NEW ORLEANS – A police officer heard on a conversation recorded by the FBI insisted he saw a civilian with a gun on a bridge where authorities say police shot and killed two unarmed people and wounded four others after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
A tape of that conversation between Officer Anthony Villavaso and a former officer, Robert Barrios, was played Monday for jurors in the federal trial of five current or former officers charged in the shootings on the Danziger Bridge less than a week after the storm made landfall in 2005.
Barrios was cooperating with the FBI when he secretly taped his conversation last year with Villavaso, one of the five defendants.
During a heated exchange that lasted more than an hour, Barrios and Villavaso argued about whether anybody other than police officers was armed on the bridge when they arrived in response to an officer's distress call.
"They had no guns out there," Barrios said.
"If you didn't see them, you didn't see them," Villavaso responded. "Now I'm supposed to change my story or something because they don't f------ believe me?"
Villavaso allegedly gave a false statement to police investigators as part of a cover-up designed to make the shootings appear justified.
Saying "it's time to come clean," Barrios reminded Villavaso about the statement and urged him to tell him the truth about what he saw on the bridge.
"I went on what you said you saw. And what you said you saw ain't adding up," Barrios said.
"What do you mean it ain't adding up?" Villavaso asked.
Prosecutors say police shot unarmed, wounded people and then planted a gun, fabricated witnesses and falsified reports as part of a brazen cover-up. Defense lawyers say police were shot at before they returned fire.
Barrios was called as a defense witness by attorneys for three of the five officers on trial, including Villavaso, even though he has pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up and faces up to five years in prison. Barrios was one of five former officers to plead guilty in the case, but he is the only one of those five who didn't testify as a government witness.
A line of questioning by Villavaso's attorney, Timothy Meche, revealed a possible explanation for why prosecutors may have been reluctant to call him to the witness stand: Barrios acknowledged that federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that he fraudulently received money from the $20 billion claims fund that energy company BP established after the Gulf oil spill. He didn't elaborate on the nature of the allegations, but said fishing has been a source of income since he resigned from the police department.
In his testimony about the shootings, Barrios said he was scared and thought somebody was shooting at police when he heard gunfire erupt as they arrived on the bridge in a rental truck.
"I presumed it was the perpetrators," he recalled.
Barrios said he may have waited several minutes before he left the truck but saw Robert Faulcon, a former officer on trial, jump out and fire a shotgun at a concrete barrier where several people sought cover. Barrios also said he saw Villavaso fire his weapon on the bridge.
Barrios said he initially claimed he fired a shotgun on the bridge to protect Villavaso, his partner. But he later changed his story and denied firing his weapon after he learned the New Orleans district attorney's office was investigating.
Jurors heard testimony last week that Barrios' wife had complained to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten that her husband felt pressured to plead guilty. Barrios, however, said that was a misunderstanding. He agreed with Justice Department attorney Bobbi Bernstein that he felt pressure building up as the investigation progressed.
"Is that different than feeling pressure from the government?" Bernstein asked.
"Yes," Barrios said.
Earlier Monday, former Police Superintendent Warren Riley testified that he was "shocked and surprised" to learn of the scope of the alleged cover-up.
Riley, also a defense witness, was the department's second-in-command at the time of the shootings and took over as superintendent less than a month later. He testified that he told one of his commanders that every police shooting must be "fully and thoroughly" investigated.
Riley said he thought police had conducted a legitimate probe of the Danziger shootings before former Lt. Michael Lohman, who was the ranking officer on the bridge, pleaded guilty last year to participating in a cover-up.
Trial testimony is to resume Wednesday after a daylong pause.
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