Convicted of manslaughter, Wilbert Rideau is a free man after 44 years of incarceration.
January 26, 2005
At the Lafayette Visitors Center on Evangeline Thruway last Wednesday, Wilbert Rideau signs the guest register. He’s wearing a pair of tennis shoes, blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt, a jean jacket and a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. He walks outside to the deck overlooking a pond where large koi fish are swimming close to the water’s surface. “I’m amazed,” he says. “I’ve never seen fish this big before.”
Large carp that look like oversized goldfish don’t amaze most people. But most people haven’t spent more than four decades of their lives behind bars. Rideau is just a few weeks shy of his sixty-third birthday. He’s been incarcerated since 1961, and on this fourth day of his freedom, the fish mesmerize him.
Ronnie Brasseaux, a short man wearing eyeglasses, walks out of the building. He introduces himself to Rideau, shakes his hand, and says he’s seen him on TV. “I’m amazed that you’re free,” Brasseaux says. “I really am.”
“Well, thank you,” Rideau says.
He removes his sunglasses. “I’ve tried to hide, but it doesn’t do any good,” says Rideau. “I was in Baton Rouge, and everywhere I went everybody knew who I was.”
He turns to Brasseaux. “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Are these goldfish or what?”
In his first few days of freedom, Rideau’s been a busy man. He’s processed out of the Louisiana correctional system, been interviewed by newspapers around the world, and filled his prescription for his blood pressure medication. And the man whose primary identification for 44 years was prisoner inmate number 75546 had to apply for a new state ID.
“I went to the motor vehicle [department] to try to get my ID,” says Rideau. “That was a trip. You have to have ID in order to get an ID, and I didn’t have anything. So I just showed them the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Baton Rouge paper, and the Lake Charles paper. They had to make an exception. The guy said, ‘That’s fine. That will work.’”
Rideau also took his first trip to Wal-Mart, where one item really caught his attention. “It was the only thing I saw that I absolutely had to have,” he says. “It was a grey T-shirt that says, ‘It’s all good.’ As soon as it gets warm enough, I’m going to wear it.”
It hasn’t always been good.
On Feb. 16, 1961, Rideau, then 19, robbed the Gulf National Bank in Lake Charles. He took three employees hostage — Dora McCain, Jay Hickman and Julia Ferguson — and drove to the edge of town. He shot the three hostages and stabbed Julia Ferguson in the heart, killing her. Hickman and Cain survived, and Rideau was apprehended that night.
KPLC TV in Lake Charles taped Rideau’s confession to the sheriff that evening and repeatedly aired it leading up to the trial. Rideau was tried and convicted for murder and sentenced to death. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that his trial had been held in a “kangaroo court” and overturned the sentence. Again, in 1964, Rideau was tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The second conviction was overturned, and Rideau was tried a third time in 1970. Again, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Each jury that had convicted him consisted of white males. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty (which was later reinstated), and Rideau was released from death row, where he had lived for 12 years, into the general population of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He later became the editor of the prison’s newsmagazine, The Angolite, winning the George Polk Award and Robert F. Kennedy journalism awards, as well as a dozen other honors. He has been the subject of national news programs like Nightline and 20/20 and wrote and co-produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Farm, a look at life at Angola. From 1984 until 1990, pardon boards repeatedly recommended commuting his sentence, but Govs. Edwards and Roemer denied his commutation. In 1993, Life called him “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.”
Despite his accomplishments, Rideau remained at Angola. His supporters argued that he was rehabilitated, had served more than his fair share of time and that every man who had been on death row in 1973 had since died or been released from prison. Victims rights groups argued that no amount of rehabilitation, no matter how commendable, erased the facts of his crime and that he deserved a life in prison.
In Dec. 2000, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned Rideau’s third conviction, on the grounds that blacks had been excluded from the grand jury that indicted him. The court ordered that he be released or retried for a fourth time. In July 2001, he was transferred to the Calcasieu Parish Correctional Center to await trial.
The jury for the fourth trial was selected from Ouachita Parish and consisted of eight whites and four blacks. Opening statements for the trial were made on Jan. 10, 2005, and it was the first time that Rideau took the stand in one of his trials. A verdict of manslaughter was handed down late Saturday night, Jan. 15. He was sentenced to 21 years for murder — the maximum allowed by law for manslaughter in 1961 — and released on time served.
“My knees got weak,” Rideau says of the verdict. “I was afraid I might fall. Man, I don’t know how to describe it. I was stunned. My mind was trying to wrap around the idea. I heard it, but I don’t know if I could really believe it. You have to understand, they were trying me under the old law where the verdict had to be unanimous. Any oddsmaker would have bet on a hung jury. One juror could have hung it up either way. That’s what I expected, a hung jury and continued imprisonment.”
After being released from jail around midnight that evening, Rideau stated to reporters and supporters waiting in the lobby: “First of all I would like to thank the jury from Monroe who gave me my freedom. And I’d also like to express my heartfelt apologies to the victims in this affair, their families, their relatives, and all of the lives in this community that my actions caused some suffering or misery or adverse, you know, uh, I know words are inadequate, but . . .” He then appeared to be at a loss for words and waved off further comment.
Back in a hotel where the defense team had set up headquarters, there was a celebration with champagne. “I promised myself a long time ago that if this ever happened, that I haven’t drank in 44 years, and I’m not going to start now,” says Rideau. But he admits to taking a sip of champagne. “It tastes nasty. I wanted to spit it out.”
That evening he was reunited with his mother and his sisters. “My mom was ecstatic,” he says. “Her birthday was Jan 8. She’s very religious. She said, ‘You don’t know it, but this is my birthday gift. This is what I prayed for.’” By 3:30 a.m. the celebration wound down, and Rideau went to bed. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I just laid there in the bed looking at that ceiling.”
District Attorney Rick Bryant, who prosecuted the case, told KPLC, “Well, I’m extremely disappointed, obviously, but I’m not surprised.” He cited the age of the case as the major obstacle in prosecuting it and said that he was disappointed that race had been used as part of Rideau’s defense. “If this is manslaughter,” he said, “I sure don’t know what murder is.”
The television station also interviewed Don Hickman, the son of Jay Hickman. “It was quite a shock,” Hickman said of the verdict. He disagreed with the decision, but said he wasn’t concerned with Rideau walking the streets as a free man. “He was just a stupid kid, like he said. I don’t think there’s any reason to worry about it. He’s not a Charles Manson. He’s a Wilbert Rideau. I don’t think he’s that vicious of a man he was then. I don’t think he is now, but I still think he should have stayed in prison.”
Others in Lake Charles apparently agreed with Hickman. In a Web site poll conducted by KPLC that asked “Do you agree with the jury’s decision to convict Wilbert Rideau of manslaughter?” more than 75 percent of the respondents disagreed with the verdict. Others threatened Rideau; three days after his release, The Los Angeles Times reported that he received a dozen hostile e-mails through his Web site, www.wilbertrideau.com, and “two credible threats on his life.” Rideau appeared unconcerned and told the paper, “To be intimidated, worried about them, about every shadow in this world, I can’t live like that. You can’t let fear govern your life.”
However, the threats may have played a role in Rideau’s final minutes in the Louisiana correctional system. He was originally scheduled to process out of the jail in Lake Charles, but instead transferred out of a Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s substation in Iowa, 15 miles from Lake Charles and only two miles from the Calcasieu Parish line.
Percy Ritchie, the jury foreman, later told the Associated Press that when deciding on the verdict, the jury did not take into account race or Rideau’s efforts at rehabilitation. They believed Rideau was not in the proper frame of mind at the time of crime, that he attacked his victims out of panic and there was never any intention of killing his hostages. Percy stated the key piece of evidence was original testimony from the now-deceased Hickman. Before leaving the bank on the night of the crime, Hickman said that Rideau instructed them to get their coats “because it’s going to be cold walking back” to Lake Charles.
On his way back from the sheriff’s substation in Iowa last Wednesday, Rideau makes a brief stop at the visitors center in Lafayette. His next concern is finding a warmer coat to shield him from the northern cold of Washington, D.C. where he’s seen on TV that it’s a numbing 10 degrees. Ted Koppel will interview him there for Nightline, his first national television interview since his release. (The episode aired last Friday, Jan. 21.) “The phone has been ringing off the hook,” he says. “I’m not giving interviews — at least I’m trying not to.”
For a man who has lived so much of his life in the public eye, he’s ambivalent about remaining a public figure. “When you’re not in the spotlight, you get to see people, to learn about people,” he says. “When you’re in the spotlight, they see you, but you really can’t see them. But the difference with the spotlight is that you get the chance sometimes to make a difference. You get the hand that either God or people deal to you, and you make the best of it. You try to do the best you can. That’s all you can do. That’s all anybody does. That’s all I’ve done for the past 44 years.”
Rideau won’t elaborate on his plans as a free man or whether he plans to live in Louisiana. “Right now I’m trying to focus on getting a roof over my head,” he says. “I’m trying to pull my life together and generate some income. I’ve got to do all of this. Just the normal things you sort of take for granted, I’m just starting. That’s my immediate concern. I’ve got to work at that, and it’s going to take awhile.”
Rideau says there is closure for him after his decades of incarceration, but acknowledges that there’s not much closure for Lake Charles. “I would have liked for there to have been the beginning of a healing process for the white community. But I really don’t want to get into that. I don’t want to be critical of nobody. Look, I’m starting a whole new life, and to the extent that I can, I’m putting the past behind me. I’m doing what most people do. I’m picking up my little suitcase, and I’m moving onto the next room. That’s it.
“I’m just taking one day at a time,” he continues. “Yesterday is yesterday; tomorrow isn’t mine. It isn’t promised to me. Today is life. This is all there is, and it’s good. It’s all good. I’m not like most people. That’s one of the advantages that prison taught me, that the biggest source of human misery — and most people tend to do it — is to focus on what they don’t have and worry about what they don’t have instead of appreciating what they do have. When you look at what you do have, quite often it’s more than you think. It’s quite a bit. Right now, I don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but I have a lot right now. I don’t worry about tomorrow. It’s going to be okay. It’s all good. Trust me. It’s going to be good.”