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Murder Alleged in Life Jacket Fight

July 25, 2000

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The story of a shrimp boat worker killing his captain in a fight for the sinking vessel’s only life jacket is gripping but implausible, says the suspect’s lawyer.

Alvin Latham, a landlubbing janitor hired for a weekend shrimp boat trip, was charged with second-degree murder for the death of the skipper, Raymond Leiker, who he allegedly killed in a fight over the one life jacket they had. He was ordered held Monday in lieu of $200,000 bond.

Latham’s lawyer, Peter Barbee, said his client would plead innocent.

``It’s all speculation at this point,″ he said. ``Why would you kill the captain in the middle of a storm when the boat is going down and he is the person you’re going to rely on to save you?″

Authorities said Latham confessed that he killed Leiker after initially saying the captain’s feet got tangled in netting.

Latham was arrested after Leiker’s body floated up with stab wounds, a broken right arm and bruises.

``I think things just went way out of hand with the weather so bad, the boat sinking. They were just fighting for their lives,″ said Capt. Curtis Bowers of the Plaquemine Parish Sheriff’s Office.

Some of what happened could be pieced together by Bowers and the two men’s employers.

Leiker, who had access to a 35-foot shrimper named Bandit, met Latham at a Laundromat July 15 and offered to pay him $100 a day as a deck hand.

Shrimp season was ending July 17 and he wanted to make the most of the last weekend.

Latham, who lived with his mother and worked as a janitor at Stumpf’s Supervalue Foods in Boothville, wasn’t the seafaring sort, according to the store’s owners, brothers Clifford and Wayne Stumpf. ``We were shocked that he even went out on a boat,″ Wayne Stumpf said.

When Leiker and Latham pulled away from Sharkco’s shrimp docks in Venice, headed out to Baptiste Collette channel, the Gulf of Mexico was calm.

Jason Chance, manager of the shrimpery, said there had been problems with the Bandit, an older boat. The fuel pump had gone out once. Nets broke. The engine ran hot. Engine belts needed changing.

When the weather turned bad Saturday, Leiker was radioed to get ashore. Gusts blew, up to 80 mph, the engine got swamped. Waves broke over and water poured in. The radio went dead.

Then the fight broke out between Latham and Leiker over the life jacket, police said. Leiker, 34, was a big man, a veteran of oil rigs _ standing about 6 feet, 200 to 220 pounds. Latham, 46, was slight, 5 feet, 8 inches.

Latham told investigators the two were inside the cabin when Leiker overpowered him and dashed outside with the jacket.

Waves were up to 10 feet, crashing over the deck, and the boat was breaking apart.

At that point, Latham told deputies, the captain was swept overboard and lost hold of the life preserver.

Latham said Leiker tried to clamber back on board out of the raging surf.

But Latham allegedly told authorities he thought the captain wanted to kill him, so he stabbed him five times with a knife and hit him with an iron pipe, and Leiker fell back into the sea.

On July 16, Latham, who had been clinging to a plank for 15 hours, was rescued by passing fishermen.

Leiker’s badly decomposed body turned up Friday.

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