In a calm, clear voice, Lance Geary Laurent uttered the words “not guilty” as each charge was read aloud in Judge George Larke’s Houma courtroom last week.
Extortion, forcible rape, theft and domestic abuse battery and assault are alleged against the 42-year-old Laurent, based on claims by a Houma woman that he physically, sexually and mentally abused her for a month after they met through on online dating site, forced her to marry him and got her to comply with his wishes because of detailed threats against the lives of her children and grandchild.
Prosecutors say they may add additional charges, based on some recently updated state statutes.
“I can tell you that we are looking to see whether human trafficking laws apply to this case,” Assistant District Attorney Mark Rhodes said.
Several friends and acquaintances of Laurent describe him as a “laid-back guy” and say they cannot imagine him harming a woman or anyone else. Others, who have known him from childhood, say they are not surprised by the allegations based on past behavior, but are hoping the case will result in his receiving needed medical attention.
The case is significant because of the severity of behavior alleged by a woman with a career position of trust and responsibility in the bayou region, and what prosecutors are coming to see as a pattern of alleged behavior against other women by Laurent, in Louisiana and elsewhere.
Laurent was one of about a dozen jail inmates arraigned Friday before Larke, the only one wearing a red rather than orange jumpsuit, signifying that his alleged crimes include a violent offense.
His total bond is $147,500 but even if he or someone else could post it, he still can’t leave the jail. There is also a hold on him for a parole violation.
New criminal charges have not emerged as a result of those interviews, but prosecutors say that is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Meanwhile, more details have been supplied by the Houma woman he allegedly victimized, which she has also shared with The Times in a series of interviews. The Times is withholding her identity at her request, due to the nature of the charges against Laurent.
Prior to involvement with Laurent, she was engaged in a professional career. Purchases allegedly made on her credit cards and other use of what was once sterling credit is estimated at nearly $400,000. She has provided documentation that creditors – one by one – are concluding that the purchases were fraudulent.
A new Camaro automobile still sits in her driveway, purchased, she said, at Laurent’s insistence. She has sought to have the dealership pick it up but so far they have not.
“This has been horrific,” she said. “It is like one of those nightmares where you are trying to run and can’t get away. It was 38 days of trying to run and not getting away. You can wake up from a nightmare. I could not wake up from this because he was still there.”
Advocates for victims of domestic abuse affiliated with nationally recognized organizations say the type of behavior described in Laurent’s case is more common than many people realize.
They call it “coercive control,” and say that neither the criminal justice system nor in many cases support networks for victimized women are adequately equipped to deal with it.
George Washington University School of Law professor Joan Meier has trained attorneys and judges on matters of domestic abuse and created programs used as models by the U.S. Department of Justice. She agrees that coercive control is far more widespread than people might realize and that most people would be surprised at the degree of vulnerability.
“It does not take a lot of violence or threats to get someone thoroughly intimidated, however the terror which coercive control instills in victims is not well understood by the courts or the public,” she said. “It sometimes requires an expert witness to explain this in more depth. In fact, there are a number of instances of men who never used overt violence but terrified their wives and used coercive control – who later murdered their wife or children.”
The victim said she first communicated with Laurent through the dating service OKCupid – where his profile still lives – on Sept. 1 and that they met in person that same day.
“He was an absolute gentleman,” she said, relating that she agreed to meet with him later that evening.
She was not going to travel in his vehicle on a dinner date, preferring to use her own. “He said a gentleman takes a lady where she needs to go.”
The woman took his words as indications of a chivalrous nature, and he also expressed displeasure at what he perceived as distrust.
That night, he drove her back to her well-appointed subdivision home and came inside.
He left without incident and returned the next day.
On the third day, the woman says, the nightmare began.
Allegedly using information disclosed during their talks in prior days and possibly through examination of the woman’s social networking pages, Laurent allegedly determined the location of her grandchild and other sensitive family information. When she would not act according to his wishes, he threatened, providing distressing details, to either kill the child or have her killed. Similar threats were made regarding other relatives.
“I was never worried so much about my safety but my family was in danger,” the woman said.
He forced the woman – a non-smoker – to smoke cigarettes out of a metal case with a butterfly clasp.
“He said I was too skinny and tried to force-feed me,” she said. She was compelled to sleep on top of his back, ensuring that if she got out of the bed he would know, she said.
On two occasions, he enforced his will, the victim said, at the point of a gun, her gun, which he had confiscated.
The continued threats, browbeating and some incidents of violence, the Houma woman said, placed her in a position where she performed in public the precise way he told her to, like a woman in love with him. On the few occasions where she tried to give overt signs to outsiders that something was wrong, he caught on and responded, renewing the threats, according to what the woman told police and stated in interviews.
Her behavior was also regulated when it came to the men that Laurent allegedly solicited on Craigslist – using a photo of the woman.
On at least one occasion, she told investigators, some type of illegal drug was given to Laurent in return for access to her.
For six to eight hours on given days, the woman said, she was subject to the Craigslist visitors, unwanted relations with Laurent himself, and other indignities including assaults with objects that caused severe physical pain.
Thoroughly broken, she said, she traveled with Laurent to Biloxi where they were wed; she gave no protest at the time.
“He was really good with body language; he could tell if you weren’t buying what you were saying and that was as bad as if you were not saying what he wanted at all,” the woman said. “You did not correct him, you did not question him ever. He knew where my grandbaby went to school, he knew where my kids were, he knew my older child’s classrooms and he made it very clear that if I did get away, someone would pay for what I had done.”
One of her biggest current emotional challenges, she said, is knowing that, according to the records of Mississippi, they are married. A Shreveport woman has acknowledged that she is also wed to Laurent. A divorce was never issued, making the Biloxi wedding invalid on its face, according to attorneys. But the Houma woman – now without financial resources – is trying to obtain a legal annulment. So for now, no attorney has agreed to champion that cause at an affordable rate.
The woman was cut off from friends and family members during her time with Laurent.
But one good friend persisted and intervened, getting the woman out of Laurent’s physical influence and to police on Oct. 9.
Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office detectives questioned the victim and questioned Laurent but could not determine whether they had sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime.
Laurent did not return to the woman’s home, though she lived in constant fear that he would, or worse that he would harm her family members.
The continued investigation resulted in a warrant being issued for Laurent, and he was picked up in Mississippi on Oct. 15 and returned to Terrebonne Parish in handcuffs.
Interviews by The Times have revealed what investigators also learned, that patterns of behavior eerily similar to those alleged in the Houma case were common in Laurent’s other dealings with women, including the one he appears legally married to.
In those cases the alleged bad behavior occurred over longer periods of time, spanning months or even years.
For one Shreveport woman – who acknowledges acts of violence but who also physically fought back on occasion – big problems began after Laurent allegedly took control of her finances.
Lorinda Ball said Laurent convinced her to sell her house, which was paid for, and then to open a joint account.
During one spree with the account’s debit card, he spent more than $35,000, Ball said.
She described one beating as particularly brutal. He told her, she said, that he would shoot her son-in-law in such a way that he would become disabled, unable to walk, and unable to support her daughter.
“I was truly fearful for my life that night,” she said, and was then asked why, on occasions when she had left him, she returned. “It is amazing how he can twist everything around. He could quote Bible scripture and make you believe he will never do it again.”
Ball was also afraid, not for herself, but for her family.
“I didn’t care what happened to me because I was in that much of a depression but I cared about what happened to my family,” she said. “He said he would paralyze my son-in-law, or chop up one of my grandkids, that he would have drugs planted in my daughter’s car.”
There was an attempt to bring another man into the bedroom – one Laurent recruited from a truck stop – but the attempt did not go well.
That was when the woman said she had enough for good, made a break from Laurent, and called her son-in-law to rescue her after taking refuge in a Whataburger restroom.
She is in counseling.
The woman Laurent married in Shreveport, Tressa Laurent, described similar situations and a history of threats if Laurent did not get his way.
“It would be nothing for him to say, ‘I will have someone hurt your sister.’ He would be very believable,” Tressa Laurent said. “He had that stern facial expression, that tone of voice. One time he talked about my little niece with that look, and said, ‘Your niece is young.’”
Both women said Tressa Laurent gave varying accounts of his life story, sometimes contradicting himself.
When he was challenged, Laurent and one other woman said his behavior would be explosive.
“One minute he would say one thing then it would be another thing,” she said. “When I called him out on it he would ball his hands up into a fist, pound on his head, punch holes in the wall; he broke my bed, broke the post off and smashed it into the others.”
AN EARLY HISTORY
Violence and bullying are behaviors people who grew up around Lance Laurent and went to school with him say are nothing new.
Jason Schefferstein, a boyhood friend who now lives in Texas, said Lance Laurent attended Terrebonne Christian Academy and Houma Christian Academy.
“He didn’t have many close friends, he was generally a compulsive liar and a bully,” Schefferstein said in a telephone interview. “He needed attention, and it seemed he would act his will so that people would pay attention to him. It was hard for people to get to know him, even though he wanted to make friends. But you could never trust a word that was coming from him.”
Schefferstein’s mother, Leah Owen, knows a different Lance, however, recalling him as a smiling little boy of 7 or 8 years old. She said he was always kind to her.
When she recovered from a serious illness, she said, Lance Laurent expressed empathy and caring.
“When all this happened, when I heard of it, I thought, ‘Who is this person?’” she said. “I think Lance might have an illness, something not right. But I remember him looking at me with tears in his eyes, telling me I was an inspiration.”
Striking to victim advocates in the case being brought against Lance Laurent is the speed with which he had begun the cycle of abuse with that victim, when compared with earlier situations. It is also, some said, cause for alarm.
They acknowledge that cases such as the one prosecutors are attempting can be difficult.
A specific attorney has yet to be assigned to Lance Laurent, who will be represented from someone attached to the Terrebonne Parish Office of Indigent Defender.
One assignment did not work out because another client that attorney represented may have been a Laurent victim, creating a conflict.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Dagate, who is handling the prosecution for District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr., said that case, as well as others, are being investigated.
He is confident that as the charges Lance Laurent currently faces work their way through the justice system that his office is up to the task, acknowledging that he has much work to do.
“It takes a lot of courage on the part of victims,” he said.