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Police seek murder suspect

The search continues for a Hammond man suspected of gunning down a 20-year-old victim in the Iowa District.

Michael Otkins II, 20, of Tickfaw, was found fatally shot in a vehicle in the 800 block of East Merry Street late Friday afternoon. A city spokesperson said police detectives have an arrest warrant for Kareem Gatlin.

He is wanted on charges of on charges of second-degree murder, obstruction of justice, illegal discharge of a firearm, aggravated obstruction of a roadway and aggravated criminal damage to property.

Authorities said Monday a motive for the crime is unclear at this time.

In previous town hall meetings, HPD and city leaders have identified the Iowa District as areas near Clarke Park that have seen a rise in gun violence and gang-related activities.

Police found Otkins suffering from a gunshot wound to the upper body. Police, Hammond Fire Department, and Acadian Ambulance rendered aid, and he was taken to North Oaks Medical Center where he later succumbed to his injuries.

Police are asking anyone with information about the incident or the whereabouts of Gatlin to contact Detective Chase Zaffuto at 985-277-5740 or by email at zaffuto_cb@hammond.org. Tipsters can also contact Detective Ronney Domiano at 985-277-5739 or by email at domiano_rj@hammond.org. Tips can be placed anonymously through Crime Stoppers of Tangipahoa’s anonymous tip line at 1-800-554-JAIL (5245).

Sentenced for trooper’s death

Nathan Anding, charged in the death of State Trooper George Baker, pleaded guilty to multiple charges in 21st Judicial District Court on Monday, according to Public Information Officer Claire LeBlanc.

He will serve 12.5 years for negligent homicide, aggravated obstruction of a highway, aggravated criminal damage to property, obstruction of justice, aggravated flight from an officer where human life is endangered, driving while intoxicated, possession of a controlled dangerous substance (first offense), simple battery, operating a vehicle without a driver’s license, and improper use of registration/license plate/license, LeBlanc said.

The district attorney’s office will release more information about the case in the coming days, she said.

Kentwood murders

Kevin Buckley, 34, of Kentwood, allegedly confessed to killing a couple on Friday at their Highway 440 residence following his arrest, according to Chief of Operations James Travis with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The victims, Iva Jane Travis, 54, and Lewis “Payton” Travis, 55, had not been seen or heard from since Feb. 14 and were reported missing Thursday.

Authorities say Buckley lived with the couple and worked with them for many years. During the interrogation, Buckley gave authorities the location of the victim’s bodies, Travis said.

The Louisiana State Police Crime Lab has been processing the crime scene and collecting all physical evidence related to the case. More details will be released as they become available.

Charged with rape

Covington police arrested Zachary Stephen Riche, 22, of Hammond, Thursday on the charges of third-degree rape and sexual battery, a department spokesperson.

Riche has a prior arrest for a sexual assault-related charge in Tangipahoa Parish with similar motives. Police say Riche connects with women online through the dating application called “Bumble.” He then allegedly meets with the women and sexually assaults them.

Covington’s Criminal Investigation Division asks for anyone else who may have been a victim of Riche to please call Sgt. Jessica Restel at 985-214-6511.

Sling-shot bandit

Hien Ho, 48, of Ponchatoula, was arrested last week and booked into the St. Tammany Parish Jail on nine counts of simple burglary and one count of attempted simple burglary, according to an St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office spokesperson.

Allegedly, Ho targeted small businesses throughout St. Tammany Parish over the past few months, broke in through the front glass of these businesses and stole currency from the store registers.

In most cases, he utilized a slingshot to break the businesses’ front glass, authorities said.

St. Tammany authorities discovered that several other surrounding agencies were investigating the same type of business burglaries in their jurisdictions.

Investigators were able to link cases in St. Tammany to the same black, 2017 F-150 truck that was being used in connection with crimes in other jurisdictions.

Through physical evidence and surveillance footage, authorities were able to identify Ho as the suspect.

More charges are expected to be forthcoming from surrounding agencies, including Tangipahoa Parish, Northshore municipalities and Jefferson Parish.

The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office thanks all agencies involved for their help, especially the Ponchatoula Police Department and the Tangipahoa Sheriff’s Office as well as the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office, which provided DNA analysis.

“Solving this case was truly a cooperative effort of several entities working together and sharing information and resources,” Sheriff Randy Smith said.

Ponchatoula Police Chief Bry Layrisson said Ho faces similar charges in the Strawberry Capitol. Layrisson, who refers to the suspect as the “Slingshot Bandit,” recently said his office alone has two felony warrants signed and is waiting on DNA results in another 11 burglaries in which Ho is believed to be connected.

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Cate Square play area to get facelift

An updated playground for Cate Square is set to be installed by early summer.

Designs for the new play set were unveiled to the public during a town hall meeting attended by District 2 Councilwoman Carlee Gonzales and a dozen community members last week.

Now the project will move to the next stage in the process, requesting bids. Gonzales anticipates construction by the end of the school year or early summer with a completion date only a couple weeks later.

“It’s very exciting and much needed,” she said.

People at the meeting liked the design but suggested including more picnic tables or chairs in the playground area for parents to have a place to sit, congregate and feed their children. There was also a suggestion for adding some activity panels around the fencing or as a standalone structure for disabled park goers. The design already had a couple features with accessibility for disabled children.

Gonzales also talked with owners of neighboring properties who have been involved and passionate about what is happening in the park.

The updated play area will consist of a larger play set for children ages 5-12 and a smaller one for young children who are under 5.

The previous plan was to separate the two play sets into two play areas, one on the north side of the park and one on the south. The decision was made to consolidate everything into the existing play area footprint within the fence to make it less difficult for parents trying to keep track of their children, she said.

The current playset was installed in 2007 and has been on the city’s radar for an update for a while. Former District 2 Councilman Jason Hood worked on plans before Gonzales, who has since worked to complete them. The city’s grants department and mayor also played a part in working to make this project happen.

“It’s taken a good bit of time to apply for grant money and receive it, and we’ve budgeted over years to budget for redesign and update the playground at Cate Square park,” Gonzales said.

The city recently received a $15,000 grant from KABOOM! for this project, which has a match from the city of $24,000. The city has budgeted $129,000 for the project.

While the cost will probably go over that amount, the mayor plans to find the money in the city’s grant match fund to make sure the project is done right, she said.

“This is a highly visible, highly used park in the city,” Gonzales said. “People use it when downtown or at the farmers markets and just shopping locally.”

As a mom of a 6-year-old, Gonzales stressed the importance of giving children something to do while keeping them safe and entertained.

“It’s just a really enjoyable way to spend time downtown while we’re visiting coffee shops and restaurants and all the retail places downtown,” she said.

Colors will be kept in the same color family to mesh well with what’s currently there. The swing set and padded area around it, which were added in 2018, will remain, along with the park’s gazebo and brickwork, she said.

“We’re really trying to keep the aesthetic of the park pleasing,” she said.

The current play set will not be thrown away. It will either be repurposed and moved closer to the Michael J. Kenney Rec Center for the after-school program or donated it to another entity, she said.

“For now, this is going to be all the updates we see for a while at Cate Square park,” Gonzales said. “Bathrooms are something we will reassess and see if there is a better place to put it.”

US tops 500,000 virus deaths, matching the toll of 3 wars

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

The half-million milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months ... I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People “are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across a large swath of the nation, including in the Deep South.

As a result, the seven-day rolling average of administered first doses fell by 20 percent between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House said that about a third of the roughly 6 million vaccine doses delayed by bad weather were delivered over the weekend, with the rest expected to be delivered by mid-week, several days earlier than originally expected. White House coronavirus response coordinator Andy Slavitt on Monday attributed the improved timeline to an “all-out, round-the-clock” effort over the weekend that included employees at one vaccine distributor working night shifts to pack vaccines.

In Louisiana, state health officials said some doses from last week’s shipments were delivered over the weekend and were expected to continue arriving through Wednesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week’s supply arrived Monday. And in Nashville, Tennessee, health officials were able to vaccinate more than 2,300 senior citizens and teachers over the weekend after days of treacherous weather.

Mary Pettersch, an 80-year-old Overland Park, Kansas, retiree who is spending the winter with her 83-year-old husband in Palmhurst, Texas, anticipated that the second dose they were supposed to get on Tuesday will be delayed because of last week’s harsh weather.

She made multiple calls to health officials Monday, but they weren’t returned. Still, she wasn’t too worried.

“Oh, I would like to get it, but if I can’t get it here, I will get it back home,” she said, noting that she is returning to Kansas in April. “At 80 you don’t get frustrated anymore,” she said.

Some hospitals, clinics, community sites and pharmacies that are in Louisiana’s vaccination network will get double allocations of doses this week – just as Gov. John Bel Edwards starts offering shots to teachers, daycare workers, pregnant women and people age 55 to 64 with certain preexisting conditions.

New York City officials expected to catch up on vaccinations after being forced to delay scheduling tens of thousands of appointments last week, the mayor said Monday.

More than 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and about 1.6 million per day received either first or second dose over the past seven days, according to the CDC.

The nation’s supply could expand significantly if health regulators approve a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The company said it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses by the end of March if it gets the green light, and would have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June.

That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale, the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

J&J disclosed the figures in written testimony ahead of a congressional hearing on Tuesday looking at the country’s vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J’s vaccine would be limited.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot, and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week.

The J&J vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot. The vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses spaced several weeks apart.


Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City, Kansas. Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan. Associated Press writers Brian Hannon in Salt Lake City, Utah; John Antczak in Long Beach, California; Jonathan Mattise in Nashville, Tennessee; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Sophia Tareen in Chicago; Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Matthew Perrone and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

Library accepts Young Women of Excellence nominations

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Tangipahoa Parish Library is seeking nominations for the annual Young Woman of Excellence Award.

This award is given to a middle or high school student from Tangipahoa Parish who has demonstrated great character and participated in community service.

Nominations can be submitted on the nomination form at tangilibrary.org by March 12.

The winner and all nominees will be honored at a ceremony March 27 at 10 a.m. at the Amite Branch Library.

Patti Road

Both lanes of Patti Road near West University Avenue west of Hammond will be closed during day hours later this week as construction workers complete rerouting sewer lines.

Tangipahoa Parish Sewer District #1 Manager Jason Hood said the contractor will close the south end of Patti Road from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily from Wednesday through Friday. Both lanes will be closed near the junction with West University Avenue during those hours.

Hood said the contractor is rerouting existing sewer lines to the newly constructed lift station on Patti Road. While the closure will impact a very small part of the road, Hood said they do not intent to restrict residents in that area from being able to access their property.

All work is scheduled on a weather permitting basis, Hood said.

Cancer screening

Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center will provide free, convenient access to a host of cancer screenings during March in the Northshore area.

The Cancer Center will provide free skin and colorectal cancer screenings on March 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Subaru/Baldwin Motors, 1730 N. Highway 190, Covington.

On March 20, the Cancer Center will host its annual Geaux Yoga event in Hammond, which includes free breast and skin cancer screenings at 9 – 10 a.m. in Cate Square, 279 N. Oak Street, Hammond.

The Cancer Center will also provide free breast cancer screenings March 23 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and noon to 2 p.m. at 2nd & Charles, 401 N. US Hwy 190, Covington.

All screenings are available to those who have not been screened for cancer in the past 12 months. Appointments are required for all screenings. To make an appointment, please call (985) 276-6810.

During COVID-19, the Cancer Center has taken steps to ensure the safety of participants and staff, officials said.

Kirt Winget

Frigid temperatures last week were a reminder of things people take for granted, said Kirt Winget of Loranger.

“Like turning on a switch for lights ... thinking before we react, helping each other,” he said.

The cold also was a reminder to thank a lineman, he said.

“They not only leave their families,” he said. “They leave their state to help others.”