NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A man who once faced the death penalty for allegedly gunning down five teenagers in New Orleans — a crime that stunned a city reeling from a surge in violent crime after Hurricane Katrina — was sentenced Wednesday to life in federal prison for leading a violent, drug-dealing gang and participating in a man's 2005 slaying.
In 2009, Michael Anderson became the first person to receive a state death sentence in New Orleans since 1997 after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the 2006 fatal shootings of the five teens.
A state judge later set aside the verdict and death sentence, ruling Anderson deserved a new trial in part because a videotaped interview of a key witness wasn't turned over to the defense. But a retrial never happened because Anderson reached a plea deal that resolved separate state and federal charges against him.
Anderson, who declined to say anything before U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman sentenced him Wednesday, pleaded guilty in March 2011 to federal drug, murder and racketeering conspiracy charges stemming from a federal probe of the "Josephine Dog Pound" gang. He was one of eight gang members charged in the case and was the last of those defendants to be sentenced.
Anderson also pleaded no contest last year to state manslaughter charges stemming from the five teens' shooting deaths, which prompted then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco to bring National Guard troops back to New Orleans to help patrol the city.
Anderson maintains he is innocent of killing the five teenagers as they sat in a sport utility vehicle, but he admitted he led a violent gang that sold drugs in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans.
Federal prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against Anderson for participating in the July 2005 slaying of Ronnie Meade. The Orleans Parish district attorney's office agreed to reduce the charges against Anderson in the deadly 2006 shootings, from first-degree murder to manslaughter.
After Anderson pleaded no contest, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said his office wasn't retreating from its position that Anderson was responsible for the teens' killings.
"I think this case tells us a lot," U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said after Wednesday's sentencing hearing. "It tells us about how prevalent and serious the gang problem is here in New Orleans."
Mike Eberhardt, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who led the federal probe of the Josephine Dog Pound, said investigators had plotted violent crimes on a map of the city and noticed a high rate occurring on the gang's turf.
"That's where our dots were pointing us," he said. "As small as that area was, it was disproportionately high in violent crime."
Eberhardt said the Josephine Dog Pound was among the most violent gangs in the city, terrorizing the neighborhood around them.
"The respect comes from being more violent or richer than the next guys," he said. "They hustled for club money."
Eberhardt said investigators built a case against the gang by immersing themselves in the neighborhood, knocking on residents' doors and letting the gang members know they were being watched.
"I hate to say it, but for a period of time, you make friends with the people, even the crooks who are cooperating with you," he said. "You're not going to scam them or hoodwink them. They understand the streets."
Eberhardt said the approach led to cooperation from an unlikely source who "pushed us over the goal line" in the probe of Meade's slaying, but he wouldn't elaborate.
Letten, flanked by New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, said investigators were "extremely diligent and analytical in connecting the dots."
"I think this case represents some of the best investigative work you'll see," he said.
Anderson robbed Meade of a bicycle at gunpoint on July 12, 2005, and was arrested a day later after Meade reported the incident to police, prosecutors said. While Anderson was in jail, he spoke to Meade over the telephone and allegedly threatened to have him shot if he didn't recant. A different gang member was accused of fatally shooting Meade outside his home on July 14, 2005.