, Marcus Myers, told the family of Lanieux Jr. that the 22-year-old died by apparent suicide, they’ve had questions about it. While they don’t have firm evidence to suggest anything other than suicide, they reported receiving phone calls from Laborde inmates urging them to challenge the prison’s version of events. Adding to their doubts, family members said, is a lack of communication from Laborde.
A few days after getting the news, the family said prison officials cut off all contact. When they tried to call Myers back, an assistant instructed them to direct any future questions to Jonathan Vining, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Despite calling him repeatedly, the family said Vining hasn’t returned any of their messages.
Then came the evidence bag, further deepening the family’s concerns about how the investigation was being handled.
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“It took me for a loop,” LeBranch said of that moment when the funeral director handed him the evidence bag, which is still in the family’s possession. “For y’all to say he took his life, and this is y’all’s evidence — why would it be down here with us?”
Katherine Mattes, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at Tulane Law School, said she has never heard of an evidence bag related to an in-custody death being misplaced like this. She described it as “bizarre” and said it is “certainly understandable why this mistake would cause the family to not trust the integrity of an investigation.”
The Department of Corrections acknowledged that the evidence should not have been sent to the funeral home with Lanieux’s body. A DOC spokesman, however, indicated the blame lies outside of the department.
Ken Pastorick, director of communications for DOC, said the department’s “sympathies are with the family of Markus Lanieux Jr.,” then directed a reporter to contact either the Avoyelles Parish Coroner; Parish Forensics in Broussard, which conducted the autopsy; or Aymond Mortuary in Ville Platte, which was responsible for the transportation of Lanieux’s body.
The Richardson Funeral Home declined to comment for this story. Neither Parish Forensics nor Aymond Mortuary responded to multiple emails and messages left by phone with their employees. And an official with the parish coroner’s office said she could not answer any questions at the time.
“We consider this to be an active investigation and according to our common practices we will not comment with respect to details associated with an active investigation,” said Jessica Bryant, the chief assistant coroner. “After we receive all investigative documents and are able to close this investigation we may be able to provide comments at that time.”
Bryant said a full autopsy report would not be ready for another four to five months. The office did not respond to requests for a coroner’s report — a document that includes a determination as to the cause and manner of death and is often available within days or weeks.
The family has ordered their own through the Know Your Rights Camp, a nonprofit founded by Colin Kaepernick. The organization has an initiative that provides free autopsies to families who have lost loved ones to “police-related deaths.” The group has done so in several high-profile cases, including one for a man shot to death last year by police in San Bernardino, Calif. The autopsy showed the victim, Rob Adams, was shot seven times from behind and has led to a $100 million lawsuit.
Expert: Loss of evidence not fatal flaw for investigation
Lanieux Jr., who was sentenced to 25 years in June after pleading guilty to armed robbery, among other crimes, had been at the prison for less than three weeks at the time of his death and was being housed in disciplinary segregation, a secure unit separate from the prison’s general population, his family said.
Family members said Myers, who contacted them about 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, told them Lanieux Jr. died by suicide and that he was sorry the death happened under his watch. He declined to answer any additional questions, they said.
After Lanieux Jr. was found dead, Pastorick said, the prison requested an autopsy from Parish Forensics. (The company performs all autopsies for the parish coroner, Bryant told Verite.) The prison agreed to send evidence of the alleged suicide along with the body, on the condition the evidence be returned, according to Pastorick.
At that point, Aymond Mortuary in Ville Platte picked up Lanieux’s body along with the evidence bag and delivered it to Parish Forensics. “At the completion of the autopsy, unbeknownst to the prison, the evidence was not returned to (Raymond Laborde Correctional Center) as agreed to by Aymond Mortuary and instead it was delivered to the funeral home,” Pastorick said.
Several experts contacted by Verite News to discuss the incident said while it appears to be unusual, if not unheard of, a lost evidence bag will not necessarily affect the investigation.
In the event of an in-custody death, it’s vital to preserve and protect the chain of custody of evidence to show that nothing has been tampered with, Mattes said. The National Association of Medical Examiners states that items such as “ligatures,” which include bed sheets fashioned into nooses, need to be “collected and preserved as potential evidence.”
But the loss of such physical evidence does not necessarily mean a judge would rule it to be inadmissible in court should a lawsuit be filed, Mattes said. And whether the breach in the chain of custody casts doubt on the trustworthiness of the investigation may in the end be left to the discretion of a jury.
Dr. Nicole Jackson, an assistant professor and director of autopsy and after-death services at the University of Washington, agreed. As long as the medical examiner documents and photographs the alleged instrument of death — in this case, suspected to be the bedsheet — at the time of the autopsy, then the later loss of that evidence should not impact confidence in the findings, Jackson said.
The family could, however, use the mistake as evidence of a broader level of incompetence, Mattes said. Since the day he died, the family has questioned how Lanieux Jr. was able to kill himself when he was being held in segregation, which is supposed to be a heavily secured and highly monitored section of the facility.
This is, in fact, part of a pattern. Between 2015 and 2021, nearly one-third of suicides in Louisiana prisons, jails and youth detention facilities occurred in segregation, according to “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars,” a report by Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. And suicides accounted for 67% of all unnatural deaths in segregation units.
‘I’m not ready to tell my baby goodbye’
The loss of the evidence bag and the doubts that has sowed have further traumatized a family still reeling from the loss of Lanieux Jr.
On the day he was laid to rest, the Department of Corrections transported his father more than 61 miles from his cell in St. Gabriel to the funeral home in River Ridge.
The 46-year-old Lanieux Sr. — who was sentenced to life without parole in 2009 as a habitual offender for a crime that normally carries a two-year sentence — sat less than five feet away from the open casket that held his son. His legs were shackled and his wrists handcuffed as two armed guards sat just across the aisle. Lanieux Sr. held a tissue in his hands, kept his head down and gently rocked back and forth.
In the past three years, he has lost his mother, his sister, and now his son. The last time he saw his child was six years ago, he said. The family came to the prison at Angola, where he was housed at the time, for Returning Hearts, an annual event meant to reconnect imprisoned fathers with their children.
Lanieux Sr. and his then-teenage son played basketball, Lanieux Sr. said, and chased each other around the prison yard.
Family members approached Lanieux Sr. in the funeral home and hugged him. It was the first time he had seen or touched many of them in years. As Sheletha LeBranch, the mother of Lanieux Jr., approached her child’s casket, she stopped just a few feet away and began to scream.
“I’m not ready to tell my baby goodbye! Somebody tell him to get up! Somebody tell him to wake up! I must be dreaming!”
Lanieux Sr. comforted her as best he could, straining to hold her with his hands in chains.
About a half hour before the funeral service was scheduled to begin, the guards told Lanieux Sr. it was time to go. He shuffled out of the funeral home and crawled into a white van marked on each side with “Prisoner Transportation.”
Outside of the funeral home, Patrick LeBranch Sr., the grandfather of the deceased, watched the van pull out of the parking lot. He motioned to his own car and said the evidence bag holding the sheet his grandson allegedly hung himself with was in the back. LeBranch Sr. was afraid that if he left it at home unattended, someone would break in and steal it, he said.
It might not make sense, he said, but none of it does.
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