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Unanswered questions in Kentwood police shoot-out

After Judge Kenneth Fogg described a 1986 murder trial as “hopelessly deadlocked,” he declared a mistrial and moved the state’s plight for justice to Covington, where a second jury—in 1987—found Gregory Griffin, 25, guilty in the shotgun death of Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Deputy R. A. Kent, III.

For many, this case left questions unanswered, those regarding motive, an alleged tri-parish drug-smuggling operation, and the accusation that an Assistant District Attorney covertly swore allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan.

On a Friday night, November 1, 1985, shortly after 8:00 PM, grocer Marty Guy locked up Guy’s Quick Stop near Kentwood. Outside the store, he followed a noise and found Griffin attempting to pounding on his soft drink machine.

As Griffin drove away, Guy unlocked the store and stepped back inside to call the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office.

On patrol, Kentwood Police Captain James Rimes heard the radio call over the parish channel and drove to Guy’s Quick Stop to assist. Marty Guy climbed into the front seat of the squad car, and the two left to find Griffin.

Rimes stopped Griffin less than 15 miles from the store and convinced him to drive back to the store, where Sheriff’s Deputy R. A. Kent, III, of Fluker, stood waiting.

Rimes walked Griffin without handcuffs to Kent’s car, where Griffin found himself once again locked in a caged backseat. The two armed police officers joined Guy inside the convenience store, where the deputy began writing his report. Rimes, who had no jurisdiction outside of the Kentwood town limits, departed soon after, leaving Kent and Guy, two old friends, inspecting Gregory Griffin’s car.

At approximately 8:30 PM, Gregory Griffin yelled from the backseat of that patrol car. Although his exact words changed later, during the first trial, quoted Griffin as saying “Hey, did you know there was a shotgun in here?”

Kent then stepped closer to his unit, and Guy heard gunshots. When the smoke from the shotgun blasts cleared, Guy saw Kent laying in the gravel, while a wounded Gregory Griffin ran to his car and drove away.

Curiously, in the court transcripts, I found no one asking how Griffin’s car got back to the store. The court focused instead on a bigger question: who shot first?

Deputy R. A. Kent, III died after pellets from three shotgun blasts hit his body, but long before the coroner pronounced him dead, every law enforcement agency in three parishes searched for Griffin, including those across the Louisiana-Mississippi state line.

Gregory Griffin’s cousin, Monroe James of Osyka, Mississippi, later testified that a group of unnamed Louisiana police officers came to his home searching for Griffin. “They held me like I was some kind of prisoner.” He said they harassed his wife. “They wanted to kill Gregory. They said if they found him in our home, they’d kill me, too,” James said.

Police initially charged Monroe James and his wife as accessories after the fact in the murder, but District Attorney Duncan Kemp dropped those charges the day before James testified for the Prosecution.

On November 2, 1987, 33-year-old Thado Gordon sat in bed watching cartoons at the Lover’s Lane Motel in Pike County, Mississippi, when—according to Gordon’s testimony in court—officers from Tangipahoa Parish, Pike County, and the city of Amite burst into his room “without probable cause or warrant.” Gordon said the officers mistook him for Griffin and drug him into the parking lot where they beat him severely, ultimately causing permanent injury and forcing him to abandon his lifelong career as a truck driver and day laborer.

A federal court judge later awarded Gordon $120,000 for his experience.

During Gregory Griffin’s second trial, the state’s star witness, Marty Guy, described what happened the night Kent died. He said he and Kent were standing outside the patrol car talking when Griffin stuck his head out the window and said, “Let me out of here,” and then he fired a shotgun at the deputy.

According to Guy’s report, Kent did not pull his handgun until after the first shotgun blast. “I saw the blast, but I didn’t see the shotgun,” he said. “I got burned across my forehead.”

Guy said he was standing behind Kent, watching him write Griffin a ticket for an expired inspection sticker when Kent’s body blew back against his. Guy said he then ran around the corner of the store, looking for a place to hide.

“I thought he had already killed R. A. and was coming after me,” Guy said. He said he heard rapid-fire pistol shots as he ran, followed by two louder shotgun blasts.

The prosecution said Griffin pried the shotgun from a rack in the front seat and shot Kent. Griffin said he found the weapon on the floor of the car, raised it to the window, and yelled, “hey, shotgun.” According to Griffin, Kent panicked and fired once or twice into the car door.

“I ducked into the seat,” Griffin testified. “All I could see was a shadow, but when he started shooting, I shot back.”

One of Griffin’s lawyers, Gerard “Gerry” Rault, a professor working pro-bono from the Loyola New Orleans School of Law, made several unusual charges against members of the prosecution team. Rault said that Griffin knew Assistant District Attorney William Quin’s family and that Quin was “a KKK type person” insinuating that he hated black people.

Griffin testified that he sold marijuana to a member of Quin’s family on several occasions. He said the last time he called the house, Quin called him a racist epitaph and told him never to contact his family again.

Quin took the stand and admitted to knowing Griffin, but insisted that he abhorred the klan and never called anyone that name.

District Attorney Duncan Kemp told the court that Gerry Rault threatened to schedule a press conference and distribute a handbill making allegations involving “150 pounds of marijuana, both of which Marty Guy and R. A. Kent (allegedly) had an interest in.”

Kemp said Rault should be disbarred, calling him “a disgrace to the legal profession” and telling the court that the defense attorney knew his “marijuana conspiracy” allegations were unfounded.

In the end, Judge John Greene sentenced Gregory Griffin to only 21 years, noting that before the shotgun incident, the Kentwood native had a record of non-violence. In 1979, the judge said, police arrested Griffin for petty larceny, in 1982 for receiving stolen property, in 1983 for disturbing the peace, and in 1984 for theft of a lawn mower and a record player.

Judge Greene noted that, during the trial, in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I moment, Independence sales executive Gus Guzzardo testified that he had lost money in and repeatedly slapped the same vending machine Guy reported Griffin for vandalizing.

“We know this deputy was shot by you, but the court understands you felt you were being attacked,” Greene said. “The jury found that you did not fire first, but you were running, and you did turn to shoot the victim twice after he had fallen to the ground.”

After exhausting all appeals, Gregory Griffin served 15 years of a 21 year sentence in a state prison for manslaughter. Following parole, he left the state of Louisiana and currently lives in Mississippi.

I asked him if the parole board released him early due to good behavior. He replied, “No. This is Louisiana. I just knew somebody who knew somebody.”

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