Body of Evidence
In September 2005, roughly a week after Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, a group of New Orleans police officers discovered the burned shell of a car sitting on an earthen levee overlooking the bloated Mississippi River. Inside the scorched sedan, scattered across the back seat, lay black ashes and bones. Human bones. A charred skull, shards of rib, an arm bone, clumps of roasted flesh. Equipped with a digital camera, one cop clicked off a string of photos of the tableau.
Eventually, the remains were stuffed into five red plastic bags and hauled to a temporary morgue in the tiny town of St. Gabriel, some seventy miles up the road from New Orleans, autopsy records show. At the St. Gabriel facility, a team of rescue workers and forensic pathologists gave the collection of body fragments a number -- 06-00189 -- and began trying to answer a pair of intertwined questions: who was this man, and how did he die?
Dr. Kevin Whaley, a forensic pathologist, had an immediate suspicion about the latter. "My first reaction was that it was a homicide," recalls Whaley, a Virginia state medical examiner who went to Louisiana as part of a federal disaster response team. "When I heard he was found in a burned car I thought that was a classic homicide scenario: you kill someone and burn the body to get rid of the evidence."
Whaley studied a full-body X-ray of the remains. "There wasn't very much left of him," Whaley says. "Pretty much most of him had gone to ash." He figures victim 06-00189 must have been burned at an extremely hot temperature, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 degrees. Mixed in with the bones and cinders, the scan revealed, was a constellation of metal bits; the autopsy report (PDF) notes "rib fractures with minute fragments of metal within the surrounding soft tissues." From the X-rays, Whaley couldn't tell if the metal chunks were the remnants of a bullet or a knife blade -- either way, they looked to him like evidence of a possible murder.
In Whaley's view, the case should have been treated as a possible homicide. But Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard ruled the death "unclassified" after what appears to have been a cursory inquiry. And in the end no law enforcement agency ever probed the matter, and no media outlet ever reported on the enigmatic case of the burned man, who was eventually identified, via DNA analysis, as Henry Glover, 31.
If the NOPD ever bothers to learn who set fire to Glover, the department's first step should be questioning its own personnel: a trail of clues leads right back to the police force.
I've been able to reconstruct the final hours of Henry Glover's life from interviews with two eyewitnesses. On Sept. 2, 2005, Glover was walking with his friend Bernard Calloway behind a shuttered Chuck E. Cheese pizza place in a run-down strip mall in the Algiers section of New Orleans. Suddenly, there was a shout -- "Get out of here!" -- followed by the crack of a single gunshot. The bullet pierced Glover's chest.
As Glover bled, Calloway ran and got Glover's brother, Edward King, who was at an apartment complex nearby. King tells me neither he nor Calloway saw the shooter, and he doesn't know why the crime went down. But King knows what happened next: he and Calloway began desperately searching for someone with a car who could drive Glover to a hospital.
When William Tanner came rolling down Seine Street in his white 2002 Chevrolet Malibu, King rushed into the road and pleaded with him to stop. A middle-aged junkyard helper and lawn mower repairman, Tanner didn't know King or the others, but he could see Glover needed immediate medical attention. "We picked [Glover] up and put him in the car," Tanner recalls. "He was still breathing. We thought he might have a fair chance of surviving."
Tanner says he made a snap decision that the nearest hospital -- the West Jefferson Medical Center -- was too far away and chose instead to drive Glover to Paul B. Habans Elementary School, a public school that had been commandeered by the New Orleans Police Department tactical unit, or SWAT team, for use as a temporary base. The police, Tanner thought, would know how to help the wounded man; at the very least, they'd be able to get him an ambulance. But when Tanner pulled his car into the school's semicircular driveway, things turned out very differently: rather than rushing to aid Glover, the officers treated everyone in the vehicle with hostility, according to Tanner and King.
"They put guns in our faces," says Tanner. He suspects the police "assumed [Glover] was looting and that's why he got shot. They assumed we were looters, too."
King tells me he frantically tried to get the officers to help Glover: "I was hollering, saying, 'My brother's shot!' They handcuffed us. I said, 'You're not worrying about my brother.' They said some bad words to us and started beating us. They were beating us for 20 minutes." Tanner and King say that they, along with Calloway, were seated on a bench and cuffed while a swarm of officers punched, slapped and berated them. One of the officers bludgeoned Tanner in the face with the butt of an assault rifle, they say. "Every time I'd look up or sit up, they'd beat me," King tells me, noting that about five officers, all of them white, participated in the beating.
Meanwhile, in the back seat of the car, Glover, a father of four, was sliding toward death as blood poured from his wound, according to King and Tanner. Both men insist the officers did nothing to try to save Glover, despite his obvious injury, and both firmly believe that Glover died that day in Tanner's Chevy.
When the officers finally decided to free the men, they held on to Tanner's car, Tanner and King say. Tanner recalls one officer saying, "The car is in police custody. It's under investigation," and yanking his jumper cables, Stanley toolbox and gas can out of the Chevy, while a second officer got into the car and drove away with Glover's body slumped in the back. Poking out of a pocket on the driver's dark cargo pants were two emergency flares, Tanner remembers.
Immediately after the incident, Tanner phoned his wife, who'd evacuated to Houston. "When William contacted me, he told me they'd beaten him," Catrina Tanner, a state worker with the Louisiana Department of Social Services, recalls. "He was upset. He kept telling me that I wouldn't believe what was going on, that police were killing people." She continues, "He said the police drove off [in his car] towards the levee."
Carrying a laptop computer, a law enforcement source meets me in a quiet cafe. After ordering a cup of coffee, the source sits down at my table and slips a CD of photos into the computer. A grisly color image appears on the screen: spread across the seat of a burned auto is that human skull surrounded by ashes. These are Glover's remains, as they were found and photographed by cops from the Fourth District, which serves Algiers, this person tells me. The source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says the car is Tanner's Chevy, which was discovered on a levee a few hundred yards from the Fourth District station.
NOPD brass chose not to investigate the death at the time, the source says, adding that some police believed Glover was a looter, and that his body was burned up by officers who didn't want to smell the corpse as it decayed in the brutal Louisiana heat. "Have you ever smelled a dead body?" the source asks. "They smell horrible."
Scrolling through the photos, the source studies the damage to the car and notes that it takes an accelerant or an incendiary device to cause such extensive scorching.
In response to my repeated queries about the death of Henry Glover -- including two sets of detailed written questions -- NOPD spokesman Robert Young offers two sentences via e-mail: "The death of Mr. Glover was investigated by the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office independent of the New Orleans Police Department, who found no evidence to rule the death of Mr. Glover a homicide. Furthermore, the New Orleans Police Department did not receive any information to support or substantiate the information that you received from your sources."
The allegations about Glover's death don't startle Mary Howell, a New Orleans civil rights attorney who's been litigating against the NOPD for more than 30 years. During the 1980s, Howell sued the force over the torture and killing of African-Americans by west bank police, crimes that led to the jailing of three officers, a multimillion-dollar settlement and a significant shake-up in the department. Officers, explains Howell, "would tie people down and put a bag over their heads until they started to suffocate. It was the New Orleans equivalent of waterboarding."
In Howell's view the department remains seriously dysfunctional. "The things that happened with the police department during Katrina were shocking," she says. "They were disturbing. I wish I could say they were aberrant. But they were not. They are what happens when you have a department that is deeply troubled."
After Glover's death, Tanner left town. Since he no longer had a car, his mother-in-law drove from Texas to pick him up. At the time Tanner was keeping a video diary, and in a scene shot in a motel room outside New Orleans he wonders aloud about the fate of his Chevy. Only after Tanner and his wife returned home on Sept. 29, 2005, did they learn that someone had incinerated the vehicle, along with Glover.
Tanner and his wife say Homeland Security agents, who were assisting NOPD during that time, alerted them to the location of their charred vehicle. Despite the state of the car, the couple was able to identify it by the license plate and the vehicle identification number.
Still disturbed by the incident, Tanner met with Althea Francois, an organizer with Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a local police accountability group, in the spring of 2006. After interviewing Tanner, Francois typed up a detailed two-page description (PDF) of the episode, an account that mirrors what Tanner and King told me later in interviews.
Francois, who regularly documents incidents of police misconduct, found Tanner's story convincing. "I was appalled," she tells me. "As unbelievable as it sounds, I believe it. He had no reason to lie about any of this." Safe Streets, Francois says, "just didn't have the resources" to find Tanner a lawyer to file suit over the episode.
When I show up to meet with Glover's mother, Edna Glover, at her west bank townhouse, I get a surprise. Hoping to glean some new information about Glover's death, his sister, brother, nieces, nephews and cousins have all crowded into the living room to talk with me. A framed photo of Glover decked out in a white tuxedo hangs on the wall.
NOPD, Edna says, never contacted the family about her son's death. "We didn't hear nothing," she mutters. To her knowledge, police didn't interview anyone else about the crime, either. Glover's sister, Patrice Glover, is teary as she tells me, "We want justice done. That was my brother, and we all loved him dearly. We wanna know who did it. We're all still hurting." Patrice says her family, like Tanner, has been unable to find a lawyer willing to bring suit against the NOPD.
After leaving Edna Glover's home, Tanner takes me to see the skeleton of his car, which, more than three years after the hurricane, is still sitting by the river, rusting away in the swampy air. Here, in this broken city, certain things have a way of being forgotten.
New Orleans police are under scrutiny because of shootings of civilians after Katrina.
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