Lawsuit: Former New Orleans police officer sexually abused 14-year-old he drove to hospital for rape kit

NEW ORLEANS — The family of a teenage New Orleans girl has filed a federal lawsuit against a former New Orleans police officer accused of sexually abusing the girl, who he was assigned to drive to a hospital after a previous sexual assault.

Rodney Vicknair was arrested in September on charges of sexual battery, indecent behavior with a juvenile and malfeasance in office. The victim was 14 years old at the time of the alleged crimes and had already survived child sex abuse, according to her family’s lawyers.

“He preyed on a single mother and her young daughter, a rape survivor, by positioning himself as a role model and protective male figure in their lives,” attorney Hope Phelps told VICE News in a statement. “He then used that position to create distrust between them, isolating his target from her mother. He escalated from sexualizing the young girl to sexual assault and rape.”

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Vicknair, a 13-year veteran with the department, was placed on emergency suspension following his arrest. He was fired from the New Orleans Police Department in January, Fox 8 in New Orleans reported.

Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson told the news station last week that the agency has also contacted the FBI to investigate potential civil rights violations.

“As I stated from the moment this was brought to my attention, this type of behavior will not be tolerated,” Ferguson said. “These actions violate the basic trust citizens should never have to worry about with their police department.”

‘A singularly bad choice’

Vicknair was one of multiple officers who went to the victim’s home in response to a rape allegation in May 2020, over Memorial Day weekend. His assignment was to drive the girl, identified in federal court records by her initials, to Children’s Hospital so a sexual assault forensic exam, commonly known as a rape kit, could be completed.

“Officer Vicknair was a singularly bad choice for this task,” states the family’s lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 24. “He was not a member of NOPD’s Special Victims or Child Abuse units, and he had a long list of citizen complaints of unprofessional and illegal conduct.”

Some of those complaints were substantiated, the lawsuit states. According to a 2010 report, which was filed as an exhibit in the federal complaint, Vicknair was on his lunch break with other officers outside a grocery store on May 19, 2009, when they checked a woman’s license plate number for warrants.

Despite the fact the woman was not wanted for a crime, Vicknair used her personal information to call her by name to his vehicle, suggesting that she knew him. He also lied on his daily activity sheet about his location at the time of the incident and failed to note the interaction with the woman.

“The citizen felt the stop was unnecessary and file(d) a complaint with the Public Integrity Bureau,” the document states.

Vicknair was suspended for five days and a letter of reprimand was added to his personnel file.

Vicknair was also among a group of officers investigated after they were accused in 2016 of laughing and joking at the scene of a homeless man’s fatal heroin overdose. Department documentation shows that Vicknair threatened the dead man’s girlfriend, who was also homeless.

“I bet if I checked your name, you would have warrants,” Vicknair told the grieving woman.

The laughing and inappropriate statements were caught on officers’ body-worn cameras, according to the department.

The woman told her boyfriend’s mother what took place and the older woman filed a complaint. Vicknair received a letter of reprimand following that incident, but no further discipline.

A year after the reprimand, Vicknair was assigned to work as a field training officer, the lawsuit states.

‘Predatory actions’

His disciplinary issues also failed to stop police officials from assigning him to close contact with the 14-year-old girl last May when officers responded to her rape complaint.

“On the first night that Officer Vicknair met G.H., he began grooming her,” according to the lawsuit. “While in the waiting area of the emergency room of Children’s Hospital, Officer Vicknair showed G.H. pictures on his phone of a girl he claimed was his 16-year-old daughter.

“The photographs showed the girl posing in bikinis, lingerie, and holding cloth up over herself. Officer Vicknair explained that his daughter is a model and these were her modeling photos.”

Later that night, after the girl was home, he called and spoke to her, asking personal questions and giving her his personal information, the document states.

Over the next four months, the girl’s mother alleges, Vicknair visited their home, in uniform, under the pretense of mentoring the child. Instead, he repeatedly sexually assaulted her, groping and fondling her.

Twice — including one incident while the investigation into the alleged sexual abuse was underway — Vicknair is accused of sexually assaulting the girl with his hand as they sat in his patrol vehicle.

In Louisiana, the use of a person’s fingers in a sexual assault is considered sexual battery, not rape.

Beginning in June and ending with his September arrest, Vicknair spent a lot of time with G.H. He would “roughhouse” with her, including taking turns hitting one another with his police baton, the lawsuit alleges.

The roughhousing turned dark on one occasion when Vicknair “forcefully twisted G.H.’s arm until she was in pain, while telling her how easily he could break her arm,” her attorneys argue.

“Officer Vicknair frequently described how he could easily commit acts of physical violence, such as breaking peoples’ necks, and joked about how he could kill G.H.’s loved ones,” the lawsuit states.

The veteran officer would also park his patrol car along routes he knew the girl walked and, on one occasion, startled her by leaning out of the vehicle and shouting a compliment about her buttocks.

The girl said Vicknair told her he allowed his teenage daughter to engage in sex with older men and suggested G.H. was “unreasonable” in refusing to allow him to do the same with her.

“Officer Vicknair repeatedly described sexual acts he would like to engage in with G.H. and suggested the fact that she was a minor would not stop him,” according to court records.

He also exposed himself to the girl on multiple occasions over FaceTime, the girl told authorities.

At the time of his arrest, Vicknair had the victim’s underwear, which he had taken from her after the second sexual assault, the lawsuit states.

“G.H. and her mother, (name redacted to protect the victim), seek accountability for Officer Rodney Vicknair’s predatory actions, as well as for the complicit and negligent actions of the City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Police Department,” the lawsuit states.

The family’s attorneys argue that in sending Vicknair to take the girl to the hospital, the police department violated its own policy for responding to child abuse reports. In 2017, the agency established rules that any alleged child abuse or neglect victim must be handled by officers in the Child Abuse Unit.

“Per the NOPD manual, communication services must dispatch a trained detective, who specializes in cases of child abuse or sex crimes, to the scene,” the lawsuit states.

Patrol officers are also tasked with ensuring that a trained detective responds to the call.

Uniformed officers are supposed to limit their interaction with child victims, gathering only the bare minimum of information needed to “stabilize the situation and secure evidence,” according to the manual.

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The manual notes that child victims have a tendency to bond with the first officer they interact with following an assault. Vicknair, the girl’s attorneys allege, used that to his advantage.

The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants violated the girl’s federal rights to bodily integrity and her freedom from sexual abuse. It also makes state constitutional claims, as well as claims of battery, false imprisonment, infliction of emotional distress.

Phelps said Vicknair’s actions have had a lasting impact on their lives.

“What has happened to them is so traumatizing,” Phelps told Fox 8. “The cost of counseling and piecing your life back together after something like this. You know, your trust in police officers, and medical care providers, and anyone in a position of authority is broken. That’s very damaging, especially at this young age.”

She lauded her clients for stepping forward and reporting Vicknair’s alleged actions.

“It took great courage for our client and her young daughter to report this crime,” Phelps said in her statement to VICE News. “Investigation and trial are often retraumatizing experiences for rape survivors. In this case, our client and her daughter are shouldering a great burden to make sure Officer Vicknair and the system that made his actions possible are held to account.”

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