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Julius Cerdes, Jr.

Other federal exonerations
Shortly after 12 a.m. on November 15, 2005, 40-year-old Julius Cerdes Jr., a shrimp fisherman, returned to his home in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, after a day of shrimping. He and his deckhand, Charles “Bud” Tilley, were stunned to find a team of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents searching his home and the surrounding buildings.

Cerdes’s wife was being detained as were Ramon Quintanilla and his wife. Quintanilla was a migrant laborer who sometimes sold marijuana and sold marijuana occasionally to Cerdes. The agents reported that they had been surveilling Quintanilla based on a confidential informant's tip that Quintanilla was going to deliver marijauana to Cerdes. They had followed him as he drove to Cerdes’s property and parked the truck in Cerdes’s shop. When the agents entered the shop, they said they found Quintanilla dismantling a tire which contained 17 pounds of marijuana.

The agents had searched Cerdes’s house and found $47,000 in cash in the attic. They also found small amounts of marijuana in an ammunition can in the bushes and in a PVC pipe and an ice chest in the shop. Marijuana stems were found in a garbage can in the master bedroom, and a medicine bottle containing several marijuana seeds was recovered from a game room.

The team of agents was led by Chat Scott, who had grown up in the area. Cerdes had known Scott when Scott was a local bartender, before Scott had become a police officer and then a DEA agent. Also present were DEA agents Karl Newman and Justin Moran as well as Heath Martin, a Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s deputy who was a member of a DEA task force.

As Cerdes and Tilley stepped out of Cerdes’s truck, they were tackled by agents and placed under arrest. Cerdes informed the agents that he had a .22-caliber pistol in his back pocket. Officers and a drug-sniffing dog searched the truck, but found nothing.

During the search, Tilley spoke to Martin, whom he knew. Martin said, “Bud, you and I have been friends for a long time. If there is anything I can do to help you, just let me know.” Tilley said, “Well, there is a bag of marijuana in my boot. If you can get rid of that, I’d surely appreciate it.”

Martin took the bag containing 29 grams of marijuana and gave it to Scott, who was acting as Martin’s field trainer. Scott went back to Cerdes’s truck and triumphantly announced that he had found a bag of marijuana under the driver’s seat. “Here it is,” he declared. “Y’all don’t know how to look.”

Scott then walked over to Cerdes and said, “Now I have you with the gun protecting the drugs and you will do more time than the Mexican in your shop with the dope.”

Cerdes was arrested on state charges of marijuana distribution and possession. His bond was set at $1 million. The DEA filed a forfeiture petition for three of Cerdes’s fishing boats as well as the cash found in his home and another $25,000 found in a safe deposit box.

With the approval of Cerdes’s lawyers, who were longtime friends of agent Scott, Cerdes met Scott alone in the Tangipahoa Parish Jail.

Scott told Cerdes that if he would speak to Scott about the drug trade, Scott would be able to get his bond lowered. When Cerdes agreed, Scott pulled out his cell phone and called the judge about the bond. Not long after, the bond was lowered to $100,000, and Cerdes was able to post it and be released.

Shortly after being released, Cerdes talked to Tilley, who recounted how Martin had taken his bag of marijuana from his boot and given it to Scott who then planted it under Cerdes’s seat in the truck. Cerdes informed his attorneys and asked that the information be kept confidential.

On the Monday after he was released, Cerdes and his lawyers met with Scott. During the meeting, Scott asked Cerdes for information on several wealthy residents of the Ponchatoula area. Cerdes said he didn’t have any information. At that point, Scott spontaneously voiced a defense to the claim that he had planted the marijuana in Cerdes’s truck. Cerdes then believed that his lawyers had been disclosing confidential information to Scott. The meeting ended without Cerdes providing any information for Scott.

About a week later, Scott called Cerdes and told him he could come to the sheriff’s office substation where Cerdes’s seized boats were being stored so that he could winterize them to prevent damage during the forfeiture proceedings. As Cerdes worked on the boats, Scott told him that unless Cerdes agreed to cooperate, he would face a federal charge of possessing a gun while trafficking drugs, which carried a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. Scott also suggested that if Cerdes did cooperate, Scott would not pursue the forfeiture of his boats.

Scott wanted information on two men whom Cerdes knew and were small-time cocaine users. Scott wanted Cerdes to say that Cerdes had sold cocaine to one of them. Scott also wanted Cerdes to admit that he was involved with Quintanilla and the 17 pounds of marijuana. Intimidated by the prospect of a five year or longer prison term, Cerdes agreed.

A week later, Cerdes met with his lawyers and Scott. Cerdes admitted he sold cocaine to one of the men Scott had identified. Cerdes also admitted he was involved with Quintanilla. After making this statement, Scott then declared, “Okay, Junior [Cerdes] has admitted drug dealing. We’re going to go ahead and forfeit his boats.”

Less than a month later, Cerdes’s attorneys got a notice of forfeiture for the boats and the money from his house and the safe deposit box. Cerdes said the cash in his house was from a recent sale of a shrimp catch and the money in the safe deposit box was from settlement of a personal injury claim. In the box was the paperwork from the settlement and the records for the box showed it had not been accessed in several years.

Feeling as if he had been tricked into making a false statement, Cerdes told his lawyers he wanted to fight the forfeiture.

After his lawyers filed a notice of opposition, Cerdes was charged in state court in Tangipahoa Parish with a marijuana conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Cerdes was also arrested on a charge of selling cocaine. He was ordered held on a $600,000 bond.

While in jail, Scott and Martin came to visit Cerdes. Scott boasted that he had been responsible for Cerdes’s arrest and again demanded that Cerdes cooperate with him. Scott referred to the bag of marijuana that he claimed to have found in Cerdes’s truck, saying, “Who do you think they are going to believe—me or you?”

Cerdes refused to cooperate.

Eventually, he managed to post bail and be released. He filed a formal complaint against Scott with the DEA, alleging Scott planted the marijuana in his truck.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, on April 13, 2006, a three-count federal indictment was returned against Cerdes. He was charged with a marijuana conspiracy, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and possession of a firearm while drug trafficking. The state charges were then dismissed.

Cerdes was ordered detained without bond. He then obtained a new attorney, Frank DeSalvo. Almost immediately Cerdes was transferred to a different dorm in the Orleans Parish Jail. This dorm housed Calvin Jenkins, who was an informant for Agent Scott.

On June 29, 2006, DeSalvo sought to reopen the detention hearing, and on the following day, Cerdes was released. Less than a week later, on July 6, 2006, the prosecution filed a motion to revoke Cerdes’s bond, alleging that Jenkins claimed that Cerdes had offered him $20,000 to kill Scott. Although Cerdes claimed that was false, his bond was revoked, and he was jailed again on July 10, 2006.

Cerdes accepted defeat. Believing he had no choice but to accede to Scott’s manipulations, Cerdes pled guilty on September 20, 2006, to conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He also agreed to withdraw his complaint to the DEA about Scott planting the marijuana. Cerdes also agreed to consent to the forfeiture of his money and his boats.

On August 2, 2007, Cerdes was released from prison on parole.

Quintanilla also was charged in a federal indictment. In 2010, after he pled guilty, Quintanilla was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

In 2016, Karl Newman, who was part of the team of agents which raided Cerdes’s home, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of embezzling money and drugs seized from arrested individuals. Also indicted was Johnny Domingue, another member of Scott’s task force. Both pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

On September 29, 2017, Scott was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, perjury, obstruction of justice and stealing money and other property from people he and other members of the task force arrested. Rodney Gemar, a Hammond, Louisiana police officer who worked with Scott’s DEA task force, also was indicted.

The indictment alleged that from 2009 to 2016 Scott and others stole property and money from arrestees and that in 2016 Gemar destroyed evidence of those activities. The officers were known as the “Northshore Group” because they pursued drug cases along the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, primarily in Tangipahoa Parish.

As an appellate ruling later described: “They started relatively small, stealing modest amounts of money or property from people they arrested. Their crimes escalated over time, though. For example, Scott once collected about $2,000 from seized wallets to fund a trip to Spain. The team also began skimming cash from drug busts. On one occasion, they seized $16,000 but declared only $5,900 to the DEA. On another, they seized $76,000 but declared only $47,000.”

Scott was accused of coercing a witness to testify falsely in a drug trial. Scott also concocted a scheme involving the seizure of a truck. Because the truck had high mileage, Scott coerced the owner of the truck to buy a new truck which was swapped in as the forfeited truck. When the forfeiture was completed, the truck was turned over to Scott’s task force as a work vehicle.

Things started to turn against Scott in January 2016, when Domingue was arrested by state police for dealing cocaine. Fearing Domingue would turn on them, Gemar, Newman, and Scott scrubbed their office of incriminating evidence, including confiscated cell phones, wallets, and guns. Newman and Gemar threw the phones and some of the guns into a swamp. They turned in two other guns, both seized years earlier, to local police. Scott then used about $4,700 from the wallets to hire a lawyer for Domingue, but Domingue refused the representation.

During the investigation of Scott, the complaint Cerdes had filed against him was discovered, and federal agents interviewed Cerdes. Alerted to the prosecution of Scott, Cerdes, in January 2020, filed a writ of coram nobis, seeking to withdraw his guilty plea based on the allegations of Scott’s misconduct in his case and others.

In 2021, Scott, as well as Gemar, were convicted in federal court. In August 2021, Cerdes and Tilley testified for the prosecution at Scott’s sentencing about how Scott had planted the marijuana and coerced Cerdes to make false statements. Scott was sentenced to 13 years and four months in prison. v The prosecution opposed Cerdes’s writ, arguing that it was filed too late—that he knew about Scott’s misconduct from the very day he was arrested.

On March 1, 2023, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance agreed and denied Cerdes’s petition as being untimely filed.

In December 2023, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Judge’s Vance’s ruling. The court noted that although Cerdes did not file his petition until 15 years after he was originally arrested, the court had determined that Cerdes “had demonstrated sound reasons for filing his petition when he did.”

“Cerdes contends that he had every reason to believe that if he took some action contrary to the plea agreement, such as filing a direct appeal or habeas petition based on Scott’s misconduct, then there would be adverse consequences or reprisals against him by Scott,” the court said. “He asserts that reasonable fear and apprehension on his part persisted until it became clear that the Government had finally come to recognize Scott as a bad actor. The evidence adduced at Scott’s trial and the testimony offered at Scott’s sentencing hearing in particular demonstrated just how powerful and dangerous Scott was as a rogue DEA agent. Scott planted evidence to fabricate a charge against Cerdes that carried a minimum five-year prison term; he stole money and property from Cerdes; he tricked Cerdes into falsely admitting that he sold cocaine; and he sent a team to harass Cerdes’s 79-year-old mother.”

The court also noted that Cerdes’s plea agreement required him to waive any appeal of his guilty plea and to withdraw his DEA complaint against Scott.

“In light of Cerdes’s testimony and the unusual terms of his plea agreement, it was reasonable for Cerdes to be fearful of what would happen if he sought relief from his guilty plea prior to the Government’s discovery of Scott’s misconduct,” the appeals court ruled.

The court ordered Cerdes’s guilty plea to be vacated. On January 31, 2024, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Cerdes.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/7/2024
Last Updated: 3/7/2024
Most Serious Crime:Conspiracy
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2005
Sentence:1 year and 6 months
Age at the date of reported crime:40
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No