WASHINGTON PARISH, La. — One of the worst days of Douglas Dendinger’s life began with him handing an envelope to a police officer.
In order to help out his family and earn a quick $50, Dendinger agreed to act as a process server, giving a brutality lawsuit filed by his nephew to Chad Cassard as the former Bogalusa police officer exited the Washington Parish Courthouse.
The handoff went smoothly, but Dendinger said the reaction from Cassard, and a group of officers and attorneys clustered around him, turned his life upside down.
“It was like sticking a stick in a bee’s nest.” Dendinger, 47, recalled. “They started cursing me. They threw the summons at me. Right at my face, but it fell short. Vulgarities. I just didn’t know what to think. I was a little shocked.”
Not knowing what to make of the blow-up, a puzzled Dendinger drove home. That’s where things went from bad to worse.
“Within about 20 minutes, there were these bright lights shining through my windows. It was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean I knew immediately, a police car.”
“And that’s when the nightmare started,” he said. “I was arrested.”
A ‘living hell’
He was booked with simple battery, along with two felonies: obstruction of justice and intimidating a witness, both of which carry a maximum of 20 years in prison. Because of a prior felony cocaine conviction, Dendinger calculated that he could be hit with 80 years behind bars as a multiple offender.
That kicked off two years of a “living hell,” as Dendinger described it, a period that is now the subject of Dendinger’s federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers, attorneys and former St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed.
In a scene described in the lawsuit, Dendinger recounted a nervous night handcuffed to a rail at the Washington Parish Jail. He said he was jeered by officers, including Bogalusa Police Chief Joe Culpepper, who whistled the ominous theme song from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
After his family posted bail, he said he was hopeful that the matter would be exposed as a big misunderstanding. After all, he thought, a group of police officers and two St. Tammany prosecutors witnessed the event.
“When I agreed to do it, I felt it was nothing more than someone asking to pick up a gallon of milk at the convenience store on the way home,” Dendinger said. “I know I didn’t anything wrong. I was worried, but people told me, ‘Cooler heads will prevail.’ ”
But instead of going away, the case escalated.
Supported by two of his prosecutors who were at the scene, Reed formally charged Dendinger. Both prosecutors, Julie Knight and Leigh Anne Wall, gave statements to the Washington Parish Sheriff’s Office implicating Dendinger.
With the bill of information, Dendinger’s attorney Philip Kaplan said he got a bad feeling.
“It wasn’t fun and games,” Kaplan said. “They had a plan. The plan was to really go after him a put him away. That’s scary.”
The case file that was handed to Reed and his office was bolstered by seven witness statements given to Washington Parish deputies, including the two from Reed’s prosecutors.
In her statement to deputies, contained in a police report, Knight stated, “We could hear the slap as he hit Cassard’s chest with an envelope of papers…This was done in a manner to threaten and intimidate everyone involved.”
Casssard, in his statement, told deputies, Dendinger “slapped me in the chest.”
Washington Parish court attorney Pamela Legendre said “it made such a noise,” she thought the officer “had been punched.”
Police Chief Culpepper gave a police statement that he witnessed the battery, but in a deposition he said, “I wasn’t out there.” But that didn’t stop Culpepper from characterizing Dendinger’s actions as “violence, force.”
When Dendinger saw the police report, he said his reaction was strong and immediate.
“I realized even more at that moment: These people are trying to hurt me.”
Critical evidence uncovered
What the officers and attorneys did not know was that Dendinger had one critical piece of evidence on his side: grainy cell phone videos shot by his wife and nephew. Dendinger said he thought of recording the scene at the last minute as a way of showing he had completed the task of serving the summons.
In the end, the two videos may have saved Dendinger from decades in prison. From what can be seen on the clips, Dendinger never touches Cassard, who calmly takes the envelope and walks back into the courthouse, handing Wall the envelope.
“He’d still be in a world of trouble if he didn’t have that film,” said David Cressy, a friend of Dendinger who once served as a prosecutor under Reed. “It was him against all of them. They took advantage of that and said all sorts of fictitious things happened. And it didn’t happen. It would still be going like that had they not had the film.”
Dendinger spent nearly a year waiting for trial, racking up attorney’s fees. As a disabled Army veteran on a fixed income, Dendinger said the case stretched him financially, but in his eyes, he was fighting for his life.
After nearly a year passed, his attorneys forced Reed to recuse his office. The case was referred to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which promptly dropped the charges.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission and himself a former prosecutor, studied the videos. He did not hesitate in his assessment.
“I didn’t see a battery, certainly a battery committed that would warrant criminal charges,” Goyeneche said. “And more importantly, the attorney general’s office didn’t see a battery.”
Now the video is at the heart of a federal civil rights lawsuit against Reed, his two prosecutors Wall and Knight, the Bogalusa officers and Washington Parish Sheriff Randy “Country’ Seal.
The suit seeks unspecified damages for a host of alleged Constitutional violations: false arrest, false imprisonment, fabricated evidence, perjury, and abuse of due process.
WWL-TV reached out to the defendants for comment, but only Sheriff Seal responded with a statement. He said, “We are confident that all claims against all WPSO deputies will be rejected and dismissed by the court.”
Goyeneche said the legal troubles for some of the witnesses may go beyond the federal lawsuit.
“It’s a felony to falsify a police report. And this is a police report. And this police report was the basis of charging this individual with serious crimes,” Goyeneche said.
Cressy, who in addition to working under Reed served as the Mandeville city attorney for 15 years, said the lawyers involved in the case may have additional problems with legal ethics and the bar association.
“It was totally wrong, a 180-degree lie” Cressy said. “So, yeah, they’re going to have problems, certainly the lawyers.”
‘An abuse of power’
Meanwhile, Dendinger’s attorney Philip Kaplan continues to dig into the case with depositions and new evidence.
In a deposition taken by Kaplan, one Bogalusa police officer, Lt. Patrick Lyons, said he witnessed a battery that knocked Cassard back several feet. But the video shows him far in the distance with his back turned.
Two of the officers stated that Dendinger ran from the scene, although he said his disability makes running impossible.
Kaplan also points out what he thinks should be obvious: “If this was truly a battery on a police officer with police officers all around him, why isn’t something happening right there? Why aren’t they arresting him on the spot? This case is an abuse of power.”
While Dendinger has been cleared of all charges, he still lives in Washington Parish and worries about what could happen next as he presses a high-stakes lawsuit against people who tried to lock him up.
“I didn’t do anything wrong and I know they know I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “So I’m faced with the reality that these people purposely lied about something that could put me in prison for the rest of my life.”
Recently elected St. Tammany District Attorney Warren Montgomery said he has conducted an independent investigation of the case, but declined comment because a lawsuit is pending.
However, as of this week, Wall no longer works at the office, Montgomery said. Knight is still employed there, he said.