Scourge of N.O. public boards sues over Kenner arrest and coffee scalding

Sandra Wheeler Hester, whose fiery tirades at — and occasional police escorts from — public meetings in New Orleans helped earn her the nickname “18 Wheeler,” has sued Café du Monde and the Kenner Police Department.

The suit stems from a March 2013 incident in which Hester claims employees at the Williams Boulevard coffee shop responded to her being scalded by a cup of coffee by calling the police, who then took her into custody without giving her proper medical attention.

Hester alleges two officers tightly handcuffed her burned wrist and, while escorting her out of the building, ignored her pleas that she couldn’t keep up with them due to a previous leg injury, causing her to fall. She also alleges she was threatened with a stun gun if she didn’t walk faster.

The suit, filed in state District Court in Gretna, seeks unspecified damages for medical expenses and pain and suffering from second-degree burns to her arm, false arrest, mental anguish and defamation of character. It also names H.N. Fernandez Inc., Essex Insurance Co., Kenner police Officer Keith Spears and an unknown female officer as defendants.

Hester said Thursday that she bought a plastic mug full of coffee, which spilled as she tried to set her tray on the table. Because the lid wasn’t fastened properly, she said, the coffee spilled on her hand, her arm and her dress.

Hester said that as she screamed in pain and employees came to deal with the spill, a man she said had his back turned when the coffee spilled accused her of faking the accident.

The man was white, and Hester is black, and she said the accusation was inherently racist.

Besides, Hester said, she could have bought a much cheaper cup of coffee had she intended only to scam the coffee shop.

“I could have done the same thing with a $2 cup of coffee,” she said, adding she also would not have worn her new dress, which she said she hasn’t washed since the incident.

Hester said the pain was excruciating. “I could feel the layers of my skin peeling and blistering,” she said.

Hester said she called 911 and the man went outside. When two Kenner police officers arrived with EMS, they spoke to him for several minutes before coming into the coffee shop, she said.

By the time they came inside, Hester — angry that they were outside talking to someone else while she sat inside in need of treatment — told the officers she didn’t want to talk to them.

She said she knew they would by now be predisposed to thinking she had done something wrong, and her refusal to talk to them quickly led to her arrest.

Hester said she was in jail for about three hours and did not receive medical treatment despite several requests. She then went to a hospital and was treated, she said.

Hester said the incident — from the man in the coffee shop’s assumption that a black woman who burned herself was just “some Negro trying to get over” to what she saw as a presumption of guilt — reflects the prevalence of racism in America.

“If there’s a white person involved and a black person involved, the black person is going to jail no matter what,” she said. “If I had been an old white lady, that old white lady never would have gone to jail, period.”

A Kenner Police Department spokesman said he would have to look into the details of the case before commenting.

Burt Benrud, vice president of Café du Monde, said he could not comment.

Hester’s account of the incident in a telephone interview Thursday featured some of the elements for which she has become known. She was at times combative, at times conciliatory, occasionally profane and always direct.

She made a name for herself early in the last decade with her freewheeling public-access television show “The Hester Report,” where she would highlight videos of her tirades against elected officials at public meetings.

The Orleans Parish School Board was a frequent target. According to reports at the time, Hester referred to board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz as “Jimmy Farenhonky,” and one show featured an illustration of board members as boils on her rear end.

She embraced her nickname, “18 Wheeler.”

After evacuating to Missouri during Hurricane Katrina, Hester told the paper she would not return to New Orleans, saying she was tired of being vilified, arrested and “called everything but a child of God.”

But Hester did move back, and soon she was back at the microphone at New Orleans City Council meetings.

In early 2012, the council passed two rules aimed at quelling Hester’s antics, one that banned “audible commentary” by anyone not recognized by the council chairman and another that barred moving about the chamber while videotaping the proceedings.

At an August 2012 meeting to discuss the city’s budget, Hester was escorted from the meeting by police and booked for disturbing the peace after cursing at audience members, some of whom were booing her.