Robert “Big Red” Benvenuti, stir-crazy as he recovered Monday from a week-old gunshot wound, ventured online in search of contact.
He had caught a slug in his backside last Sunday morning, one of 10 people sprayed with gunfire on Bourbon Street, according to his Facebook posts.
“I need to gtf out dis house,” the 22-year-old typed.
Christopher Kelley, a friend and fellow shooting victim, responded quickly.
“That sucks bored out hea too,” he chimed in on Benvenuti’s post. “Get a ride over here, LOL.”
Whether they actually met up is unclear. But the casual interaction over social media, combined with court records and police statements, suggests that at the center of the violent shootout last Sunday on the city’s most famous streetscape was a group of hard-partying young West Bank friends, some of whom have already accumulated rap sheets.
Among them are at least two victims, a man who turned himself in for questioning Thursday after police labeled him a “person of interest” and also one suspected shooter, 20-year-old Trung T. Le.
Whether they were the targets or the aggressors, or perhaps both in the moments leading up to the shooting spree, remained uncertain Monday. A New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman declined to offer any new details on the case.
What’s clear from Facebook is that Benvenuti and Justin Odom, the person of interest, were friends, and that Benvenuti and Kelley also often partied together.
Benvenuti’s Facebook cover photo pictures himself and Odom, the first face that police broadcast in the days after the shooting and who was likened by one witness to a man seen running from police moments after the gunfire ceased.
Homicide detectives questioned Odom on Wednesday. The following morning, based on an identification from a “known witness,” they secured an arrest warrant for Le, who also goes by “Joe.”
Odom was booked on unrelated traffic and theft warrants and released.
Benvenuti and Odom, both Marrero residents, are pictured frequently together online, drinking, smoking out of a bong and even hanging out months earlier on the same block of Bourbon Street where the shooting occurred.
Benvenuti and Odom were arrested together in 2010 for an alleged theft in Jefferson Parish. Court documents show they allegedly stole goods from West Jefferson Medical Center.
Benvenuti was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated burglary in November 2012. He was previously arrested for disturbing the peace and simple battery.
The two men appeared to have a running mate in Le, who is from Belle Chasse. In an image posted in May 2013, Le extends both of his middle fingers while sandwiched between Benvenuti and Odom. In the background is Johnny White’s Bar and Grill, located in the same block where two gunmen opened fire at about 2:45 a.m. June 29.
While Le doesn’t appear to have an active Facebook account, both Odom and Benvenuti are Facebook friends with a man who claims to be Le’s brother. The man implored friends to stop posting the picture of his brother on Bourbon Street. Benvenuti “liked” that post.
New Orleans police have declined to confirm that Le is the man in the photo. Nor have they described a possible motive, though NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas suggested that two individuals shot into the Bourbon Street crowd over “something stupid.”
Le was arrested outside Gulfport, Mississippi, on Friday for one count of murder and nine counts of attempted murder. He is still in jail there and refused extradition on Monday.
A warrant signed by Orleans Parish Magistrate Commissioner Juana Lombard on Friday morning said a “known witness” to the shooting provided the crucial interview with police that led to Le’s arrest.
It does not make clear whether the individual who identified Le was present at the time of the shooting, but it says the witness reviewed video surveillance in the presence of New Orleans Police Department detectives, then picked Le out of a lineup.
Le, Odom, Kelley and Benvenuti all have criminal records in Jefferson Parish.
Le has previous arrests on marijuana and theft charges. Plaquemines Parish sheriff’s deputies have visited his residence in Belle Chasse 13 times since 2009, according to spokesman Cmdr. Eric Becnel. He said they were dispatched in 2012 after a 911 call of a gunshot and a scream.
Just 48 hours after Odom was released from jail in Jefferson Parish for overcrowding, he was arrested again, this time for suspicion of disturbing the peace by intoxication.
Jefferson Parish sheriff’s spokesman Glen Boyd said deputies responded to reports of several armed men in the parking lot of Paradise Sports Bar. They found no guns, but Odom was “belligerent, unruly and drunk,” Boyd said.
Kelley, 22, also has previous arrests for possession of marijuana and disturbing the peace.
Neither Kelley, Odom nor Benvenuti responded to messages seeking comment. Court records list a number of different addresses for the men, some of which appear to be abandoned homes where people have been squatting.
Court records list Benvenuti’s address at a house in the 2700 block of Corinne Drive in Marrero. The property is abandoned and plastered with notifications from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deeming it dangerous and on the verge of being seized for unpaid property taxes. The carport roof is falling off, its underside strewn with graffiti.
The blight seemed out of place in the suburban neighborhood. A couple who lives nearby and asked not to named described the home as a chaotic crash pad for a number of young men who would use and sell drugs.
“It was like a pharmacy there, with people constantly coming in and out,” the husband said, adding that the house had been raided by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on three separate occasions. The wife pulled out a stack of paper with license plates of cars that would often pull up. She said she recognized a picture of Benvenuti, though she couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone who resembled Le.
Duke, a man who lived across the street from the home, said he’d heard gunshots coming from the residence before.
“Every night there was a new cast of characters there,” he said.
Inside the house, mounds of old tires, scrap metal and discarded furniture were stacked. Bare mattresses were laid across the floor next to empty beer cans. Expletives were scrawled across the walls.
The couple said activity at the house had slowed down significantly since Hurricane Isaac, but that they had noticed a blue hatchback in the driveway about 6:45 p.m. Saturday, eight hours before the shooting. They said they assumed it was related to drug activity.
Reached by phone Monday, Odom’s mother refused comment. Her son’s last known address in the 500 block of Laroussini Street in Westwego also appeared to be boarded up and abandoned.
Nick Elstrott, who works at Ultimate Swamp Adventures across the street, said he used to see Odom out on the porch with his dog, but he disappeared about a month ago. Elstrott said he believed it was likely Odom wasn’t legally renting the property.
He said he found it disquieting that someone he often encountered may have been connected to the shooting.
“I was pretty freaked out when I saw his face on the news,” he said.