Michael Handley did a little bit of everything in Lafayette.
He helped launch companies that sold vitamins, energy supplements and calcium creams. Business records show some involvement in a Lafayette CrossFit gym.
A former alcoholic, he founded the Townsend Recovery treatment centers across the South. The facilities were successful, and in late 2015, were sold to a Tennessee company in a deal worth more than $21 million.
He and his wife, Schanda, ran the Handley Family Foundation. They hosted fundraisers at places such as Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, with money purportedly going toward groups that helped poor children, cancer patients and young professionals seeking to become involved in their communities.
On his Facebook page, Handley describes himself as an “eternally optimistic serial entrepreneur who believes that nothing is impossible with God.”
The page still features happy photos of the Handleys together over the past three years — traveling, celebrating Mardi Gras and participating in CrossFit competitions.
Things are very different now.
Michael Handley, 49, is in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center. He faces multiple charges, including violation of protective orders, conspiracy to commit second degree kidnapping and online impersonation.
In court documents, authorities allege that from the couple’s rural Mississippi camp, Handley masterminded an Aug. 6 kidnapping of his estranged wife from their Lafayette home.
The two men who allegedly helped Handley carry out the crime are dead.
Schanda Handley is safe. Her attorney has filed recent motions to award her the couple’s finances and assets. During an Aug. 17 court hearing, she sat surrounded by friends and supporters. She never looked toward her estranged husband, who sobbed occasionally in his orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.
The couple’s home in the 300 block of Founders Street is a modern, two-story, bungalow-style house in a newer and quiet neighborhood in south Lafayette, off Verot School Road. There’s a Lafayette Strong sign in the front yard. A porch extends across the front and one side of the house. Across the street is a small park and community pool for neighborhood residents.
Authorities say this idyllic subdivision was the site of the brazen kidnapping on a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon.
Two suspects — Sylvester Bracey and Montreal Haynes — allegedly forced their way into the home with a gun. Things turned more terrifying from there.
“The kidnappers handcuffed Mrs. Handley, placed a bag over her head and forcibly removed her from the home,” her attorney wrote in a recent motion. “While in route to their destination where Mr. Handley was waiting, the two men stripped, tortured and abused Mrs. Handley including but not limited to threatening to rape and/or kill her.”
It isn’t clear where Michael Handley was allegedly waiting, or why he would want his wife kidnapped. Court filings allege he hired and paid Bracey and Haynes, and bought items “necessary to kidnap, bind, torture and abuse Mrs. Handley.”
Residents in this tight-knit neighborhood declined to speak about the couple. They have prayed for them, though. The consensus is that things were fine between the Handleys until this spring. Court records support that, with alleged abusive incidents beginning in March.
On Aug. 6, Bracey and Haynes, both 27, allegedly put Schanda Handley into a van and headed east on Interstate 10, toward Baton Rouge. They were near Port Allen when things took an unexpected turn. There was a traffic jam on the interstate.
A piece of equipment had overturned, and crews were trying to get it upright, said West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Mike Cazes.
An off-duty Iberville Parish deputy was stuck in the delay when he saw a van driving on the shoulder of the interstate to escape the bottleneck.
Cazes said the deputy pursued the van until it reached Hwy. 415 in Port Allen. The suspects could have turned left, Cazes said, “where they could have gone in any number of directions.” Instead, they turned right, onto a road that leads only to a dead end at an industrial fabrication facility.
“They ended up trying to drive around a fence. It’s swampy back there,” Cazes said. “The van got stuck, so they ran into the woods nearby.”
Surveillance footage captured the suspects running behind the facility, the last known sighting of them alive.
From there, Bracey and Haynes apparently jumped into the Intracoastal Canal as they continued to try to escape. Cazes said search dogs picked up human scents near the water. Less than a day later, both bodies were found in the canal. Police also found a gun in a nearby pipe that they believe belonged to Bracey and Haynes.
While it is unusual for two suspects to drown while trying to escape, Cazes said the geography made it less of a surprise. “Where they went in, it draws a heavy current,” he said. “The canal is bigger than it looks. And they were fully clothed, wearing socks and shoes, which is going to pull you down. This isn’t a place where you go in and go swimming.”
Authorities had no idea Schanda Handley was in the van until they searched it and discovered her in the back. For Bracey and Haynes, their sudden deaths marked the end of lives filled with disturbing criminal histories.
In 2006, when they were just teens, police arrested them for a series of home invasions, robberies and attacks on elderly women in Jackson, Miss. They were charged as adults, but released within months.
In 2009, they pleaded guilty to charges of house burglary, auto theft and aggravated assault in connection with one of the attacks. Authorities said they threw a brick through a patio door of a woman’s home, chased her, tied her up, placed in her a tub and demanded the keys to her car.
It was not immediately clear how much jail time Bracey or Haynes served in Mississippi.
Their connection to Handley and Lafayette remain a mystery. Neither Bracey nor Haynes have any known ties to Lafayette. They have no criminal records in Lafayette Parish. Handley’s only known tie to Mississippi is the camp he and his wife own in Woodville, about two hours south of Jackson.
It isn’t clear how Michael Handley learned the kidnapping scheme had unraveled. But at some point, he apparently went on the run. Police found him Aug. 11 in a hotel in Slidell, just outside of New Orleans. Court filings allege he had tried to charter a plane to escape capture.
By Aug. 17, Handley was back in Lafayette. Sitting as in an inmate in a district courtroom, there’s little resemblance to the beaming, blond businessman of prior years. His hair is darker. His skin is redder, and he has new traces of facial hair.
As Judge Jules Edwards dealt with other cases, Handley sat up straight, constantly looking around the courtroom. He cried off and on, sometimes taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes.
An attorney for Handley did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Attempts to reach Handley’s family in Arkansas, as well as a close family friend, also were unsuccessful.
This situation is the latest in what has been a life and career of highs and lows for Handley. He found business success early in the technology industry. He was a millionaire by the time he was 30.
The success was too much for him to handle, though. He began drinking heavily, leading to a downward spiral where he lost most of his money and was barred from seeing his children.
“All of a sudden, I had more money than I ever thought I’d have,” Handley told The Daily Advertiser in 2008. “You give someone like me too much money and no accountability, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Handley eventually turned his life around and returned to the business world. After his dabbles in the health industry, he agreed to be the chief executive officer of Townsend, attracted by its “intensive outpatient” treatment.
Despite the outward business success, there was trouble for Handley, too.
Federal court records show authorities charged him in 2005 for submitting a fake $22,000 check to a charter airplane company. He was sentenced to one day in jail and three years of supervised probation, which he successfully completed in 2008.
Meanwhile, in 2004, a Shreveport building materials company sued Handley for allegedly failing to pay a nearly $3,000 bill. It appears from court records that the case may never have been completely resolved.
Josepha Morgan didn’t know any of this when she worked for Handley in the mid-2000s, just after he launched his vitamin companies. She was in her early 20s and new to the workforce, but there were things that made her raise her eyebrows.
“I would make documents, and he would take my name off and put his name on them,” Morgan recalled. “I thought maybe that’s just how things were done, but at the same time, it felt kind of sneaky to me.”
Morgan also was concerned when Handley discussed offering her a contract to be his “executive personal assistant.” But the job wouldn’t come with a significant raise, and Handley kept delaying a formal offer, saying there were financial matters that needed to be in order first.
“I was doing all this extra work and I wasn’t getting paid,” she said.
Morgan was working for Handley around the time he met Schanda. The office gossip held that the two ran off to Las Vegas and got married. But court records related to their 2017 divorce proceedings show they actually married in April 2006 in Hawaii.
“I remember her being well put-together all the time,” Morgan said. “She reminded me of a celebrity. She always had her shades and a giant handbag. She was very pretty.”
By most accounts, things were good between Michael and Schanda until this spring. Court records show that around March, things turned volatile, resulting in multiple restraining orders and serious allegations.
In April, Michael Handley initiated divorce proceedings in 15th Judicial District Court. In court documents, he alleged that in March and April, Schanda attacked or threatened him multiple times.
The accusations included Schanda threatening to hire a hit man to kill Michael and threatening to “bite off his genitals and swallow them in front of him.” He alleged that she punched him, kicked him, sprayed him with bug spray and a fire extinguisher. He accused her of threatening to kill him, herself and her teenage daughter. She allegedly would call him “incessantly” and sent “harassing and threatening text messages.”
In late March, she allegedly barricaded herself in a bedroom at their Mississippi camp, destroying furniture and shooting two bullet holes into a wall.
Schanda Handley was arrested and booked into the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center on July 12. She was charged with two domestic violence allegations from warrants in Mississippi. She soon bonded out, jail records show.
In court documents, Schanda Handley denied many of her husband’s allegations. She said she never had any intent to harm her husband or her child. She admitted, though, that she was “hostile” and depressed after learning of Michael’s alleged infidelity and “excessive prescription drug use.”
Schanda had allegations of her own. Records show she accused Michael of trying to access her email, installing a tracking device on her phone, allowing his “subservient mistress” to contact her, allowing others to send her threatening voice messages and installing spyware on her computer.
The court documents paint a picture of multiple restraining orders mixed with apparent attempts to reconcile. Despite the orders, records show the couple continued to live and travel together off and on during the spring and early summer. The divorce case remains pending in district court.
Schanda Handley’s attorney did not provide extensive comments before press time.
Edwards declined to immediately set bond for Handley after a hearing on a law designed to protect domestic violence victims. A hearing in the divorce case is set for Sept. 11.