LOOKING BACK, SAYS CHAU VU, something about the evening made her uneasy from the start. Her happy-go-lucky younger brother Cuong, 17, had seemed subdued as he helped cook and wait tables during the dinner rush at Kim Anh, the family's Vietnamese restaurant in east New Orleans. Ronald Williams, the police officer who regularly moonlighted as a security guard, wasn't his usual jovial self either. "Somehow that night Ronnie not feel happy, my brother too," says Chau, 23. "Somehow that night something already wrong."
Things would soon become hellishly worse. Shortly after 1 a.m. last March 4, a woman and man burst through the front door of the restaurant. Williams, 25, was immediately shot point-blank in the neck, back and head. "It severed his spinal cord. He dropped instantly," says assistant district attorney Elizabeth Teel. Then, while Cuong and his sister Ha, 24, knelt on the kitchen floor praying and begging for mercy, the attackers pistol-whipped Cuong, demanding the day's receipts. Chau, who, with her brother Quoc, 19, had hidden in the restaurant's cooler when the attack began, heard nine shots. When she emerged, Chau discovered that both Cuong and Ha had been executed where they knelt.
Even for a city with the highest per capita murder rate (421 in 1994) in the nation—the brutality of the crime was shocking. But what stunned New Orleans most was the identity of the female shooter, who had been recognized by both Chau and Quoc. She was Antoinette Frank, 24, a New Orleans police officer. "When people hear on the news that the person sworn to serve and protect them has just gone out and slaughtered innocent people and a police officer, it has a devastating effect," says Teel.
So devastating that on Sept. 11 a New Orleans jury took just 22 minutes—a city record for a capital case—to convict Frank of three counts of first-degree murder and, the next day, another 45 minutes to recommend she be sentenced to death by lethal injection. (Frank becomes one of only 42 women on death row in the U.S., compared with 2,967 men.) Earlier, Frank's accomplice in the crime, Rogers Lacaze, 19, was also convicted and sentenced to death.
Despite the swift verdicts and harsh sentences, New Orleans remains haunted by the case. Even compared to other police scandals, "this beats all," says Teel. The city's 1,500-member police force has long had a reputation for lax hiring standards, low salaries, corruption and brutality, but recent years have seen an explosion of scandalous incidents. Frank's arrest last March made her the fourth New Orleans cop arrested for murder within a year's time. And since October 1994, 31 officers have been arrested for crimes including rape, homicide and drug trafficking. Other cities have been roiled by police scandals in recent months—Mark Fuhrman has brought disrepute to the LAPD, and Philadelphia and Atlanta have been stung by revelations of corrupt and even murderous officers—but the Frank case has shed a burning light on cops in the Big Easy. "The only organized crime in New Orleans," says Mary E. Howell, a local civil rights attorney, "is the police department."
That Frank was hired in the first place says much about disarray in the department. The daughter of Adam Frank, an Opelousas, La., phone company employee, and his wife, Mary Ann, Frank had applied to the department in 1991. A routine background check disclosed that she lied about her termination from a job at an Opelousas Wal-Mart—just as she neglected to mention that her brother Adam Jr., 25, was wanted on attempted manslaughter charges. In addition, Frank flunked the police academy's psychological tests, earning low rankings in integrity, impulse control and empathy. Yet when she produced a favorable psychological profile written by her own doctor, she was hired anyway.
It didn't take long for Frank to discover that her starting police salary of $1,500 a month didn't compare with what she could earn outside the law. Particularly with the help of Lacaze. An eighth-grade dropout, Lacaze was a small-time drug dealer who met Frank in November 1994, when he was injured in a shooting, and she responded to the call. The two became friends, and Lacaze "continued his life of crime with police protection," says assistant district attorney Glen Woods. Police sources suspect the two embarked on a shakedown and robbery spree against other small-time criminals. Investigators are also looking into charges that Frank set up innocent people to take the fall for crimes she and Lacaze committed. "We're still hearing horror stories about her," says one investigator.
But nothing could compare with the pair's final crime. Even jaded detectives were shaken by Frank's coldness. Although Frank claims Lacaze actually killed Williams, she knew the officer well. The two worked out of the same district and shared a patrol car at least once. "It hurts down deep," said Capt. John Landry, who supervised both officers. "I'm still trying to understand it." Frank, who, like Williams, moonlighted as a security guard at the Kim Anh for several months, had also grown close to the Vus, sometimes even escorting the younger family members home after work when their parents, Bich, 53, and Nguyet, 46, weren't available.
What happened in the minutes after the murders isn't clear. Investigators believe Frank dropped off Lacaze—and then ran into the district police office saying a cop had been hurt and she needed a car. Pretending to respond, Frank returned to the restaurant about 1:50 a.m. Police say she may have suspected Chau and Quoc had survived and was planning to kill them too. Fortunately, Quoc had run to a nearby home to call police, and other officers began arriving at the same time. Chau ran out of the cooler when they arrived. "Frank asked Chau what happened, and Chau looked at her like she had lost her mind," Woods quotes the officers as saying. "She said, 'You know what happened. You were there!' "
Frank's attorneys maintained her innocence throughout the trial. Detained at the scene, Frank first tried blaming the murders on Lacaze, then later claimed she had been an unwilling accomplice. Lacaze, arrested later that morning, pointed the finger back at her. Neither has expressed remorse, and Lacaze seemed to believe he would not be punished for the crime. "Mr. Lacaze claimed he had received letters from [Frank] telling him everything would be okay after her trial," according to a prison report.
Many in the New Orleans police department hope the severity of the sentence will show that corruption at any level will no longer be tolerated. Mayor Marc Morial and Police Supt. Richard J. Pennington have pushed through a reform plan designed to tighten police recruiting standards and ferret out corrupt officers. In an unprecedented move, they have asked the FBI to assist the department's ethical training program. Pennington has also lobbied to increase police salaries, the lowest of any major U.S. city—a factor many critics say invites corruption.
Whether those efforts succeed or not will be small comfort to the families of Frank's victims. After closing the restaurant for a month, the Vus, Vietnamese immigrants who opened their restaurant in 1993, are back at work at Kim Anh. In the kitchen, where Cuong and Ha were killed, the floor is still pocked with bullet holes. A lacquered painting hides a bullet hole in the wall near where Williams was shot. "People say how can we come back and work in this situation, but they don't understand we have to come back and pay off debt," says Chau, who estimates the family lost more than $5,000 that night, including money they had borrowed to repair the parking lot and plumbing system. (The stolen cash and the murder weapon have never been recovered.)
For Mary Williams, 25, who gave birth to her second son just 10 days before her husband was murdered, healing has also come slowly. "The depression's been constant," says Williams, who has found comfort in raising Patrick, now 7 months, and Christopher, 6. "But after the trial, I felt like I had a weight lifted off my shoulder. I keep thinking about what they did that night. I'm hoping they dream about it—and it makes them miserable."
JOSEPH HARMES in New Orleans
- Joseph Harmes.