7 suspects in St. John deputy shootings are tied to violent anti-government group
Published: Friday, August 17, 2012, 10:45 PMWhen Tennessee authorities arrived at a trailer park in suburban Nashville to serve a search warrant on a suspected child molester last November, they did not find the man they had come for. Instead, they found a Buick stolen from Nebraska, a small arsenal of weapons and a stack of a papers that led them to believe their suspect was affiliated with a violent, anti-government "sovereign citizens" organization.
By Claire Galofaro, The Times-Picayune
And so begins the unraveling of the twisted tale of Terry Lyn Smith, the apparent patriarch of a seven-member group accused of gunning down four St. John the Baptist sheriff's deputies Thursday, killing two and seriously injuring the others.
They have so far been charged only in connection to shooting an officer who did not die; murder charges are pending.
Smith, 44, of 250 Riverview Court in LaPlace was booked Friday with principal to attempted first-degree murder of a police officer.
His wife, Chanel Skains, 37, was booked as an accessory to first-degree murder. His elder son, Brian Smith, 24, the alleged gunman, was booked with attempted first-degree murder and his girlfriend, 23-year-old Brittney Keith, was also charged as an accessory. They all share Terry Smith's Riverview Court address.
Terry Smith's younger son, Derrick Smith, 22, who lists an address a few doors down on the same road, was booked with principal to attempted first-degree murder.
Kyle Joekel, 28, a longtime associate of the Smiths, was booked with principal to attempted first-degree murder of a police officer. Joekel shares the address 245 Riverview Court with 21-year-old Teniecha Bright, who was charged as a principal to attempted first-degree murder.
The Smiths and Joekel have often traveled together, moving from state to state in campers to do maintenance work for industrial plants. They landed only recently at the Valero Refinery in LaPlace, where Thursday's shootout began in a satellite parking lot for workers.
Storehouse of evidence
In November 2011, the group was living in two campers in a trailer park in Adams, Tenn., when Terry Smith was accused of molesting a young female family member, according to the Robertson County (Tenn.) Sheriff's Office.
Detective Sgt. Angela Looney couldn't find the victim and assumed she'd been taken across state lines. She and other deputies went to the Smiths' two trailers, search warrant in hand, to look for documentation that might lead them to the child.
The Smiths weren't home. Joekel, though, was. He ran from one of the two trailers, leapt off a bluff and eluded police on foot, Looney said.
He left behind a 2000 white Buick, which the investigators learned had been stolen from Nebraska -- Joekel's home state, where he remains wanted on charges related to a two-state police chase.
In the Smiths' trailers, deputies also found three shotguns, a rifle and ammunition for at least seven types of weapons. Looney carried away a stack of papers, hoping they might lead her to the victim.
"I started going through it," she said. "And I discovered more than what I went there for."
She wouldn't say much Friday, citing fear of interrupting the investigation into the Louisiana shooting, but said the paperwork led her to believe Terry Smith was a member of the Sovereign Citizens, a loose group of anti-government organizations classified by the FBI as a threat of domestic terrorism.
The Robertson County Sheriff's Office never saw the Smith clan again, and the child molestation case remains open.
History of legal trouble
The Smith family likely hails from Morehouse Parish, in the far northeast corner of Louisiana near Monroe. Terry Smith's criminal history there begins in 1984, according to Morehouse Parish Sheriff Mike Tubbs. It involves minor offenses such as petty theft. He worked mostly odd jobs -- at a paper factory, for a bail bondsman, as a gunsmith. His sons caused more trouble and made frequent visits to the jailhouse, Tubbs said.
But their bookings were always of little consequence -- drugs, thefts, mischief, and on one occasion, flight from an officer.
Terry Smith and the boys' mother divorced several years ago, the sheriff said. She since remarried and moved and could not be reached Friday for additional information about her ex-husband and sons.
The group lay low between November's search warrant in Tennessee until May, when they resurfaced in DeSoto Parish.
The Smiths, Joekel and two women were living in two RVs in a trailer park near Mansfield, according to Lt. Robert Davidson. On May 22, the trailer park reported a burglary at the on-site laundry. Spare change had been stolen. Other residents reported having seen the group carrying assault rifles.
When three patrol deputies arrived, they found Joekel and Derrick Smith. But there was no evidence they committed the burglary.
DeSoto police set watch
But the Desoto Parish Sheriff's Office, suspicious, began investigating the group and soon found the bulletin out of Tennessee declaring Terry Smith wanted for questioning in a child sex abuse case. He had a history, the bulletin said, that wove through Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Virginia. He was affiliated with the Sovereign Citizens, a dangerous organization linked to domestic terrorism, the bulletin warned.
The two women who lived with them were enrolled in a technical college nearby, Davidson said. He could not confirm whether they were the same women booked with the men this week, though he was familiar with their names as known associates.
Next, the DeSoto Sheriff's Office found Terry Smith's Facebook page, where he had posted photographs of him and his sons holding assault weapons.
Fearing an extremist group was setting up camp in their parish, deputies began surveillance on the group from a nearby trailer. They intended to arrest Brian Smith on an outstanding warrant on a probation violation from Morehouse Parish. They also planned to arrest Joekel on an outstanding warrant from Nebraska.
In August 2011, Joekel and another man were making trouble at a bar in Barneston, Neb., near the Kansas border. They two fled in Joekel's red Dodge pickup at high speed, heading south into Kansas and "intending to harm law enforcement," according to a news release from the sheriff's office in Marshall County, Kan.
A high-speed chase ensued, ending in Oketo, Kan., where Joekel's car crashed into two parked vehicles, sending one of them into the living room of a residence. Joekel managed to flee on foot.
'Weapons on the front seat'
The Beatrice (Neb.) Daily Sun reported that authorities believed Joekel went underground and left the area shortly after that incident. He was due in court on Sept. 1, 2011, to face charges of distributing marijuana and resisting arrest, the paper reported, for allegedly trying to sell four and a half pounds of pot worth $6,075 to an undercover agent.
WWL-TV reported Friday that Joekel's sister, Kady Agena, gave an affidavit in that case in which she said she had alerted authorities about her brother's behavior because "she was very scared and needed to tell police what was going on."
In her affidavit, according to WWL-TV, Joekel's sister said officers left behind the arsenal because it not illegal, but took the cash.
The Gage County (Neb.) Sheriff's Office also had "intel" suggesting that Joekel was affiliated with anti-government groups. Sheriff Millard "Gus" Gustafson said it seemed accurate, based on "the kind of people he was hanging around with."
"We got a feeling there were people giving him aid so he could elude law enforcement," Gustafson said. "It just didn't look right. These guys would be driving around at night, and they'd have weapons on the front seat. If you're doing that, something's wrong -- you're either hunting illegally or doing something else."
Applying for gun license
In DeSoto Parish, the Sheriff's Office had hoped to arrest Joekel in May on that outstanding warrant during a traffic stop, fearing violent resistance in a populated trailer park. But only Terry Smith, who did not have an outstanding warrant, and the two women returned to the trailer park.
Terry Smith went to the DeSoto Sheriff's Office on June 10 to apply for a federal firearms license. He wanted to open up a gun shop in Mansfield, Davidson said. He never returned to learn he'd been rejected.
It's unclear exactly when the group migrated to St. John the Baptist Parish. Both Terry and Derrick Smith were working on a joint venture project at Valero Refinery in LaPlace.
St. John Sheriff's Deputy Michael Boyington was sitting in his car near the plant's parking lot around 4 a.m. Thursday when a man drove up and started shooting into his vehicle with an assault weapon. Boyington was hit several times but survived and managed to alert dispatch to a description of his shooter's vehicle.
Authorities have since placed all three Smiths, Joekel and Bright in that car.
A citizen's tip led police to a mobile home park around 5 a.m.
'I wasn't surprised'
Deputies Brandon Nielsen, 34, of Destrehan, Jeremy Triche, 27, of LaPlace, and Jason Triche started to question a man in a trailer when they noticed a second man inside, fully dressed but under a blanket. Both men agreed to walk outside with the officers. A third man emerged from the trailer and opened fire on the officers.
Authorities called it an "ambush."
Nielsen and Jeremy Triche were killed. Jason Triche was wounded.
Looney said Friday that she had been keeping a stuffed three-ring binder on the Smith clan. She was saddened to hear that their travels ultimately culminated in violence, with the death of two fellow officers.
"Unfortunately," she said, "I wasn't surprised. I just wasn't."
As local news this was devastating, especially to the emergency services community. The Sovereign Citizens are at it again, and so soon after that situation in Washington.