More than twenty years after he began to question how his Irish forebears once owned a sizeable chunk of the Big Easy one minute and were on the street the next, Larrieu reckoned he has just about all the answers in place.
Then Katrina struck and the world was turned on its head.
Larrieu’s girlfriend, Janet, a doctor, last saw him on the Monday morning, just as Katrina charged in from the Gulf of Mexico.
She ended up in a Texas hospital tending to survivors, but had no clue as to Larrieu’s fate.
She frantically tried to contact him during the following days when the reports indicated the likelihood of a huge death toll, both in New Orleans and in outlying areas.
As it turned out, her beau was alive and, after a couple of scary days, on his way to friends in Arizona.
He had been plucked Wednesday from his home in the city’s Lakeview district, close to the breached 17th Street levee, by an airboat.
He had spent two days flashing SOS signals from the second floor of his home before being spotted by police and a search and rescue team from Missouri.
Larrieu was taken to a church and from there to a university campus gym.
Either way — and despite the rescue — the Big Easy’s biggest-ever land claim was now on hold.
Readers will recall that Larrieu has on the tip of his tongue a dark tale of the bayou that stretches back into the middle of the 19th century and the arrival in New Orleans of his great-grandmother, Mary Clarke.
Mary was from Galway, and like so many single Irish women of her time she took her chances with the stormy Atlantic and the new continent by striking out alone at some point in the 1860s. Her gamble paid off when she met and married a man named August Larrieu.
Mary and August had four children and the family made itself financially comfortable by means of a thriving dairy business. They purchased a considerable amount of land, a logical move given that cows were paying the bills.
What was fertile delta soil was, over time, covered by the asphalt and concrete of the expanding Crescent City.
According to Lloyd Patrick — or Patrick as he generally goes by in deference to the Irish side of his family tree — part of the old family estate also covers City Park, a 1,500-acre botanical oasis in the heart of the present-day downtown area.
Mary’s idyllic life was shattered in 1890 when her husband died. Certain matters surrounding August’s death remain a matter of some controversy as far as Patrick is concerned.
One is a document purporting to be August’s will. Patrick is certain that the document was a forgery, part of a plan by a nefarious cabal of New Orleans hustlers to relieve a now-rich Irish widow of her considerable inheritance.
Part of that inheritance was land that now makes up a considerable swathe of New Orleans, including the aforementioned City Park.
The park is administered by the City Park Improvement Association and run by a board of 34 commissioners. It was established in 1891, just months after the death of Larrieu’s great-grandfather.
Five years later, in 1896, the Louisiana legislature placed the park under the full control of the association and invested in it the authority to operate and develop the facility.
It was around this time, according to Larrieu, that Mary and her children found themselves fending off an organized effort by various individuals to carve up the family’s estate.
The forces arrayed against the family were overwhelming, the legal equivalent of a hurricane. The young woman who had set out from Ireland with hope in her heart, who had married well and prospered, was to die penniless in 1938.
The saga didn’t end with Mary’s death, however. Her children’s claims on the family estate were also dissected and destroyed in the following years, according to Larrieu.
For example, a judgment of possession which followed the death of Mary’s daughter Marie under mysterious circumstances in 1956 was, he says, deliberately held back from the family.
Larrieu managed to get his hands of the document some years ago when his quest for justice was in its early, and most quixotic stage. The murky circumstances surrounding Marie’s death, Larrieu says, center on incomplete burial records and two different descriptions of her in hospital records. The recorded date of her death was June 20, 1956.
Oddly enough, indeed very oddly, Mary’s son and Larrieu’s grandfather, also August Larrieu, passed away on that very same date.
Grandpa Larrieu suffered serious injuries after apparently falling down the steps in front of St. Jude’s Catholic Church in New Orleans. His grandson reckons he was pushed.
More than that, he believes that when his grandfather declined to die quickly enough from his injuries, he was slipped a little helper as he lay on his hospital bed. Larrieu reckons that an exhumation of the remains, and tests using present-day forensic techniques, could well reveal the presence of arsenic or a similarly lethal poison in August’s bones.
When “IF” first came across this bizarre tale some years ago, Patrick Larrieu was battling his way through the morass of Louisiana’s archives and property law without the aid of an attorney. He became a self-taught expert and began filing claims unaided in the courts
More recently, he secured legal help and has been joined in his quest by other family members.
“My 25-year investigation has yielded voluminous documentation from public records, forensic evidence and engineering land surveys that support these claims of fraud, probable murder and corruption,” he said recently.
All these allegations were being pointed at human hands.
But the hand of nature was about to intervene.
Safe and dry in the desert, Larrieu believes that Katrina had one benefit.
“New Orleans will come back. But it will be better because it will be without the graft and corruption,” he said.
Larrieu is still planning to complete his claim. He expects to file in a few weeks.
In the meantime, he is the would-be landlord of water world.