By Lea Skene & John Simerman | NOLA.com | November 11, 2021
Union Parish District Attorney John Belton hadn’t yet seen all of the damning body camera footage of Louisiana State Police troopers repeatedly beating and tasing Ronald Greene before his death on a dark roadway in May 2019 — but what he viewed was enough for him to call in the feds.
Belton watched the video that September and almost immediately dialed up a federal prosecutor in Shreveport to refer the case for possible civil rights charges against troopers, according to multiple accounts.
Federal authorities declined to answer questions about what happened next, or when the FBI formally opened its investigation. But according to accounts from the Greene family and a State Police investigator, the leader of the FBI field office in Monroe showed little interest and sat on the case for months.
Greene’s mother, Mona Hardin, said that Special Agent Jared Medaries told her in December 2019 that “no one told me to investigate,” but that “if you really want me to, I will start investigating.”
State Police investigator Albert Paxton, who was assigned to review Greene’s death, had told Hardin to contact the local FBI office because the bureau was supposed to be investigating. In his notes, Paxton wrote that Medaries then called State Police to ask who told her that.
Hardin recalled Medaries saying little would get done before the holidays — and nothing did.
Medaries never picked up the State Police investigative file, but in February 2020, Paxton made the short trip to the FBI office in Monroe to deliver it himself, according to his notes.
Three months later, Medaries “brought the thumb drive back with the copy of the case file” and “said the Baton Rouge FBI was taking over the case,” Paxton wrote.
Medaries told Paxton then he didn’t see much of a case, Paxton wrote. Medaries said “he didn’t really look through the case but ‘they [troopers] did what they had to do,'” according to the notes.
That was May 2020, the same month that Greene’s family filed a federal civil rights complaint over his death.
The slow-footed early response from the FBI has drawn little public notice amid allegations of an attempt by State Police brass to whitewash Greene’s death. The apparent lag has raised questions about the role of Medaries, an FBI mainstay in Monroe.
State Police and FBI agents frequently work together, but Medaries has particularly close ties to the state agency and Troop F, the overwhelmingly White unit at the center of a mounting scandal over accusations of excessive force against Black motorists.
Medaries started his law enforcement career two decades ago at Troop F, working with some of the veteran State Police officials, or former ones, now accused of trying to gloss over the details of Greene’s arrest.
“This was at best a matter of bad optics, and quite possibly might present some objectivity issues,” said Michael McAuliffe, a former federal civil rights prosecutor. “There should be full accounting as to whether the agent did his job professionally.”
McAuliffe said the Greene case exemplifies a frequent tension in federal civil rights investigations: relationships between FBI agents and local law enforcement officers accused of misconduct.
Those ties can sometimes benefit an investigation — but they can just as easily have the opposite effect, he said. Particularly in the early stages, allegiances can kill a prosecution before it gets off the ground, McAuliffe said.
“It’s an ongoing concern, particularly for prosecutors, that agents may be too close with local law enforcement to do their jobs,” he said. “That presents an inherent challenge in these cases.”
Records show Medaries started at the State Police training academy in 1995.
He worked as a Troop F patrolman until 1998, when he joined the Bureau of Detectives, still based in Ouachita Parish. Employment records indicate he left the agency the following year.
After training to become an FBI agent, Medaries moved to Joplin, Missouri, where he worked in the FBI field office.
Years later, Medaries returned to his home base, where he became the supervisory agent over the FBI’s small Monroe office.
Experts said the FBI generally avoids sending new agents right back to their home districts, but a move home after several years away is common practice.
Jeff Danik, a retired FBI supervisor who oversaw police corruption investigations in the Palm Beach area, said he would need to know more about the relationship between Medaries and the troopers he was investigating. The mere fact Medaries once worked at Troop F is not necessarily a red flag, he said.
“That’s definitely the proper question to ask, but it could have an easy answer,” he said.
FBI officials and federal prosecutors declined to comment on the 2020 decision to have agents in Baton Rouge take over, eight months after Belton first referred it to federal authorities.
Since the Baton Rouge office assumed control, the feds have launched investigations into several other alleged beatings of Black motorists by Troop F members.
The first fruit of those broader federal efforts arrived in September in an indictment charging former trooper Jacob Brown with violating the civil rights of Aaron Bowman.
Police reports say Brown beat Bowman 18 times with a flashlight in May 2019, weeks after Greene’s death. Brown has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
The excessive force allegations now central to the ongoing probe in Greene’s case became public only after his family sued State Police. Their federal lawsuit claims the agency initially pushed a narrative that Greene died from a car crash, without any mention of him being beaten by troopers.
A federal grand jury decision in the case is expected in the coming weeks, which could mean charges against some of the troopers involved in the violent arrest.
Questions about the alleged coverup within State Police — and exactly who was involved — make it difficult to pinpoint whether the FBI was at fault for being slow on the uptake, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a criminal justice watchdog group.
“When you have an agency misrepresenting or withholding information to investigators, it becomes very easy for these mistakes to be made,” he said. “I don’t assign a sinister motive to the FBI in this.
“Could it have been more quickly ferreted out? Yes, but when you’re talking about a coverup like this, it’s very hard for a law enforcement agency like the FBI to even comprehend that type of behavior.”
During his time at Troop F, Medaries overlapped with prominent State Police official Bob Brown, who later rose through the ranks to become chief of staff under Superintendent Kevin Reeves, another Troop F veteran.
He and Medaries worked together in the small detective bureau in Monroe, after Medaries joined the office in 1998.
Bob Brown retired in December 2020 amid mounting allegations of abuses at Troop F, some involving his son, Jacob.
According to Paxton’s notes, Bob Brown was at a meeting a week after Greene’s death in May 2019, during which investigators presented their case for arresting Christopher Hollingsworth, a trooper who has since died, for aggravated battery and obstruction of justice in Greene’s arrest.
Paxton wrote that the meeting grew “very heated,” and that the investigators were told “there was no obstruction and we needed to wait on the autopsy.”
Jacob Brown was not involved in Greene’s arrest. But he was arrested in three separate excessive force incidents unrelated to that incident, and he resigned from the agency early this year.
In September, Jacob Brown became the first trooper charged amid the ongoing FBI investigation.
Around the time he overlapped with Medaries at the State Police detective bureau, Bob Brown faced accusations of racism that resulted in minor discipline but had little impact on his career. He received a letter of reprimand for making racist comments and hanging a Confederate flag inside his office.
Brown admitted to investigators that the “n-word” was part of his vocabulary, according to the letter.
The investigation was launched after a witness said Brown, discussing a promotional exam, stated “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t understand how those n****** could pass the test, they’re not smarter than us,'” according to his disciplinary letter, signed by former Superintendent Terry Landry.
The letter also accused Brown of being inconsiderate toward other troopers, especially African Americans, by choosing to display the Confederate flag. “You should have been aware that such a display was at least controversial and was not appropriate for a business office,” the letter says.
Another 20 years would pass before Troop F officers were accused of routinely using excessive force against Black motorists and covering up their actions, including allegedly concealing and mislabeling bodycam footage.
In the Greene case, the ranking trooper at the scene, Lt. John Clary, allegedly failed to turn over his bodycam footage to investigators immediately afterward, resulting in the evidence being left out of the file turned over to state prosecutors in fall 2019.
The footage was finally discovered several months later. Clary was accused of lying about its existence, but officials said he was recently cleared of wrongdoing and faced no discipline because investigators were unable to prove he acted intentionally.
Echoes of Danziger
The federal response in some ways echoes the hesitant reaction of federal agents and prosecutors in New Orleans after the most notorious episode of excessive police force in recent times in Louisiana.
The FBI was aware early on of major holes in the New Orleans Police Department’s account of officers shooting civilians on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Anthony Radosti, a former police detective who was working for the Crime Commission, said the local FBI brushed off allegations of police misconduct even after officers began confiding to Radosti that “there was a problem with the shooting on the bridge.”
Radosti said he forwarded information and documents to an FBI contact who “assured me it was a justifiable shooting and it had been fully reviewed,” he said.
Radosti said the FBI was echoing what then-NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley told him at a meeting months after the incident, in which two civilians were killed and four others were badly injured.
“The FBI agents in New Orleans were very close to NOPD for obvious reasons. They need them as working partners. But sometimes the relationships stretch over, and they tend to take the word of another law enforcement officer,” Radosti said.
“The magnitude of what happened in New Orleans and on the Danziger Bridge was problematic, and in my opinion, in that era, the bureau was too close to the investigators.”
Unlike in Greene’s case, in which Belton immediately steered the case to federal authorities, the district attorney in New Orleans was the first to wade into the Danziger Bridge case.
Then-U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office and local federal agents kept to the sidelines as then-District Attorney Eddie Jordan’s office pursued a state grand jury investigation that led to an indictment against seven officers in December 2006.
It wasn’t until 2008, after state prosecutors bungled the matter, that federal civil rights prosecutors from Washington, D.C. and FBI agents from outside the area stepped in to lead a new investigation.
The feds eventually won convictions against 11 officers who pleaded guilty to a range of offenses.