Wednesday, June 11, 2008

FEMA trailer occupant killed after police standoff

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Eric Minshew struggled with mental illness for many years and seemed to get much worse after Hurricane Katrina, according to his brother. Finally, when FEMA workers showed up to inspect his government-issue trailer, he snapped. Police shot and killed Minshew early Wednesday after a nearly 10-hour standoff in one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the August 2005 hurricane.

Authorities said the 49-year-old Minshew had threatened the FEMA inspectors with a gun, then fired several shots at police after they arrived. He was killed after pointing a gun at officers, police said.

Minshew had been living alone in the FEMA trailer outside his parents' house, which had to be gutted because of damage from Katrina. He felt let down by the government, had grown frustrated over the damage and the wait for rebuilding aid, and feared his hopes of inheriting the house were slipping away, said his brother, Homer M. Minshew III.

"I think that the storm took away his hope, and all of the issues involved in it sort of fed the fire," he said. He added: "A lot of people who didn't struggle before were struggling after the storm."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency inspection was a first step toward taking the trailer away. FEMA has been pushing to get residents out of trailers, in part because of dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes in many of them.

New Orleans' mental health system was thrown into disarray by Katrina and suffers a severe shortage of psychiatric beds. Earlier this year, a police officer was killed by a homeless man who was said to have been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.

But Homer Minshew suggested the turmoil in the mental health system was not really a factor in his brother's death. He said he and his family had begged his brother to get help, but he wouldn't listen.

James Arey, commander of the police crisis intervention team, said the case "doesn't have anything to do with Katrina."

"I'd love to rant and rave about lack of treatment (facilities) and all of that, but that doesn't relate to this case," he said.

Homer Minshew said his brother had moved in with his parents about eight years ago, with no money and no job. He had worked as a security guard, which is how he came to own a gun, Minshew said.

The house had been put up for sale by the sheriff a year ago, but Homer Minshew had held off foreclosure and was negotiating with the bank. He said the family had been awaiting aid from the state-run hurricane relief program so they could either pay off the mortgage or fix up the house and sell it.

Minshew was shot and killed after retreating to the house and barricading himself there.

He suffered from delusions and often couldn't be reasoned with, according to his brother.

"He had a lot of serious mental issues and would all of a sudden go off on a rant about the government, the local, state government, the feds and everything else," his brother said. "He has some issues. He just snapped. Thank God nobody else got hurt."

Rosemarie Brocato, who lives about a block away from the house, said Minshew seemed lonely, often stopping her to talk for a half-hour at a time when she passed his house. "He just needed someone to talk to, I guess. I felt sorry for him," she said.

The shooting took place in Lakeview, one of the city's more prosperous neighborhoods. It was swamped with as much as 11 feet of water after a levee broke.

The whole block on which the trailer sat appeared abandoned, with an empty, overgrown lot next door and houses unrepaired since the storm, their windows broken. Minshew's trailer was the only one visible for blocks along the street, dotted with derelict properties, for-sale signs and beautifully rebuilt homes.

Taped to the front window of Minshew's house were a newspaper article headlined "Do you have a legal right to own a gun?" and a no-trespassing sign. A car in the driveway had two flat tires.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said that he couldn't release specifics about Minshew's case but that the FEMA workers "were operating within prescribed procedures to perform a move-out inspection when the applicant exited his housing unit wearing a firearm."

The officers involved have been reassigned to administrative duties during the investigation, which is standard procedure, police said.

Minshew said he didn't fault FEMA or the police, who he said gave his brother "every opportunity" to end the standoff peacefully. But he said he believes his brother "just kind of fell through the cracks."

Mayor Ray Nagin has set Aug. 29, the storm's three-year anniversary, as his goal for getting rid of the last of the trailers in the city. As of Tuesday, nearly 4,930 remained.