In the wake of the early morning pileup, New Orleans police confronted a mangled scene of wreckage and broken glass near the foot of the Interstate 10 high-rise bridge in Gentilly. A series of collisions, investigators determined, had occurred in domino-like succession after one motorist, descending the bridge, rear-ended a van that had slowed to avoid some debris.
For all the confusion, the authorities believed everyone involved had survived the Sept. 20 crash, even though they failed to account for one of the six drivers.
When it came to that loose end — an empty black Chevrolet Impala, spun around and resting perpendicular to traffic — police concluded the motorist had fled before their arrival, perhaps fearing the fallout of a DWI test or outstanding warrant.
Officers ran the vehicle’s license plate, registered to a Tracy Jefferson, 28, and made a note to alert their colleagues in the department’s hit-and-run division, according to a police report on the crash. Two days later, however, it became clear that police had overlooked two fatalities.
Shortly before the evening rush hour on Sept. 22, in a patch of high grass abutting the Old Gentilly Road on-ramp, a grass cutter happened upon Jefferson’s decomposing body, just yards away from the crash site. Lying nearby was the body of her son, Richard Gorden III, a 4-year-old known as Baby Richard who had a contagious smile.
Over the past two weeks, family members of the victims have expressed anguish and frustration at what they view as a deeply flawed investigation.
Police acknowledged last week that the young mother and her son somehow died in the crash, but they declined to offer specifics as they seek to pinpoint exactly when and how the victims were killed. It’s still unclear, for instance, whether they were thrown from the car and over the guard rail in the crash or whether Jefferson and her son got out of the car in an attempt to seek safety and were struck by another vehicle, tossing them over the rail.
Two official crash reports, released Friday in response to a public-records request, have raised troubling new questions about the handling of the accident investigation and what efforts authorities made to fill in the blanks before the discovery of the bodies. For example, it’s unclear how much weight police assigned to the protestations of Jefferson’s boyfriend, who claimed he had been traveling just ahead of Jefferson on the interstate and who, according to witnesses, returned to the crash site to search for her.
“One issue that everyone can agree on is there was not sufficient due diligence to locate the missing driver,” said J.P. Morrell, the state senator who is representing Gorden’s father as an attorney and who called the case “a mess.”
“If someone is abandoning a damaged vehicle, they don’t leave the keys in the ignition,” added Morrell, who has two brothers on the New Orleans police force. “The fact that there really wasn’t an effort to locate them, I think that’s what gives people a lot of concern.”
Tyler Gamble, a Police Department spokesman, noted that no one filed a missing person report for Jefferson or the boy. “At the time the officers responded to the crash, the NOPD had no reason to believe that those two individuals were on the scene,” Gamble said. “The NOPD wasn’t aware that anybody was looking for anybody at the time.”
That statement seems to contradict the department’s own crash report, which mentions “an unidentified black male who stated he was the boyfriend of the missing woman and he was trying to locate her.” The boyfriend, Kristian Donsereaux, alleged in a telephone interview last week that officers “didn’t investigate (Jefferson) at all or that car.”
“I don’t know how they ended up where they ended up at,” he added, referring to the bodies.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, said both victims appeared to have died from “multiple traumatic blunt-force injuries,” and he classified both deaths as accidental.
“The investigation is still ongoing,” Gamble said.
The crash happened shortly before 4 a.m. Sept. 20, a Saturday morning, in the westbound lanes of Interstate 10 near the Louisa Street exit.
The driver of a 1997 Chevrolet van, Bernard Meggs, 44, said he tried to avoid an object in the road that he said looked like a ladder.
“We slowed down, but the guy behind us didn’t slow down,” Meggs recalled. “He must have been going about 100 mph, and he ran into the back of me and my son.”
Meggs said he jumped out of his vehicle, cursing the driver behind him because of the cut his son had received to his forehead. As Meggs removed his son from the vehicle, he said, “cars started piling up and hitting, ‘bang, bang.’ ”
“It was like everything started going in slow motion,” Meggs said. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Meggs said he had walked down the bridge after the crash and was sitting on the guardrail of the left lane — on the phone with a 911 dispatcher and holding a wrapped shirt around his son — when he noticed “another wreck was getting ready to come.” Jefferson, having swerved to avoid the initial crash, veered into the right lane guard rail and caromed off it, and Meggs said her Impala appeared to be headed straight toward him and his son.
Meggs said he collected his son — screaming, “Move, Cornell!” — turned his back on the vehicle and headed farther down the bridge, walking between the guardrails of the east- and westbound lanes until reaching the ground.
Meggs disputed a critical passage of the NOPD crash report, which quotes him as telling investigators he had “observed a young black female exit the (Impala) from the driver’s side door and run across the interstate, eastbound.” In a telephone interview, Meggs insisted those statements had been falsely attributed to him and that he never saw Jefferson.
“I didn’t see her get out of the car at all,” said Meggs, who credited the police with doing “a pretty good job of blocking off” the crash lanes. “There was an 18-wheeler that came through there,” he added, “and I don’t know how he made it through there with all that. It looked like a mess.”
A missing witness
The crash report identifies Shirley Richardson as the driver of the vehicle that rear-ended Meggs. It describes Richardson’s vehicle as a “2009 Toyota Nissan” and does not include her age or a statement from her, apparently because she was en route to the hospital when officers arrived.
When police went to the hospital to interview Richardson and cite her for following too closely, the report says, she had refused treatment and already “signed herself out” of the facility.
It’s unclear from the report whether police ever tracked her down. “The officer ran (Richardson’s) name and address through the NOPD MOTION computer,” the report says, “and was met with negative results.”
A third driver, Marvin King, 50, of New Orleans, told police he was trying to avoid the collision ahead when his vehicle was struck on the side by a fourth motorist, James Williams, 61, of Picayune, Mississippi, according to the report.
Efforts to reach King, Williams and Richardson for comment were unsuccessful.
Shortly after the four-car collision, the driver of a Ford F-150, Michelle Lulei, struck Jefferson’s vehicle broadside in the middle lane, where it had come to rest after hitting the right guardrail. She told authorities — and confirmed in a phone interview — that no one appeared to be in the Impala. Lulei, of Tupelo, Mississippi, said she had been driving down the high-rise in the left lane and “saw the (first) four cars hitting each other.”
“I move to the middle lane because I want to miss it, and I did miss the four cars,” Lulei said. “I quickly saw a car parked horizontally in the middle lane, and I thought I could swerve and miss it, and I didn’t.
“The lights were not on,” she said, adding that she believed the parked car’s windows were either rolled down or broken out. Lulei said she assumed the driver might have been intoxicated and abandoned the car on the roadway.
An NOPD report lists the crash involving Lulei’s pickup and Jefferson’s Impala as occurring at 5 a.m., which Lulei said is off by at least an hour. She said she witnessed the initial collisions, which were reported to police at 3:56 a.m.
“That report is a lie,” she said, adding that police also misrecorded the state of her license plate and misidentified her as a resident of Baton Rouge.
In a further example of confusion in the reports, a sketch of the crash site labels a person — drawn next to Jefferson’s vehicle and shown moving across the interstate — as a “pediatrician,” an apparent reference to a pedestrian.
Meggs and Lulei both recalled seeing Donsereaux, Jefferson’s boyfriend, at the scene. Lulei said Donsereaux crossed the middle of the high rise to ask her whether she had seen a woman get out of Jefferson’s car. Like Meggs, she said she never laid eyes on Jefferson.
About an hour later, Lulei said, she saw the boyfriend again, sitting in front of her truck on the bridge. Lulei, who has seen subsequent news coverage of Jefferson’s death, said her vehicle was “positioned right next to where the bodies were (later) found.” That portion of the bridge, she said, was higher than ground level, but she said she believes in retrospect the bodies “were on the other side of the wall in the grass.”
“I don’t know if they were right there in that moment,” Lulei said. “In my mind, they were.”
Donsereaux “looked really distraught, and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ ” Lulei added. “He said ‘Yeah.’ He didn’t want to talk to me.”
Two days later, when the bodies were found in the nearby patch of grass, Donsereaux showed up at the police perimeter and again spoke with officers.
“Whatever (Donsereaux) told the police, he should have reported them missing,” the boy’s father, Richard Gorden Jr., said after an emotional memorial service Friday at Reaping the Harvest Church. “That’s why I find something fishy with the whole story.”
Jefferson’s father and stepmother said they didn’t even know about the crash until her body was found two days later.
Jefferson’s father, Otis White, said an investigator emailed him and said his daughter was “definitely hit by a car,” adding that it seemed from the message that the detective “couldn’t decide what car hit her.”
White also questioned Donsereaux’s reaction to the crash, implying he could have done more after the accident to hound the authorities.
“If I saw my wife get hit, I would stay there that night and look and look,” White said. “I would have called for some kind of help.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.