It's been 16 months since police discovered the Mid-City massacre at 4026 Baudin St., where four people, including a mother and her 9-year-old son, lay dead for days, the child's homework untouched on the living room floor.
Young Joey Whitehead was stabbed several times, a knife tip still in his abdomen, as he lay in a back room of the house. A family friend also slain in the attack lay nearby.
A day after the bodies were found, police arrested Douglas Whitton, 39, a security guard and self-professed professional wrestler, but also an apparent recovering alcoholic whom the family members had taken in when he had nowhere else to turn. In a statement to police after his arrest, Whitton, who admitted he had stayed in the house with the bodies for days, said he guessed he had killed everybody because when he woke up, they all were dead.
On Monday in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Whitton will be tried on four counts of first-degree murder in the bludgeoning and stabbing deaths of Owen Reeves, 37; his girlfriend, Gayle Coulon Whitehead, 33; her son, Joey Whitehead, 9; and a family friend, Joe Donovan, 44, whose bodies were found in the tiny shotgun double Oct. 17, 1997. In December, a mistrial was declared in the first attempt at a trial after potential jurors waiting in a courthouse lounge saw a television broadcast about the murders.
Criminal District Court Judge Julian Parker on Friday ordered Whitton's chief defense attorney, Kerry Cuccia, to withdraw Whitton's plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The ruling came after a state-hired forensic psychiatrist testified that Cuccia advised Whitton not to answer questions about the night his housemates were killed. Under state law, when a defendant uses the insanity plea, he or she must submit to an examination by a state-hired expert who can then pass on the findings to prosecutors.
Because a gag order stands in the case, lawyers on both sides would not discuss the matter. But during Friday's hearing, Cuccia told Parker he intended to file a writ with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, in essence asking it to overturn Parker's decision.
The judge's order Friday returned Whitton's plea to a simple not guilty. Without the insanity plea, the judge said, Whitton's defense team cannot touch on the issue of any alleged mental illness or mental defects during trial.
During the pre-trial examination Whitton told the psychiatrist he had been smoking "illicit drugs and drinking alcohol before the murders. Cuccia cut the examination short when the doctor asked Whitton how long before the murders he had started abusing drugs. In Louisiana, a drug-or alcohol-induced fog does not constitute insanity, said Dr. Rafael Salcedo, forensic clinical psychologist who often performs court sanity evaluations.
"The concept is that it can't be something you did voluntarily that drives you mad," Salcedo said. "If somthing you take makes you do omething crazy, you're still resposible."
It was during Whitton's quest for sobriety that the native Texan with a formidable wrestling weight of about 310 pounds, met Reeves, Whitehead and her son, Joseph, apparently at the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ.
There, he led Bible studies for young churchgoers. Months before the killings, church members said Whitton plummeted back into drugs, allegedly pawning a church television so he could buy crack.
The Carrollton minister took him to Bridge House, a residential substance abuse program, where Whitton signed a one-year contract to stay but dropped out prematurely. When he left Bridge House, Reeves and Whitehead took him into their home in August 1997, according to court records.
No one, including Whitton, has said what led him from stealing for drug money to being charged in a multiple homicide. His previous convictions are for nonviolent crimes: according to records, two convictions in 1977 and 1978 for burglary in Dallas County, Texas.
Whitton gave some detail about the killings in a videotaped statement he gave to police after he was arrested Oct. 18, 1997, in an abandoned warehouse where he'd holed up with the help of friends. The statement is controversial: Parker ruled it inadmissible because Whitton vaguely answered a question about wanting an attorney before giving the statement. But the state Supreme Court overturned Parker's ruling.
Although a friend urged him to turn himself in, Whitton stated, he thought about hopping a boxcar "to split."
I done something wrong," Whitton allegedly told two friends after meeting them near Jackson Square a day before the bodies were found. In the statement, Whitton said his friends allowed him to sleep at their French Quarter apartment before taking him to the abandoned warehouse.
But after reading about the murders, one of the friends alerted police, according to records.
After Whitton was arrested he reportedly told police he had little recollection of the murders but remembered waking up and finding everyone dead. Police said he'd mostly used a large slab of concrete to kill his victims, although a coroner's report showed that Joey Whitehead was stabbed several times. Reeves' and Gayle Whitehead's bodies were found in their bedroom Joey Whitehead and Donovan were found in a back utility room.
Whitton told police he recalled killing Gayle Whitehead first, knocking her in the head. He said he killed Reeves when Reeves returned home from work and demanded to know where Gayle Whitehead and her son were, police said.
After he thought the four were dead, Whitton told police, he slashed their throats to make sure they would never awaken; one was still making sounds a day later. Whitton said he slept on a mattress in the front living room until the smell grew bad and his attempts to mask it with perfume didn't work, according to the statement Then, he left the house, cashing Reeves' check to spend two nights at a motel catching a movie before running into his friends, according to his statement.
The motive Whitton gave only police was that Gayle Whitehead had teased him about soiling his pants before he struck her hard with his fist. She "was always teasing me," he said.
"I flew off the handles somehow and when I figured out what was going on, it was too late," Whitton said in his statement.
When investigators asked him if he had anything else to add, according to the statement, Whitton responded, "I didn't know how I flew off, but I know I did. I'm sorry. Very, very sorry."
The Times-Picayune, February 21, 1999
By Rhonda Bell, staff writer
Mid-City murder trial to start
Confession is in, insanity is out