The good Samaritans at Southdowns Lounge managed to break up the one-sided beatdown in the parking lot. The victim stumbled to his car and drove off, never to resurface or be named in any official records.
But it wasn’t over. The men involved in the attack had moved to the nearby Sonic Drive-In that shared a parking lot with Southdowns when Round 2 played out.
“That’s me,” a man looking over a police report on the encounter said decades later. “I’m the ‘Sonic assault.’”
Tom Pasqua was the Southdowns regular who had been thrown to the ground when he tried to intervene in the beating. Pasqua said he hadn’t thought much about the events of that early morning in March 2003 until reporters approached him about it.
Among the customers and staff trying to stop the fight, Pasqua had warned the brawlers that the police had been called.
That’s when one of the men tossed him aside and all but dared anyone else to get involved, declaring: “We are the f***ing police.”
Two different realities
Back then, Pasqua was a 41-year-old self-described lifetime bachelor and resident of Baton Rouge. Now, he is 20 years older, happily married with children and living in Prairieville.
Reporters found him because his name is in an Internal Affairs file documenting the incident. And now he sat for an interview in a bar not far from his home, reading the outcome of the complaint he had filed two decades before.
The case shines a light on the practices of a BRPD Internal Affairs Division that Chief Murphy Paul said needed to be overhauled when he took over in early 2018. It also provides insight into the entrenched internal resistance Paul encountered as he sought to change the culture within the Baton Rouge Police Department.
Pasqua had filed a criminal and Internal Affairs complaint with the department just weeks after what he called the “Sonic assault.”
As he read through the final IA report, which included both the criminal and administrative investigations, his emotions ranged from annoyed to dismayed to sarcastic. More than once he burst out laughing over what the report said had happened compared to what he remembered.
“You can definitely tell when there’s just a really big difference between the reality of the police officers versus the reality of the customers and the staff,” he said. “It’s two completely different realities.”
Pasqua referred to his involvement as the “Sonic assault” because the fast-food restaurant is where he had tracked down the Southdowns assailants. He was angry and didn’t want them to get away with it. He thought that if these guys were really police officers, then they needed to be held to account.
He went to his car and got a pen and a pad. Then he walked over and started writing down license plate numbers.
One of the men screamed, “Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m writing your number down,” Pasqua said during his interview.
“I thought I told you to keep out of this,” the man said as he charged Pasqua.
The much bigger assailant quickly put Pasqua in a headlock. But he managed to squirm out of it and was backing up when he ran into another man who he said had flanked him.
“I look back, and there he is. There’s that guy. That’s the guy who tried to sneak up behind me,” he said, motioning to a picture of John Dauthier, a since-retired BRPD officer and a self-declared leader of an anti-Paul group known as “The Resistance.”
Once he realized he was surrounded, Pasqua put his hands up in surrender. He had seen the extent of the beating the initial victim suffered and didn’t want to be next. He said the bigger man put him back in a headlock and pushed him to the pavement as Dauthier started rifling through his pants.
“They were trying to get a little piece of paper that had their license number on it,” he said. “That’s what they were looking for, but I had thrown it off.”
His trick didn’t work. Another in the group found the paper. At that point, Dauthier told his associate to let Pasqua go.
Pasqua was released from the headlock and Dauthier helped him up. Pasqua had bright red abrasions on his face. Dauthier tried to apologize.
But for Pasqua, it was too late.
“We’re past that,” he said. “The opportunity to be friends was over the second I got taken down to the ground.”
About that time, a uniformed police officer arrived. His name was redacted in the Internal Affairs report, but Pasqua said he could still recall his posture when he climbed out of his patrol car. He stepped out with one foot on the edge and his arms slung on the top of the door and spoke to the men.
“Why are y’all still here?” Pasqua remembered him saying to the men.
Pasqua tried to tell the officer what had happened.
“The whole time I’m saying, ‘That’s the guy who started the fight,’” he said, pointing to the man who had held him in the headlock.
But to no avail.
“They knew each other,” he said. “Without a doubt they let him go.”
Dauthier and the others left with Pasqua’s scribbled license plate numbers securely in their possession. What they didn’t realize as they drove away was that the Southdowns Lounge bouncer had also written down their numbers.
Knock them down a peg
Pasqua struggled with a crisis of conscience about filing his complaint. He wanted the officers to suffer a consequence for their behavior at Southdowns and Sonic, but he didn’t necessarily want to ruin their lives. But once the ball was rolling, he hoped that even if the criminal case fell apart, he could still count on Internal Affairs to deliver some discipline.
“If you could have gotten them off the street and put them on a desk job someplace, that would have been perfect payment for me because that would have knocked them down a peg,” he said.
Within the department, the investigation was in full swing. Detective Nancy McDonald took over the criminal case from another detective who had been placed on the serial killer taskforce.
As chronicled by the paperwork in Pasqua’s Internal Affairs report, McDonald matched and tracked down vehicles to the license plate numbers the bouncer recorded. She interviewed multiple witnesses. She put together photo arrays. She tried to get video from the Sonic, which, she notes in her report, was erased.
In the course of her investigation she identified three officers tied to the fight at Southdowns and the “Sonic Incident.” Her efforts to interview them came up short.
In an interdepartmental correspondence to her superior she noted:
“I have attempted to get statements from Officer Michael Laughlin, Officer John Dauthier and Officer Phillip Chapman. Each officer has advised detective that they are not going to give a statement to detective in regards this incident.”
By the time the criminal and administrative investigations wrapped up in August, Dauthier and Chapman had made statements. They said there were no officers involved. Laughlin resigned before he could be interviewed.
In the middle of the investigation, after a number of interviews and sorting through photo arrays, Pasqua recalled a conversation he had with a cousin who was an officer with the Gonzales Police Department.
The cousin explained how it was all going to unfold behind the scenes. It didn’t matter what they found during the investigation. Ultimately, he told Pasqua, they will decide what happens because it’s what they want to happen.
“It doesn’t matter what the evidence is,” he recalled his cousin telling him. “You just don’t understand how internal affairs works.”
It was the way things were done. And for members of The Resistance, it worked just fine.
‘We’re not killing Alton Sterling every day’
It was hard to hear the former police chief over the din of the lunch crowd at the James Restaurant in Denham Springs, but the 32-year veteran of Baton Rouge law enforcement was warning of dangers in certain neighborhoods of the city since Paul had taken over as chief.
“If you are at a red light and nobody is coming you just go –– you do not sit there,” Pat Englade, who ran the department in the early 2000s when the Southdowns and Sonic incidents took place, said. “Do not sit.”
“Not there,” said Kiran Chawla, the host of her own online show and a member of the anti-Paul contingent.
Chawla, Englade and others meet regularly to talk about the latest clashes within the department. And they strategize about how to thwart what they see as Paul’s campaign of terror against the everyday officer. The new chief’s ramped-up discipline is directly linked to what they see as the spike of rampant crime in the city that has made its way into what were once safe enclaves from the violence.
It’s gotten so bad, Chawla said, that she has to point out the sounds of gunshots to her unsuspecting friends after leaving the gym during the day.
The way they see it, before Paul, there was a police chief who understood how to deploy proactive policing to stop crime in its tracks. His name was Carl Dabadie.
“When Dab took over …” Englade begins to say.
“He’s another good one,” Chawla interjects. “He got it.”
Members of The Resistance believe that the old way of aggressive policing on the streets and giving officers the benefit of the doubt is the best way to make the city safer.
They said Paul is the polar opposite.
“You got a department that doesn’t necessarily respect their leadership. But they fear it,” Englade said. “You can’t let police officers think that they’ve got a target on their back while they’re doing their job. It defeats the whole purpose of policing.”
Chawla likened the heightened focus on officer discipline to “cancel culture.” Englade agreed.
“I mean we’re not killing Alton Sterling every day,” he said. “What are you trying to change? That’s my question to you.”
‘I have no reason to lie’
Pasqua’s cousin’s warning about Internal Affairs turned out to be right.
The Southdowns fight and the assault on Pasqua are laid out in Internal Affairs file IAD 045-03. It contains records from an extensive criminal investigation by the Major Assaults Division into the three officers as well.
In the following months, the incident would be investigated both criminally and administratively. Despite the officers being linked to the scene by Pasqua’s testimony and license plate numbers, there would be no charges and the department would impose no discipline.
“Nobody reads this and can’t see what’s going on,” Pasqua said about the IA report. “The people here are trying to cover their tracks, they’re gonna say one thing and I have no reason to lie.”
Pasqua’s complaint was found to be “not sustained,” according to the files, which means the allegations of Conduct Unbecoming an Officer were neither proven nor disproven.
Englade, who was chief at the time, approved the finding that no officers were involved in either incident.
The parties were all, according to the official report Englade would ultimately sign off on, players from the local hockey team. No officer was ever charged. An officer’s brother, who was not in the department but was part of the melee, received a misdemeanor summons for his role.
Dauthier declined to comment on the incident.
“You guys want to talk to me about a bar fight that I wasn’t involved in from over 20 years ago,” he wrote in a text response to a request for comment.
Chapman, who retired from the BRPD soon after Paul began his tenure, said most of the off-duty officers had already left before anything happened.
“I didn’t even see the fight. A bunch of us had already left,” he said in an interview this week. “Where the whole cop thing came in I don’t even know.”
That included Dauthier.
“He was with me. He wasn’t there,” Chapman said. “Buck wasn’t even there,” he said, referring to Dauthier’s nickname. “Buck was with me, I was with my wife. We had already left.”
He said he thinks that the Laughlin brothers were still there when the fight happened, but not him or Dauthier, or others from the command.
“Them two knuckleheads might have still been there but the rest of us had gone,” he said. “We didn’t even know about it until later.”
One part of the investigation that bothered him, especially since he went on to investigations later in his career, is how the department used what is known as “six-packs,” photo arrays of suspects that are used for victims to identify perpetrators. He said in the Southdowns and Sonic investigation they didn’t mix in random people. They just used pictures of officers from the squad and let the victims and witnesses “pick out who did what.”
“I would never show photos in that manner, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
It was during those “six-packs” that someone identified Dauthier. And that’s when Patrick Laughlin, he said, went in to talk to investigators and set the record straight.
According to the investigation, Dauthier said he was at the bar that night and that he heard about the fight as he was getting ready to leave. He said by the time he got to the fight, it was breaking up. He got in his car and started to drive away, he said, but then saw another fight in the Sonic parking lot. He said he stopped his car and broke it up.
“He then helped pick the other person up, who was REDACTED,” according to the report. “REDACTED thanked him for helping him and indicated he was okay.”
Dauthier told the investigating officer that the men spoke for a few minutes and then everyone walked off in separate directions. He said that no officers were involved with either fight.
The department did not respond to requests for comment about the administrative and criminal investigations into the Southdowns and Sonic incidents. Englade did not respond to requests. Verite News was unable to reach Officer Michael Laughlin and his brother, Patrick Laughlin.
Eugene Collins, the former Baton Rouge NAACP president, was disappointed in how Pasqua’s complaint was handled, but he was not shocked. In his years working on police reform he has encountered a raft of what he would describe as sloppy, incoherent and contradictory Internal Affairs investigations.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all. That was the culture within BRPD,” Collins said. “That’s what we knew about Englade at the time — doing crap like that.”
Collins said he found it fascinating that two of the most vocal critics of Paul’s efforts to reform the BRPD — Dauthier and Englade — were involved in what he thought was a cover-up in the Southdowns and Sonic incidents.
‘We really f***ed up last night’
Pasqua conceded he can’t speak for the initial victim who fled after he and his friends intervened.
“They can go ahead — deny, deny deny, deny deny,” he said of the BRPD. “As far as me? No. Without a doubt, the officers were coached on what to do and say.”
Detective McDonald found out that the officers implicated in the incident worked a “dog shift,” a late-night-to-early- morning assignment, in District 2. She reached out to the shift supervisor who was on vacation in Houston at the time and made note of an interesting conversation she had with him.
He told her that one of his officers had called him the day after the brawl at Southdowns and said, according to her report: “I think we really f***ed up last night.”
She called the supervisor later to follow up on the conversation. McDonald asked him which of his officers called him that day. The supervisor said he could no longer remember who it was.
“I get it. They all talked to each other and said, ‘this is our story,’” Pasqua said. “They’re all buds. They’re all friends. They all drink together.”
The final findings of the report:
“1. No solid evidence to support motion that REDACTED handled call improperly. Not Sustained
2. M. Laughlin resigned. Unable to take any action.
3. All statements regarding Chapman and Dauthier are very conflicting. Cannot sustain based on this information.
4. P. Laughlin, all agree (and he admits) assaulted REDACTED. He was issued a summons.”
A letter to Dauthier brought the investigation to a conclusion:
“Without additional pertinent information forthcoming from complainant,” it reads. “No further action will be undertaken by this division.”
Next: “I look at it as America.”
This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
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