The Psychic Solution
10 years ago, a local family used a psychic to apprehend a trio of killers.
By Dalt Wonk. Photos by Cheryl Gerber
NOVEMBER 24, 1997:
When Elise Daigle McGinley decided to have a "psychic reading," she didn't know that her brother, Andre, had disappeared two days earlier under suspicious circumstances.
A co-worker in the auto rental agency where Elise worked suggested the reading. She had never dabbled in the paranormal before. But, now, she was living in California -- home of the "New Age" -- where spiritualism in its many varieties was an accepted part of the landscape. So why not? It was just a lark.
The lark turned deadly earnest when Elise phoned her mother back home in Louisiana and learned of Andre's disappearance.
The other Daigle siblings and their spouses and close friends had gathered at the family home in River Ridge to search for Andre. Elise might have chosen, then and there, to fly home and join the search. Instead, she decided to ask the psychic for help.
Her decision was to have nearly miraculous results. Within hours of the psychic's reading -- and guided only by the psychic's message -- members of Elise's family would track down and capture her brother's killers.
That the Daigle family would look for paranormal help was a clear sign of their desperation. For they were not merely a "normal" family, they embodied an ideal of family closeness.
Stanley Daigle, the father, was a retail jewelry salesman. His children (the four brothers and three sisters) had grown up together in a modest three-bedroom house, all the boys in one bedroom and all the girls in another.
Andre, the missing brother, was the youngest boy. From an early age, he had shown athletic prowess. In high school, his team (the John Curtis Patriots) won the state football championship. By then, he had also taken up the guitar, which he would play for hours at a time.
Andre was outgoing. Energetic. Likeable.
"He was the kind of person who would help people," his brother Chris said. "To give you an idea: we were driving together, once. It was night. We saw someone walking on the side of the road who looked like they were in trouble. Messed up, like something had happened. Andre stopped. I wouldn't have. But Andre did.
"At his funeral, what struck me most was that so many, many people came up and said, 'He was my best friend.'"
At 27, Andre Daigle was a tall, handsome, well-built man, with dark hair, dark eyes and a mustache. In his photographs, he has a confident, open smile.
When his body was recovered from the Manchac swamp, the autopsy revealed 11 fractures of the skull caused by a claw hammer. His brains literally had been beaten out. He had also been strangled.
Some of the details of what happened on Tuesday, June 9, 1987 -- the day that Andre Daigle was murdered -- will remain a mystery forever. But the broad outlines of the story are clear.
Andre was working as a carpenter doing home renovations in partnership with a lifelong friend named Joe Lapinto. Although Andre usually lived at home with his parents, at the time he was house-sitting for his brother Chris, who was on vacation.
When the day's work was done, Andre probably stopped off at his brother's place to feed the cats and wash up. Then he got back into his black Ford pick-up and drove to Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant on Veterans Memorial Boulevard to meet another friend, Nick Shelley, for dinner.
Afterwards, the two old friends decided to shoot some pool. Driving down Vets, they spotted a bar with a pool table -- a nondescript brick joint in a strip mall called Mitchell's Lounge. Neither man had been inside before.
To keep the game interesting, they would play for beers. Loser pays.
It was only after he had won the first game, and stood watching Andre walk over to the bar to buy a round, that Nick noticed the woman. She was sitting at the bar, drinking. Smallish, round-faced, brunette, not unattractive. She introduced herself to Andre as he waited for the beers.
Each time Andre went to the bar, the woman, who said her name was "Thelma," engaged him in conversation.
When the men were about to leave, she stopped Andre and asked for a ride. She didn't have a car. She needed to get home to check on a friend of hers who was pregnant.
Typically, Andre agreed. He asked if Nick wanted to meet somewhere for another drink after Thelma had been dropped off. His friend declined.
Later, Nick would recall that Thelma had an unsettling way of avoiding his eyes, turning her face from him. At the time, he shrugged it off.
Thelma got into Andre's truck, and they drove to an apartment complex in Kenner. The apartment building was also nondescript -- like any of a hundred inexpensive two-story suburban apartment houses.
For some reason, Andre accompanied Thelma into her apartment. Was it for a friendly night cap, for something more overtly sexual, or perhaps in response to some further demand for help? No one knows. Thelma has never made a statement. All we know about the subsequent events are in the confessions of Charles Gervais and Michael Phillips, the convicted killers of Andre Daigle.
Charles Gervais was almost the same age as Andre Daigle, which makes the contrast between them all the more striking.
They seem like icons of the two extremes of development in American society. Andre was handsome, helpful, athletic, hard-working and the scion of a large, close-knit family; Gervais was short, thin, scruffy, alienated, a loner who was raised (according to his lawyer) by an abusive father and who had been in trouble since his early teens.
When fate brought the two young men together, Gervais had been out of prison just a few months, having done time for burglary. He was living with Michael Phillips and Thelma Horne in the Kenner apartment.
Piecing together the story of this trio is fraught with problems, for the details vary depending on the source.
Phillips, who was short and slight like Gervais but wore his lank blond hair down to his shoulders, had also been in trouble before. He was, in the words of his lawyer, "just a petty criminal -- a completely unremarkable person."
He and Thelma, his girlfriend, probably met Gervais in a Fat City bar. The three of them were, by some accounts, heavily into drugs -- though no drugs or paraphernalia were discovered -- and accounts differ as to whether their drug of choice was LSD or cocaine.
All accounts agree, however, that the couple fell under the influence of Gervais, who was several years their senior and who easily dominated them with his deranged mixture of cold-hearted remorselessness and bizarre delusions of grandeur.
As W.J. LeBlanc, prosecutor in the case, aptly put it, "Gervais was the brains -- to the extent it's possible to use such an expression with this group."
Gervais moved in with Phillips and Horne and drew them into his plans for future greatness. The three of them would acquire a vehicle, some seed money and an arsenal of weapons, then set out for Houston to take over a vast prostitution ring by wiping out the Mafia family that controlled it.
Before Gervais could trust Phillips on such an epic undertaking, however, Phillips would have to prove himself. He would have to show he was man enough to kill someone. It was decided, according to statements by both men, that Thelma would lure a victim back to the apartment.
Thelma had gone to two bars without netting a victim before they dropped her off at Mitchell's Lounge in the early evening of June 9, 1987.
Charles Gervais made this statement to Kenner Detective James Gallagher one week after the murder:
"After she brought him (Andre) into the apartment, Thelma told him that she had to go see about a friend who was pregnant. She left and went up to her bedroom. And he fell asleep on the couch.
"Me and Michael passed the hammer back and forth arguing over who was going to hit him first. After about four or five hours of that, Michael hit him four times and run to tell Thelma. Then he gave me the hammer and told me to hit him a few times, because he was moving around and moaning. I hit him two or three times. He was moaning real loud, so Michael hit him four more times with the hammer.
"We thought he was dead. We dragged him into the hall and he started moving again. And Michael got the hammer and hit him three more times.
"I told Michael the hammer wasn't working, so we got a coat hanger and tried to strangle him. Then we cut the wire off the vacuum cleaner and tried to strangle him with that, while jumping up and down on his back."
It was nearly dawn by the time they had finally succeeded in killing their victim. They turned down the air-conditioner as far as it would go so the body would not start to decompose.
The next day, they wrapped Andre's body in drapes and stuffed it inside the same homemade couch on which he had fallen asleep the night before. Then they nailed boards across the bottom to keep it secure.
That afternoon, the apartment manager made a surprise visit. Sitting on the sofa, Gervais explained that they were moving out and that the dark red puddles on the floor were spilled paint, which they would clean up.
They later loaded the sofa into Andre's truck and drove out to the Manchac swamp, where they dumped it.
They dropped Thelma off at her mother's house in Kenner, only a few miles from the apartment, and headed to eastern New Orleans, where they took a room in a cheap hotel to lay low while they amassed guns and money (by burglary and theft) for their big move.
When Andre did not show up for work the following day (Wednesday), his partner, Joe Lapinto, called Andre's parents to find out what was wrong. By that afternoon, in a state of growing alarm, Andre's parents called Chris, who was visiting yet another Daigle brother in Missouri.
Chris was especially close to Andre. They had shared the same bed when they were kids. And before Chris started working as an electronics technician for Cox Cable, he and Andre had gone into business together, installing ceramic bathtub enclosures.
By 11 a.m. Thursday -- with Andre's whereabouts still unknown -- Chris was on his way back with his wife, Virginia, and their three kids, so he could join the search.
When Chris arrived at 11 p.m. that Thursday night, he found a large group already gathered in the Daigle home. One sister and her husband and kids had driven in from Pensacola. Joe Lapinto was there, as was Nick Shelley. Fifteen or 20 people in all.
The group worked out a strategy. First, they printed up flyers with Andre's photo. Then they divided the city into sections where they would fan out, posting flyers in convenience stores and other public locations while searching street by street for the missing truck.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office had been notified, but proved uncooperative, says Chris.
"[Sheriff] Harry Lee -- with my mother sitting right there -- says how do we know Andre didn't run off with a hooker to Mississippi. They claim they put out what they call a B.O.L.O. -- a 'Be On the Look Out for.' But whenever we stopped a cop to ask about Andre, they had never heard of him or of the truck.
"We felt we had to do it on our own. We intensified our search. Nick was the last person to see Andre, so he and I went to Mitchell's Lounge to ask around. Maybe they knew a woman named Thelma. But the people there were incredibly hostile, like they would start trouble if we didn't leave.
"Then we sat a while in the parking lot to see who went in and out. I actually saw Michael Phillips walk across the highway. I remember because I said, 'Who's that unsavory-looking character?' But I turned away. If I had kept watching him, I might have seen him get into Andre's truck, but I turned away."
It was in the midst of this great family effort that Elise called from California with the news that she had an appointment to see a psychic.
The psychic reading was set for Saturday afternoon. Elise was told to bring a photo of her missing brother and a map of Louisiana. All she could find by way of a photo was a group shot from the 1960s of the Daigle brothers, all with long hair and bell-bottoms.
Rosemarie Kerr, the psychic, was, to Elise's surprise, a small, chubby woman, unexceptional in manner or dress, who looked like a run-of-the-mill housewife. (Kerr, in fact, habitually describes herself as "a little old Italian grandmother.")
Kerr had discovered her gift at the age of 4 in Brooklyn, where she grew up in an immigrant Neapolitan family that lived above their father's candy store. She had awakened one night screaming from a nightmare about a house in flames. A few weeks later, an uncle who lived across the street locked his wife and child in a bathroom and set their house on fire.
This incident, in Kerr's eyes, set a pattern for her life. She realized she could get information intuitively from the psychic realm and that her gift would be tied to families, particularly those with children in danger. She later discovered she had a special talent for finding missing persons.
"I don't want to be told anything about the person or the circumstances," she explains. "I don't even look at the picture. I close my eyes.
"First, I say a prayer. A protection prayer, calling God down, for this all comes through power of God. Then, I give things out, exactly as I receive them. Sometimes I don't even remember what I said. That's why I always tape my readings."
Kerr closed her eyes and began rubbing the picture.
Soon, she complained of a headache. A horrible headache. "My head is killing me," she cried.
Next she saw a black car or truck.
"But Andre drives a white car," explained Elise.
"Black!" Kerr insisted. "And there is a person with long blond hair near him, who has some sort of power over him."
Moving on to the map, Kerr -- again with her eyes closed -- ran her fingers over the state of Louisiana (which she had never visited). She said she saw water. A long, low bridge over water. And a long beach. And the number seven.
(Andre's body was found by Exit 7, just off the elevated highway on a little strip of sand in the Manchac swamp.)
And then her fingers started to tingle. She stopped, opened her eyes, and read the name of the town beneath her fingers: Slidell.
"Go there!" she said. "I'm getting a strong confirmation, lady. Go there, quickly!"
It was nearly midnight in Louisiana when Elise called with the psychic's message. The little band of friends and family had been out all day searching, and now they were ready to turn in. But an odd, overwhelming emotion swept the group.
"Everyone felt it," remembers Chris Daigle. "We all got goose-bumps, started crying. We knew somehow this was it. We ran out into the yard, and my sister said a prayer. Then we jumped into three cars and started out toward Slidell.
"I was driving. Joey, Nick and my wife, Virginia, were with me. We all kept talking to Andre, telling him we were coming -- because that's what the psychic said we should do.
"As we were going down the Interstate, just before the five-mile bridge to Slidell, Joey shouts, 'That's it! That's the truck.' Joey knew because he recognized the scratch mark on the side.
"I pull alongside and there is Andre's truck, with these two guys driving it. So I fall back and yell to my sister in the other car. 'You get off and call Mom. Tell her to call the police: city, state, everyone. Tell them we are going east on the I-10.'
"My sister exits, and we keep on behind the truck. But then I can tell they realized they are being followed. They start trying to fake us out -- making like they're going to exit and then, at the last minute, swerving back onto the I-10. But I stay with them.
"Then, they turn off onto Highway 11, outside of Pearl River. Now we are following them down a dark, deserted highway surrounded by nothing but trees. And I'm thinking my sister is going to tell the police we are on the Interstate. But I'm also thinking we can't lose them. They are the only link we have to Andre.
"So, we ride like this for a while. And then I see the road is coming to a dead end. And the truck pulls up at the dead end and turns around and the lights go off -- like they're waiting for us.
"About fifty yards from the dead end, there is a barroom. So I stop. And Nick runs in to call the police.
"Just then, the truck's lights come back on and it starts inching towards us, going real slow. I tell Virginia to lie down on the floor boards. And Joey, who has a .38 with him, and I open the car doors and crouch behind them, using them as shields.
"When the truck gets up alongside us and they see us crouching like that, I don't know what they thought, maybe that we're cops or something, but they take off, hauling ass.
"We take off after them and, by some miracle, there on this deserted road we had just driven down maybe five minutes before, there is now a police car parked.
"We start yelling, all of us at once, but the cop can't follow what we're trying to say. So Virginia shows him the flyer with Andre's picture and the cop gives chase. We followed behind, all of us going around 100 miles an hour."
When Pearl River Police Chief Bennie Raynor saw the two scruffy-looking white male prisoners, he thought he was dealing with nothing more than a stolen truck -- although the magnum pistol and 9 mm gun (along with a duffel bag full of ammunition) that were found in the truck's cab gave him pause for thought.
Michael Phillips was brought into the chief's office first. Phillips said he didn't know anything. Gervais had shown up with the truck at their hotel. That's all. He wouldn't answer any more questions. He wanted an attorney.
Next came Gervais. He wouldn't answer any questions without an attorney, period.
The chief was ready to give up but decided to try Phillips again. This time, Phillips said Gervais had picked him up at his sister's house. "Well, which is it?" asked the chief. He handed Phillips a pencil and paper and told him to write down one statement or the other for the record.
When Gervais saw Phillips writing down what he took to be a much more damning statement -- one that would perhaps throw all the blame on himself -- he jumped up and demanded to see the chief.
As soon as he entered the office for the second time, Gervais shouted -- to the chief's amazement -- "All right! We did it! We killed him!"
It took more than a year and a half before the events of that week finally came to a resolution.
Charles Gervais pleaded guilty 10 years ago this month to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without benefit of pardon, probation or parole. But he did manage to achieve, briefly, the notoriety he so coveted (like that of his acknowledged hero, Charles Manson) by announcing that Andre's murder had actually been committed as an initiation rite into a cult of Satan worshippers who operate in the New Orleans Warehouse District.
The fact that neither of his two confessions mentioned anything of the kind and that there was no indication of Satanism in the apartment did not dampen the appetite of the media for this self-aggrandizing braggadocio.
Gervais went so far as to sue Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee for infringing on his rights to religious freedom by not letting him practice Satanic rites while in jail. And he apparently even conned Geraldo Rivera into traveling all the way to Angola State Penitentiary to tape his version of the story for national TV.
Michael Phillips also pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Thelma Horne stood trial and was convicted of murder. They are both serving life sentences.
Today, a decade after the convictions, Kerr stays in touch with the Daigle family and with prosecutor LeBlanc, for whom she has done additional forensic readings.
Kerr credits the family's love and dedication as much as her own paranormal gifts with the solving of the murder, as though some concerted energy of Goodness had overtaken and vanquished a vicious but ultimately less potent force of Evil.
Throughout the exhausting series of trials, mistrials and motions that were required before the cases were closed, the courtroom was always packed with the friends and family of Andre Daigle.
At his funeral services in St. Matthew's Church, there were no empty seats and barely room to stand. And a huge, silent crowd followed the casket to Garden of Memories cemetery, where he was laid to rest.
His headstone reads, "Loved By So Many."
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