THE INVESTIGATORS: WBR gun club embroiled in land battle

A longtime gun club that was located on public land in Port Allen is tied up in a lease war.

The property is owned by the West Baton Rouge Law Enforcement District. It was, until recently, being rented to Ron Duplessis of Great International Land Company. He and members of his Hunters Run Gun Club claim the West Baton Rouge Sheriff broke the law when he agreed to lease a big piece of public land to someone else.

A sign outside of the Hunters Run off of Hwy. 1 indicates the range is closed. Old targets hang in the distance. The ground is covered in spent shell casings and the clubhouse is empty. According to the club owner, Ron Duplessis, no one has shot a gun there in weeks. Retired airline pilot, Ivy Lieux, said he used to go five days a week.

"It's just a good place to go. If it's raining or cold, you can still go there and get a cup of coffee and a doughnut," Lieux said.

Duplessis, who leased the land under his company, Great International Land Company, said the club has 750 members. "We educate kids, we do the 4H, we give them guidance, how to properly use firearms, and we've done every competition you can imagine with a shotgun in the State of Louisiana," Duplessis said.

He owned the property back in 2004, but said he sold it to the West Baton Rouge Law Enforcement District in 2009 with plans to move his club somewhere else. He said when that didn't work out, he entered an 18-month lease agreement with Sheriff Mike Cazes. It has been on a month-to-month basis since then at $3,500 a month. Duplessis said in that time, he has made a number of improvements to the property.

"I added a pavilion, put in the sporting clays course, put in the rifle and pistol range. I put in a bar and a pro shop," Duplessis said.

He said it has grown into one of the largest gun clubs in the south, which is why when the sheriff informed him by letter on September 14 that he wanted to end the lease and open negotiations for a new contract with him and other interested parties, Duplessis was stunned.

"We thought we were in very good standing with the sheriff's department. Fourteen years. I think we've done all the right things," Duplessis said.

The public notice that the Sheriff's Office was accepting requests for proposals was advertised in the newspaper two weeks later. Eager to keep the lease, Duplessis submitted a 30-page proposal outlining the club's history, accomplishments, and what he intends to do with the property. It ends with an offer to pay $4,500 a month or five percent over the highest bidder.

According to court records, there was only one other proposal submitted. It came from Keith Morris, owner of Sugar West, a land company. The proposal indicates Morris intends to continue operating the property as a shooting facility similar to Hunters Run Gun Club. It also outlines plans to make improvements and purchase new equipment. Morris' offer was $42,000 per year, or $3,500 per month. That appears to be $12,000 less per year compared to Duplessis' offer.

On November 23, the sheriff ended the lease with Duplessis and signed a new agreement with Morris. Duplessis got a letter saying he had to vacate by the end of the year. He shared the news with his members.

"I was crushed, not only for myself, but for them," Duplessis said.

Duplessis filed a lawsuit to stop the sheriff and the Law Enforcement District from proceeding with its new lease agreement with Morris and to keep the district from terminating its existing lease with Great International. The lawsuit states that Louisiana public land law states "the lessor shall accept the highest bid submitted." The judge ruled on December 14 that the property must be advertised for bids.

Sheriff Cazes would not do an on-camera interview. His attorney, Chris Whittington, spoke for him.

Whittington argues the initial request was for proposals, not bids. According to the agreement obtained by 9News, the sheriff accepted Morris' proposal and entered into a lease with him on November 23. The sheriff's attorney said it was all a misunderstanding.

"It should have gone out for... He hadn't done his bid yet. He jumped the gun on that. Meantime, it's going out for bid properly now," Whittington said.

As for why the sheriff ended the lease with Great International, Whittington said Duplessis had become a poor tenant. He showed 9News pictures of what the sheriff said the range clubhouse looked like when Duplessis left. Whittington said the sheriff was simply looking for a tenant who would save the property.

"So he started the process. He might have made a misstep or two along the way as well, but all that's been corrected," Whittington said.

Duplessis denies he left the property in disrepair. Whittington said the property will be advertised next week. He added, ads for bids will include specific projects that must be completed in a certain time frame at the tenant's expense.

Morris declined to comment on the matter.

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