Thursday, August 10, 2006


Boarded Up Storefront, New Orlean 7/2006
all reproduction rights reserved William Greiner

Times-Picayune Photojournalist Arrested After Chase
Police Say John McCusker Tried To Get Cops To Shoot Him

NEW ORLEANS, LA (August 9, 2006) – New Orleans police today say that Times-Picayune staff photojournalist John McCusker, depressed over learning that he didn’t have enough insurance money to rebuild his home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, was arrested Tuesday after a chase in which he tried to get police to shoot him to death.

The Times-Picayune on its Web site today quotes police commander James Arey, of the New Orleans police department’s SWAT and police negotiation team, as saying, "The individual is a really fine professional who was so depressed that he set out today to commit suicide by cop.”
McCusker will face criminal charges, police said, but is currently being held for psychiatric observation. WDSU-TV6 in New Orleans reports McCusker is facing charges of aggravated assault, hit-and-run, fleeing an officer, and other possible charges, but has not been charged with any of the more serious possible offenses that could have been filed for pinning the officer down with his car.

Arey also told the newspaper, “It was to the great credit of the police officers on this scene that they would not do what he wanted and kill him but instead apprehended him alive by Tasering him.”

“What happened to John is a microcosm of what’s happened to almost everyone in the city,” Times-Picayune director of photography Doug Parker told News Photographer magazine this morning. “Most people at the newspaper are having to deal with covering Katrina day-in and day-out, without a break, and many are having to deal with losing a home too. Some are now having to deal with their own self-doubts: is this going to happen to me too? Some live on the edge, others hold it more inside. It’s hard to say.”

McCusker returned to work on June 20 after taking a one-month leave of absence during which he spent the time away from the newspaper “sleeping off exhaustion and attending therapy sessions three times a week,” according to an article in the American Journalism Review by Mark Lisheron. McCusker’s family stayed in Alabama for four months while the photojournalist covered the aftermath of Katrina’s destruction of his hometown.

Parker says there's a way concerned friends and photojournalists who care about what's happened to McCusker can help. He told NPPA past president Alicia Wagner Calzada that "One way to help is through a fund called 'Friends of The Times-Picayune,' originally set up post-Katrina to help all employees here. To help John specifically, all people have to do is designation their donation to John. If they are donating by check, write John's name on the check's memo line and attach a Post-It note saying where the money should go. If donating online by Pay-Pal, there's a spot on the form where you can put comments. Put John's name in there. The 'Friends' fund promises that they will be careful to ensure that the money goes to John." The Fund Web site is at

Police said McCusker was seen driving erratically Tuesday evening and would not pull over for police; instead he drove away and was hitting parked cars. When he eventually stopped, the newspaper says, a police officer holding a gun knocked on the window of the driver's door and ordered McCusker out of the car. A second police officer was behind the car. McCusker rolled the window down and said several times, according to police, "Just kill me, get it over with, kill me.”

When the officer did not shoot, police say that McCusker put the car in reverse and pinned a police officer between the rear bumper of his car and the officer's cruiser. While pinned, the officer fired two shots at the tires of the car, but missed, and McCusker was able to drive away again. The officer suffered minor injuries.

With police following him, McCusker drove to St. Charles Avenue, knocking down signs as he drove. On Jefferson Ave. his car stopped on the median and police pulled him out of the car and handcuffed him while McCusker resisted. Police said they had to use a Taser on the photojournalist to subdue and cuff him, as he yelled obscenities at them and begged them to kill him.

Police officer Arey told the Times-Picayune that the incident is “one of many examples of the mental damage that Katrina has caused,” and that he “sees it all the time now.”
Parker said McCusker was on vacation this week and not working at the newspaper, “So it’s hard to say what may have happened yesterday, or this week, but he’s been dealing with the insurance all along, and where to rebuild, and whether there’s going to be enough insurance money to cover the home.” Parker said McCusker’s destroyed home was two blocks from the London Avenue canal breach. “It was one of the houses that was under water. They lost everything.”

Parker wrote to NPPA's past president, "Thanks to all of the photojournalism community for their thoughts and prayers. It is gratifying to know he has friends that extend beyond the newsroom."

McCusker, born and raised in New Orleans and in his mid-forties, has been at the paper twenty years or more and is an NPPA member. He’s married with three children in school.
“During the week of Katrina he covered ground zero, the floods, the misery of the people, all while dealing with the loss of his home,” Parker said. “He’s a music guy. An accomplished musician. He was writing a book on music, and he lost it all, his notes, the music, everything. They’ve been living in an apartment, and trying to figure out where to rebuild.” Many residents of New Orleans are still negotiating with insurance companies who claim that homes that were underwater were destroyed by flooding, not by Hurricane Katrina, and many didn’t have sufficient flood insurance.

(Editor's note: To donate to the Friends of The Times-Picayune Fund, click here).