State authorities are investigating allegations New Orleans police
officers broke into a dealership and made off with nearly 200 cars - including
41 new Cadillacs - as Hurricane Katrina closed in.
"It is a very, very active investigation," Kris Wartelle, spokeswoman
for the Louisiana attorney general, said Friday. "We expect developments
Wartelle would not comment on why the officers may have taken the cars
or whether they were used in the line of duty.
However, the cars may have been taken before the hurricane even roared
into town Aug. 29, according to the president and general manager of the dealership,
Stead said the cars included 88 new Cadillacs and Chevrolets, 40 used cars,
52 customers' cars and a restored 1970 El Camino and 1966 Impala.
"We put the loss on new cars at $3.7 million," Stead said. "The
used cars ran another $900,000."
When reports first surfaced last month that officers may have taken the cars,
New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley said it was not considered looting
because the officers patrolled in the cars.
"There were some officers who did use Cadillacs," Riley said. "Those
cars were not stolen."
On Friday, police spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo said the department's only
comment was that it was cooperating with the attorney general's investigation.
Police are also investigating 12 officers for allegedly looting or failing
to stop looting. And about 250 police officers - roughly 15 percent of the force
- could face discipline for leaving their posts without permission during Katrina
and its aftermath.
Stead said he got a call Aug. 28 while evacuating the city, telling him one
of the dealership's garage doors was open. The rest of his trip was spent fielding
calls about his cars.
"I had eight calls from people in an hour saying they heard I was giving
police Cadillacs to drive," Stead said. "It seemed like everyone knew
about it, so I knew we were in trouble."
Stead said he got calls from people telling him they had seen his cars in Baton
Rouge, Houston and other cities with uniformed police officers driving them.
He said people saw his cars parked outside a police precinct.
Keys to the new and used cars were kept in a locked box on the second floor,
Stead said. The box was taken on a forklift to the third floor, where a blowtorch
was used to open it, he said. For cars without keys, the ignitions were jimmied,
Two new Corvettes were left in the street outside the dealership, apparently
stalled out by the floodwaters and abandoned.
The cars recovered so far have various amounts of damage, Stead said.
Because of the damaged garage doors at Stead's dealership, wind funneled into
the building and a wall blew down, he said. "The sad thing is if the building
hadn't been vandalized, there would have been no damage at all," the dealer