Shining a Light on Mississippi’s Dark Secret

Lead investigator Thomas Pustay who later was convicted of sexual abuse of a child

Nichole Lynne LaDue was born February 27, 1972 in Hornell, New York. She died July 29, 2002 in Pass Christian, Mississippi. She was 30. Those dates bookend the life of the woman everyone knows as Nikki. Much of what happened between those dates remains a mystery. We know she died of a gunshot wound to her head. We know both the lead investigator Thomas Pustay and the county coroner Gary Hargrove immediately ruled her death a suicide. What else do we know? At the time of Nikki’s death, Detective Pustay admitted he was severely depressed. He was also engaging in child molestation for which he is now serving what amounts to the rest of his life in prison. As  for Gary Hargrove, the person who ruled Nikki’s death a suicide, he too has a questionable history. In July 2007, CNN investigated Hargrove and the Harrison County jail about a series of inmate deaths. Guards beat at least 4 to death. CNN talked to the family of Lee Smith, one of the murdered inmates. You can read the entire transcript here, but there are some key points made that I want to bring your attention to…namely that Gary Hargrove is either incompetent, corrupt or both and should not now nor ever be in a position to affect the outcome of so many lives. He belongs in a cell alongside Pustay. It’s what CNN calls Mississippi’s “little dark secret.” Folks, it’s that dark secret that will be delaying a bit my final thoughts on who killed Nikki LaDue January. Because what happened in tiny Pass Christian, Mississippi is not new. So much gets swept under the rug in that state it’s hard to believe it’s a part of this country. Here is a portion of that CNN investigation.

ANDERSON COOPER: Lee Damond Smith was just 21 years old when he was taken to a county jail in Biloxi, Mississippi.

And, when he stepped foot into his cell, he really had no idea, probably, what kind of horrific allegations were being made against the guards, allegations involving excessive force, beatings, even murder. Smith — Smith spent a few days behind bars. And that’s when something happened to him, a tragedy that his family says was unspeakable and unnatural.

Once again, CNN’s Kathleen Koch has the exclusive “Keeping Them Honest” report.

KOCH (voice-over): Madeline Dedeaux was a deputy and kitchen supervisor in the Harrison County Jail. She had heard inmates talk about beatings, but, last year, on January 7, she walked in on one in the booking room.

The ringleader, she says, was a veteran guard named Ryan Teel.

MADELINE DEDEAUX, FORMER JAILER: Ryan Teel was the one doing most of the blows and the hitting and the punching.

KOCH: Kasey Alves was the inmate. He was arrested that night for public intoxication.

Alves says guards jumped him for looking into a women’s cell. He says he fought back, until they strapped him tightly into a restraining chair like this one. At the Harrison County Jail, it’s known as the devil’s chair.

KASEY ALVES, FORMER INMATE: They put a sheet around my head so tight that I couldn’t breathe, you know, so I’m gasping for air, basically, and water was poured on me.

KOCH (on camera): What was the effect that this had?

ALVES: I had the effect of I was suffocating. I — I thought I was going to die, actually. You know, I’m gasping for air, because the torture was — it was horrible. It was very — it was horrible.

KOCH: Now, you said torture.

ALVES: Yes, torture, yes, because…

KOCH: Do you — do you believe that’s what you underwent?


ALVES: Oh, yes, definitely, mental torture, physical torture. Torture.

KOCH (voice-over): Alves says he was then left for eight hours, strapped in the chair.

ALVES: The restraints were so tight, that, actually, it put welts on my shoulders. It was like a burning sensation that I was feeling.

KOCH: These photos showed the strap imprints on his thighs, ankles, shoulders and back. Alves suffered severe nerve damage and says his doctor told him he nearly died of kidney failure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was so upset, I left, went to my office. I cried. I prayed.

KOCH: And former deputy Madeline Dedeaux filed a report. She also says she warned her supervisor about Ryan Teel, who she says was the most violent guard.

MADELINE DEDEAUX, FORMER JAILER: I had talked to the major and I told her that, in my opinion, if something’s not done to Teel and to — about that incident, that eventually someone was going to get killed. He was going to eventually end up killing someone, but it needed to be done.

KOCH: But Dedeaux said nothing changed, nothing. In fact, it was just one month later that Jessie Lee Williams was beaten into a coma and died. Deputy Teel was charged with attempting to kill Williams and then cover it up. Teel has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney would not comment.

(on camera) If they had listened, do you think that Jessie Williams would be alive today?

DEDEAUX: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.

KOCH (voice-over): As for jail officials, Sheriff Payne (ph) issued a statement, saying that he is fully cooperating in all investigations related to the Williams case, and that many changes were made after his death: among them, a new warden, revised use of force and taser policies, tougher screening for new hires, additional supervisors, and expanded training programs.

But former jailer, Preston Wills, insists many guards responsible for beatings still control the jail.

PRESTON WILLS, FORMER JAILER: There’s still a lot of people in there right now that they need to get in trouble. They really do, and they need to really be looked at very closely. They don’t need to be there, period.

KOCH: And all of this had happened before 21-year-old Lee Damond Smith (ph) was brought to the jail. It was ten months after Williams’ deadly beating, well after those safeguards were supposedly put in place.

On his 13th day in jail, Smith’s mother received some frightening calls, from families of other inmates, saying something terrible had happened.

LASHUN SMITH, LEE SMITH’S MOTHER: They said that he was — they saw officers covering his body with a white sheet.

KOCH: Stunned, Smith’s aunt called the jail.

SHYRI SMITH, LEE SMITH’S AUNT: I wanted to know is anything wrong with my nephew. She said, “There’s nothing wrong with your nephew.”

And then I said, “Well, let me speak with him.”  She said, “You know you can’t speak to the inmate.” She was so rude, and she said, “There have not been any deaths at the Harrison County jail.”

KOCH: Smith’s mother raced to the jail, demanding answers about her son. Instead, she says she got lies.

L. SMITH: When I got there, you know, they kept denying it, denying it, denying it.

KOCH: Finally, the warden came in and delivered the awful news: her son was dead.

(on camera) The death investigation report by the district attorney’s office and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations states that witnesses said Lee Smith collapsed in a TV room at the jail. They say he began having seizures, became unresponsive, and then paramedics were called.

Coroner Gary Hargrove-incompetent, corrupt or both?

Enter Gary Hargrove. There’s a reason I wanted you to see this story. I think it helps explain what goes on to this day in Hancock County, Mississippi. I think it explains why Hargrove had no business declaring Nikki’s death a suicide when clearly, it was not. Back to the CNN report.

(voice-over) The county autopsy found that Lee Smith died of natural causes, of, quote, “massive recent pulmonary embolism,” a blood clot in the lung. But the young man had never had any health problems.

Then, as if in confirmation of his family’s worst fears, Smith’s grandmother had a disturbing dream.

LUCY WILLIAMS, LEE SMITH’S GRANDMOTHER: He said, “Mama, I was murdered. They killed me.” And it just ran chills all through my body. I just woke up instantly.

KOCH (voice-over): Lee Damond Smith’s (ph) family was suspicious, suspicious that the 21-year-old’s sudden death in the Harrison County jail may have been foul play, that the blood clot described as the cause of death by the county autopsy was a lie.

Friends helped raise $9,000 for an independent autopsy. It was conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. Matthias Okoye.

DR. MATTHIAS OKOYE, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: He was strangled and he was restrained while being strangled.

KOCH: Doctor Okoye’s finding is scathing: asphyxia, due to neck compression and physical restraint while in police custody.

Doctor Okoye discovered hemorrhaging two inches deep on the right side of Smith’s neck and showed us pictures of the wound. He also found multiple injuries on Smith’s head, trunk, arms and legs.

OKOYE: That means that there must have been a struggle. There must have been an altercation, because these are minor blunt force traumatic injuries, scattered all over the body.

KOCH (on camera): So you found he was being restrained. He was strangled. So you’re saying he was murdered?

OKOYE: Yes, and that is homicide.

KOCH (voice-over): But what about the county’s official explanation that Smith died of a blood clot in the lungs? Dr. Okoye says the only way to prove a death because of a blood clot is to dissect the lungs. He says that never happened.

OKOYE: I was shocked, actually. Even my assistants were shocked.

KOCH: Dr. Paul McGery (ph), the forensic pathologist who performed that first autopsy for the county, would not return CNN’s calls.

(on camera) Gary Hargrove, the Harrison County coroner, as well as two detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, were present during the first autopsy, conducted in this building. Hargrove says the lungs were dissected.

So what did you see when he opened up the lungs?

GARY HARGROVE, HARRISON COUNTY CORONER: Massive blood clots in the lungs and in the veins and stuff.

KOCH (voice-over): When CNN asked Hargrove for the photos of his autopsy, he refused. And when we offered Hargrove a copy of the second independent autopsy and photos, he wouldn’t look at them or comment on the findings unless the family provided them. Fearing the county could somehow use the details to cover wrongdoing, the Smith’s family lawyers advised against that.

(on camera) How do you reconcile this with what you found?

HARGROVE: All I can rely on at this point in time is the autopsy that we performed, the information that we have about the events surrounding Mr. Smith’s death, what the investigation showed.

KOCH: So you saw no marks on his neck?


KOCH: No hemorrhaging?


KOCH (voice-over): The cause of the autopsy findings were so dramatically different, CNN took them to a third forensic pathologist for yet another opinion. Dr. Howard Adelman examined both written reports, as well as more than 200 photos from the second independent autopsy.

HOWARD ADELMAN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: The photographs are very convincing along with the description, and so I would go along with the cause of death being a strangulation.

KOCH (on camera): Are you and Dr. McGery (ph) involved in any kind of cover-up to hide a murder, the murder of Lee Smith in the Harris County jail, if indeed he was murdered there?

HARGROVE: No, we’re not. I have not ever covered up a death and will not do it today or any other time. Because when it comes to that, it’s time to get out of the business.

KOCH (voice-over): In fact, the sheriff’s statement says the county coroner’s autopsy did not reveal any foul play. Though critics wonder about the sheriff’s own record supervising the jail.

MICHAEL CROSBY, ATTORNEY FOR JESSIE WILLIAMS’ FAMILY: How could a sheriff be in charge of a jail for this many years and not know what’s going on in his own jail?

KOCH (on camera): And it sounds like there’s not an isolated act anymore. It sounds like there is a clear pattern.

CROSBY: Being able to put together the evidence to show that it was, in fact, a pattern of abuse that took place over a long period of time. KOCH (voice-over): Lee Damond Smith (ph) is buried not far from his Biloxi home. His family says they won’t rest until they confront those who killed him.

S. SMITH: We want the world to know, the nation to know what’s going on in Mississippi, so therefore, this may save someone else’s son.

KOCH: Kathleen Koch, CNN, Biloxi, Mississippi.

I know it right?! A child molester and a corrupt coroner were sent to lead the investigation into a young mother’s life. What was the state thinking? Barney Fife would have done a better job. Pustay and Hargrove failed in their responsibility, one they owed Nikki. They spent a total of one hour on the scene. No evidence was collected. None. They allowed Nikki’s husband Phil January and his friends to clean the balcony where Nikki died and they threw everything away including an ashtray filled with cigarettes Nikki didn’t smoke. They brought Nikki to a funeral home where they removed her clothing and threw them away. No tests or keeping any samples. They were destroyed. A total of about 10 Polaroid photos were taken. 10 of a crime scene. My son-in-law is a cop and he told me that even if they go to what is suspected to be a suicide, they shoot hundreds of photos and take video. Many of the photos taken by Pustay were out of focus or had sun glare preventing a clear picture. A bloody phone handset was found on a table in front of Nikki. In Pustay’s report, he said he didn’t know how it got there. Phil later said he put it there but Pustay didn’t know that. And he didn’t think it strange? Nikki was sitting on the gun when she was found. The grip was beneath her butt with the barrel pointed out. Pustay said that while yes, that is an unusual place for the gun to be, he thought it possible that it could have somehow got there after she shot herself. Ok, so if it was “possible” for it to have landed there after the gunshot, doesn’t that also mean it’s “possible” it wasn’t? Shouldn’t that in itself justify an investigation? And what about the man the locals call Dr. Death? No autopsy was done. He basically packed her up and shipped her body home to New York for burial. Case closed. When questioned about that, he said, “Don’t tell me how to do my fucking job.” Pustay seems to think there was an autopsy. He said during the autopsy, one of Nikki’s breast implants came out and Hargrove explained to him what it was. But Pustay didn’t witness the autopsy. There wasn’t one.

Yes, I’ve got a bit more to look into on this. Bear with me. Once again, now is the time to pipe up if you have even more information. You can be anonymous and instead of commenting here, you can email me at 10 years has been too long. Let’s do the right thing.


Posted on January 20, 2012, in Cold Cases, Crime, Mississippi, Murder, Nikki LaDue January and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I have a question about the photo being shown. How did all that blood accumulate under the right hand which has little blood on it? How would that be possible?

    I’m no detective or ME but just that alone makes this scene look staged.

    Good for you in asking the hard questions. I wish Anderson Cooper would do a follow up on Hargrove and specifically this case.

  2. a concerned friend

    I had a meeting with the D.A. Cono Caranna and he shot me down. I even had Attorney Mike Crosby of Gulfport go with me. The detectives all came in the conference room trying to intimidate me but I didn’t let them. I really fought to have Nikki’s case re-opened, but D.A. wouldn’t do it. Mississippi good ol’ boys trashy people. Kharma is a bitch, people and I can’t wait for Kharma to get all the people who didn’t do anything about this MURDER.

  3. It would be could one day to hear Mississippi is winning at something other than the best at corruption.

  1. Pingback: - Biloxi-Gulfport & South Mississippi News

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