The bounty was $20,000, and former LSU wide receiver Nemessis “Nemo” Bates insisted he had the cash to pay it — even though he didn’t.
It all sounded good to Aaron “Beadie” Smith, he testified Monday in federal court.
“In the neighborhood I grew up in, people kill for free. It’s like, $20,000? That’s handsome,” Smith, 29, said on the witness stand. “It’s a good offer. Usually a hit is like ten. Five, even.”
Bates, who played for LSU in the late 1990s before transferring to Southern University, was sore that his friend, Christopher “Tiger” Smith, had stolen cash and expensive jewelry from his Kenner home several months earlier. He would gripe about it to anyone who would listen.
Bates reported the theft to police as well, but the investigation stalled. By the fall of 2010, the owner of Nemo’s Car Wash was ready to pay blood money, prosecutors say.
Aaron Smith was eager for the payday but also was strapped to an ankle monitor after his arrest on an attempted murder charge, he testified. So he dialed up an old Uptown friend: Walter “Urkel” Porter, who has since won infamy as the alleged hit-man for Central City crime chief Telly Hankton.
Together, he and Porter visited Bates at the Tulane Avenue car wash and sealed the deal, Aaron Smith testified. The next evening, on Nov. 21, 2010, Tiger Smith was gunned down in the doorway of his Gretna home, shot about 20 times by a 9mm semi-automatic handgun.
“Christopher Smith never saw his killer. He never saw Nemessis Bates, because Nemessis Bates had someone else do his dirty work for him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Liz Privitera told the jury in her opening statement Monday. “No doubt Porter and Aaron are bad people in this instance, but (Bates) killed his friend, Christopher Smith. This was nothing more than a business transaction.”
Bates, 36, faces charges of solicitation to commit murder, use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of a murder for hire, and two firearms counts related to the alleged hit.
Prosecutors portrayed him as a vengeful shot-caller whose downfall was failing to come up with the cash — leaving a trail of evidence for investigators after he turned over two cars to Porter and Aaron Smith as collateral.
His attorney, however, claimed Bates was a victim of extortion. He said Aaron Smith directed the murder to cozy up to Bates, then squeezed him for cash with Porter’s help.
Porter, who also goes by “Moonie,” faces the same counts as Bates, but he is slated to be tried separately down the road, having spent much of the last year in a federal medical facility to restore his mental competency.
Porter, 39, also is named in two other pending federal cases: a racketeering case involving several reputed members of the Hankton clan and a federal bank robbery case.
Aaron Smith, who is no relation to the murder victim, agreed in 2013 to plead guilty to a charge of causing death through the use of a firearm, in exchange for the government dropping the threat of the death penalty for the alleged hit job. Smith has yet to be sentenced, and he acknowledged that he’s hoping to whittle down a possible life prison term with his testimony.
So it was Bates alone on trial as his former co-defendant testified about a murder that authorities suggested led to yet another killing several months later.
The victim in that killing, Anthony Wilmore, died in Algiers in June 2011. He was the partner of Bates’ former lover and may have been a casualty of Bates revealing too much while trying to drum up cash from the ex-lover to pay for the hit.
Bates was scrambling for money, prosecutors said, ill-prepared for how swiftly Porter allegedly carried out the hit. He had only $2,000 on him immediately after the job, Smith testified.
So Porter and Smith took two of his cars as collateral, while Bates also got a Hertz rental car for Porter to drive.
Porter was stopped in that car by police in Florida, and he was stopped locally in a Mercedes-Benz that Bates had turned over as collateral for the remaining $18,000, prosecutors said.
Those traffic stops, along with myriad cellphone records tracking calls among Aaron Smith, Porter and Bates, form the bulwark of the government’s case.
Aaron Smith narrated the phone records from the witness stand while also describing Porter’s delight in the killing.
“I could tell that he was excited. He was happy. I knew that he actually killed the dude,” said Smith, who said he was home on house arrest at the time. “He said, ‘Call that boy (Bates) and tell him to have my money.’ ”
Bates’ defense attorney, Peter Strasser, argued that Aaron Smith and Porter perpetrated a hit job with no shot-caller, then tried to wrest money from Bates.
Strasser portrayed Aaron Smith, who has a lengthy criminal history, as an opportunist who wanted to befriend the dreadlocked, bejeweled Bates by killing Tiger Smith.
Strasser said a broken ankle had ended all hope for Bates to enter the NFL, but he rolled like a pro just the same.
He returned to New Orleans and worked as a club bouncer, then later opened the car wash while driving fancy cars. Some people mistook him for a New Orleans Saint, Strasser said.
“He never had any friends growing up. He had an inferiority complex. He pretended like he was in the pros, dressed like he played pro football, driving a Hummer, gold chains,” Strasser said. “That is what attracted people to Nemo.”
Strasser said Bates’ inability to pay up revealed his innocence.
“No one is going to hire a hit man without having any money,” the attorney said. “His bank account is at zero. He has fancy cars, but the cars are hot. He has no money to pay these hit men. Thus the fear.”
Strasser grilled Aaron Smith on the stand late Monday about false statements Smith made to authorities about the alleged hit. Smith denied knowing Bates before the murder plan but acknowledged having seen him around.
Strasser pressed Smith over the earlier attempted murder charge, which related to his firing into a crowd outside the Gator Bait Lounge in Gretna before fleeing police and jumping 30 feet from the bridge at Tchoupitoulas Street.
“Didn’t bother you one bit that you were shooting at random strangers into a crowd?” Strasser asked.
“I was on drugs,” Smith responded.
Smith acknowledged he was on drugs around the time of the alleged hit job as well. But he insisted there was no doubt that Bates called the hit on Tiger Smith and never backed away — even after Tiger Smith confronted Bates at the car wash, saying he was aware Bates had placed a bounty on his head.
“He never told me or Walter Porter not to kill Christopher Smith. That’s the reason he didn’t call the police or nothing like that after we killed him,” Aaron Smith said.
“If he would have called it off, we wouldn’t have did it. Because if he had called it off, that means he wasn’t going to pay us. It was about the money.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.