Grandma Charged With Looting Freed

Merlene Maten leaves Jefferson Correctional Center with her attorney Daniel Becnel on Friday, Sept. 16, 2005, in Gretna, La. Maten was jailed for two weeks after authorities accused her of looting at a deli. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)
A 73-year-old diabetic grandmother and church elder who ended up in prison for more than two weeks after authorities accused her of looting was released from jail Friday evening.

"I thank God this ordeal is over," she said after being released from the parish jail. "I did nothing wrong."

Police arrested Merlene Maten the day after the hurricane on charges she took $63.50 in goods from a looted deli. Though never before in trouble with the law, her bail was set at a stiff $50,000.

The town of 17,500 across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, has also been criticized for the actions of its police chief, Arthur Lawson Jr., who ordered officers to block a bridge leading into the community, shortly after Katrina's landfall. Gretna is almost two-thirds white. New Orleans is two-thirds black.

Family and eyewitnesses insist Maten only went to her car to get some sausage when officers cuffed her in frustration, unable to catch younger looters at a nearby store.

Despite intervention from the nation's largest senior lobby, volunteer lawyers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even a private attorney, the family fought a futile battle for 16 days to get her freed.

Then, hours after her plight was featured in an Associated Press story, a local judge on Thursday ordered Maten freed on her own recognizance, setting up a sweet reunion with her family.

"I'm just gonna hug her and say 'Mom, I'm so sorry this had to happen,"' Maten's tearful daughter, Elois Short, told AP shortly after getting the news.

Maten must still face the looting charge at a court hearing in October. But the family, armed with several witnesses, intends to prove she was wrongly arrested outside the hotel.

"There were people looting, but she wasn't one of them. Instead of chasing after people who were running, they (police) grabbed the old lady who was walking," said Short, who works in traffic enforcement for neighboring New Orleans police.

Defense attorney Daniel Becnel, family members and witnesses said police snared Maten in the parking lot of a hotel after floodwaters swamped her New Orleans home. She had paid for her room with a credit card and followed authorities' instructions to pack extra food, they said.