Members of the New Orelans Police Department help clear Bourbon Street as Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards orders bars, gyms and casinos to close until April 13th due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) on March 16, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Rodney Vicknair first met the underage girl he’d allegedly go on to groom and sexually assault when he was an officer with the New Orleans Police Department. He escorted her to a children’s hospital for a rape kit.
Vicknair waited with the 14-year-old rape survivor in the emergency room, allegedly showing her “modeling” pictures on his phone of a teenage girl who he claimed to be his daughter posing in bikinis and lingerie, according to a lawsuit filed this week by the girl’s mother.
The police department veteran—who had prior complaints against him, according to the lawsuit—wasn’t even part of a unit for special victims or victims of child abuse.
When the teen was released from the hospital, Vicknair allegedly spent the next four months gaining her trust, sexually harassing her, and eventually sexually abusing her. On two occasions, he raped the girl by inserting his fingers into her vagina while they were in his police vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
“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,” Hope Phelps, an attorney with Most & Associates, and one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement to VICE News. “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.”
The second alleged rape occurred after the police and an independent oversight agency had been alerted of his inappropriate conduct. Both times, he was allegedly armed with his service weapon, according to the lawsuit.
In Louisiana, what Vicknair is accused of—penetrating the girl with his fingers—doesn’t fall under the legal definition of rape, which the state has limited to non-consensual sexual intercourse, according to the lawsuit. But, attorneys wrote, “this archaic definition does not reflect rape as a crime against bodily integrity—it reflects a culture that blames survivors for the crimes that are committed against them and finds any excuse to be lenient with rapists.”
The lawsuit names Vicknair, New Orleans’ police superintendent, and the city itself as defendants.
The city of New Orleans, the police department, and Vicknair did not immediately respond to VICE News’ requests for comment. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Vicknair had an attorney representing him in the lawsuit; an attorney for his pending criminal case declined to comment.
When he was arrested in September of last year, Vicknair was allegedly still in possession of the girl’s underwear, according to the lawsuit. He was fired from the police department last month, and the agency has contacted the FBI about potential civil rights violations, according to FOX 8 in New Orleans.
The disturbing, 36-page lawsuit against Vicknair and the city of New Orleans, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on Wednesday. It also alleges violations of the girl’s civil rights. The complaint notes that sexual misconduct by police officers typically goes unreported, and often targets minor girls, citing a 2014 Bowling Green State University study.
The New Orleans Police Department has a policy that directs its child abuse unit to investigate all “sexually related incidents involving victims under the age of 17,” according to the lawsuit. Dispatchers are also supposed to send trained detectives specializing in child abuse or sex crimes. A department manual notes that victims of child abuse might bond with the first officer they interact with.
Vicknair was not a member of any special unit for victims, according to the lawsuit.What’s more, he’d been accused of inappropriate behavior before. Because of that, attorneys described him as “a singularly bad choice” for transporting the girl to her rape kit examination.
In 2009, a woman filed a complaint with the department’s public integrity bureau because he’d allegedly used her license plate number to obtain her personal information and called out her name once in a grocery store parking lot, according to the lawsuit. A department investigation found he’d acted “inappropriately,” and he was suspended for five days.
In 2016, Vicknair allegedly threatened a homeless woman while he was responding to her boyfriend’s fatal heroin overdose, saying, “I bet if I checked your name, you would have warrants.” Other officers on the scene were also accused of laughing and joking during the incident. The dead man’s mother filed a complaint, and Vicknair received “a letter of reprimand.”
After he met the 14-year-old rape victim in May of last year, he contacted the girl’s family almost every day from June until September, according to the lawsuit, and frequently invited himself over to their home after presenting himself as a “mentor.”
He would allegedly encourage the girl to “roughhouse” with him, at one point giving the teen his police baton, suggesting that she hit him with it. He then allegedly struck her on the arm with the baton.
At least once, he allegedly twisted her arm and told her he could easily break it. He also joked about how he could kill her loved ones, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that Vicknair would park his car along routes the girl would travel, and once leaned out of his vehicle to shout, “Nice ass!” He allegedly described sexual acts that he wanted to do with the girl, asked her to wear lacy thongs and loose-fitting clothing, groped her on multiple occasions, and told her that he allowed his 16-year-old daughter to have sex with older men. He allegedly exposed his penis to her at least twice over FaceTime. He also displayed sexually suggestive photos of her as his lock screen on his smartphone.
Once, after allegedly sexually assaulting the girl, he followed her into her home and asked her mother to take a photo of him and the teen together.
“It took great courage for our client and her young daughter to report this crime,” Phelps said in a statement. “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.”
Several police officers over the past few years have been publicly accused of sexually assaulting young women and girls. Two former detectives with the New York Police Department were accused of raping an 18-year-old woman in their custody in 2017. The ex-officers, who said the incident was consensual, later pleaded guilty to official misconduct and receiving a bribe. In 2019, a Portsmouth, Virginia, police officer allegedly raped a 17-year-old girl after he threatened her with a traffic citation. Last year, a police officer in Flint, Michigan, was arrested after he was accused of sexually abusing a young girl.