Sheriff Jessel Ourso named to Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame

Deidre Cruse, Government Reporter

The Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Foundation will induct the late Iberville Parish Sheriff Jessel M. Ourso Sr. into the prestigious Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame in ceremonies Friday, July 16, at Angola.

The foundation inducts “outstanding individuals who have contributed greatly to the justice system in Louisiana,” according to Sheryl M. Ranatza, president of the foundation's board of directors.

Ourso, a powerful and controversial figure in Iberville politics in the 1960s and '70s, is one of seven 2010 inductees, including the late C. Michael Phelps, longtime head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections.

“Despite swirling charges and accusations that continued throughout his reign as Iberville's most feared and revered political figure, Sheriff Ourso also is credited with making great improvements in the Iberville Sheriff's Department,” according to a biography of the late sheriff prepared by the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame when he was inducted there.

Sheriff Ourso is credited with establishing the Iberville Parish Junior Deputy Program, at the time one of the largest programs of its kind in the state, and established a work release program to provide work experience for inmates of good behavior with the goal of making them employable after their time in jail.

He organized the sheriff's flotilla to provide both law enforcement and rescue services in Iberville's hundreds of acres of swamplands and waterways, and pioneered the use of sophisticated equipment, such as a psychological stress evaluator.

Ourso was the first Iberville sheriff to use a helicopter in cases, and established the parish's first ambulance service and emergency unit. He built a firing range for deputies to use for shooting practice, and opened it to parish residents.

He established sheriff's sub-stations in the northern and eastern parts of the parish, with deputies on duty 24 hours a day, and constructed a new $2 million jail, completed in 1977.

Ourso was the youngest of 11 children born to Rudolph and Ida Ourso.

In high school he was an avid boxer, as were three buddies who later became political allies – Lt. Gov. Bobby Freeman, who started his political career as a state representative; boxing coach and laster School Superintendent Sam Distefano, and District Attorney Sam Cashio.

After graduating from Plaquemine High School Ourso enlisted in the U. S. Army and served from 1952-54, including 15 months in combat in the Korean Conflict. He highlighted the service later in his political campaigns, and took pride that all seven of the Ourso brothers served in the U. S. Military.

When he won his first election as sheriff in 1963, he became the youngest sheriff ever elected in the State of Louisiana.

“Ourso's penchant for getting into controversies came in his first term in office,” according to his biography. “A Legislative Auditor's report issued late in Ourso's first term stated that he failed to account for monies paid to him by construction and engineering firms for guard and security services he furnished.”

Then State Attorney General Jack P.F. Gremillion charged him with 96 allegations of wrongdoing. Gov. John F. McKeithen suspended him from office, and refused to sign Ourso's commission to take office as sheriff for his second term in 1968.

From 1968 to 1971, Ourso successfully fought federal extortion charges and 33 state criminal charges against him.

He won re-election as sheriff in 1971 using the slogan, “In your heart, you know he's right,” and served as a delegate to the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1973.

Ourso also was a sought-after public speaker, whose speeches the late POST/SOUTH Publisher Gary J. Hebert described as “unequaled in color, startling in analogies, disarmingly devious in approach, and at times, just downright funny to the point of tears.”

Sheriff Ourso shut out five challengers to win re-election in 1975, at age 43. He died in office three years later.

His funeral was likely the largest ever held in Iberville Parish. According to the Iberville South, an estimated 4,000 people visited the funeral home, 2,000 crowded into St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church for the funeral mass, hundreds more lined the route of the funeral procession, and 800 attended a graveside burial ritual for him at Grace Memorial Park.

He was survived by his wife, Eula May, and their six children, Jessel M. Ourso Jr., Iberville parish president since 1997; Blaine Ourso; Mrs. Vesta Falcon, and Jessica, Lisa Jo and Shannon Ourso.