A former New Orleans Police Department officer pleaded guilty Wednesday to obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office for lying to internal department investigators and tossing a box of bullets into a New Orleans East canal following the June 20 slaying of NOPD Officer Daryle Holloway.
Wardell Johnson faces as much as 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to a pair of obstruction counts and a malfeasance count.
Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman set a Jan. 22 sentencing date for Johnson, who recently resigned from the force.
A 12-year NOPD veteran, Johnson was assigned to the 5th District along with Holloway when the latter was killed after Johnson and other officers apparently botched a search of arrestee Travis Boys, leaving him armed with a .40-caliber handgun in the backseat of Holloway’s police SUV during a ride to jail.
The officers who had detained Boys, 33, failed to turn up the weapon that he is now accused of using to fatally shoot Holloway through an opening in the barrier between the SUV’s front and back seats.
Boys has been charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Johnson, 39, later admitted to investigators with the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau that he tossed the box of .40-caliber bullets out of his vehicle after failing to log them in as evidence.
He’d been caught on tape handling the box of bullets as police responded to a report that Boys had fired on his wife in the early morning of June 20.
Police said body-camera footage also showed Johnson deliberately tried to leave a .40-caliber bullet casing on the ground at the initial crime scene. Officers eventually recovered that casing, according to a police report, but the .40-caliber weapon used to fire it was not taken by the arresting officers.
Holloway, a 22-year NOPD veteran, was killed while driving Boys to Central Lockup. Police say Boys fired a single shot into Holloway’s torso, then leaped through a port into the front seat.
A recording from the wounded officer’s camera showed that even after being shot in the right side, Holloway fought Boys over control of the weapon as Boys yelled three times, “Let me go before you kill yourself!” Boys then fled the vehicle, prompting a 24-hour manhunt before he was caught.
“He pled guilty because he’s guilty,” Johnson’s defense attorney, Robert Jenkins, said Wednesday. “He’s just glad to have this behind him. Of course, he’s sorry for what’s taken place. It’s a hard situation. He’s accepted responsibility.”
Johnson had been placed on emergency suspension, but Jenkins said he resigned from the force “several weeks ago.” His resignation was effective Oct. 2. He remains free on $30,000 bond pending his sentencing.
Following Johnson’s arrest, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said he was “extremely disgusted and outraged” by what he described as, at best, sloppy police work.
David Belfield, Holloway’s uncle and a criminal defense attorney, said after Johnson’s arrest that the allegations against the officer confirmed suspicions Belfield had when he read the initial police report Johnson wrote about Boys’ arrest. Belfield questioned why police had seized only a .38-caliber revolver from the Boys household after recovering the spent .40-caliber casing.
Police brass do not believe that Johnson was trying to aid Boys, simply covering up bad police work. Personnel records show he had been suspended twice before for botching investigations into domestic violence incidents.
A Police Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the guilty plea.
Herman ordered a pre-sentencing report on Johnson, indicating that his plea deal came with no firm agreement with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office about a prison term.
In his notice of resignation, Johnson said he was leaving the force to “pursue another career.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.