A diminutive teacher’s aide whom police had accused of helping to orchestrate a double murder in New Orleans East is set to walk out of jail after a homicide detective admitted Wednesday there was no evidence she knew the killings would happen.
The surprise development, with supporters of Gilda Woodridge and relatives of the slain men packing the courtroom, led Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell to find no probable cause for the two counts she faced of being a principal to first-degree murder.
Cantrell also dealt prosecutors a setback in the case against the alleged shooter — Woodridge’s boyfriend, Ahmad Rainey — by finding probable cause for two counts of manslaughter, rather than the charge of murder the government was seeking.
Woodridge must now pay only a $1,000 bond, set in an unrelated criminal-damage case, for her freedom. Prosecutors can still bring charges against her, but Cantrell’s ruling signals they must amass much more evidence to win at trial.
Cantrell “did the absolute right thing,” defense attorney Robert Toale said. “She never should have been arrested in the first place. I think they arrested her just to use her as leverage against Mr. Rainey.”
Police claimed that Woodridge, 27, an employee of a New Orleans East charter school, assisted Rainey, 32, in a Dec. 28 double killing just outside their apartment.
Police said Woodridge went upstairs from her apartment to another unit in the Hidden Lakes complex to ask two men, Daniel Millon and Vernon Lewis, to move their motorcycles from in front of her door. After the men walked downstairs to do so, police said, Rainey killed them.
Homicide Detective Jana Thompson said in court Wednesday that Millon and Lewis had parked their motorcycles in front of Woodridge and Rainey’s apartment while visiting friends who lived on the floor above. She said two witnesses told her that after Millon and Lewis went downstairs, they got into an argument with Rainey, who then opened fire with a rifle. Both victims died on the scene.
The details of how Woodridge “assisted Rainey in orchestrating the murder,” as police alleged in a news release last month, had remained unclear even after her arrest. The information offered to support that claim in a warrant was that she had knocked on the neighbors’ door and later failed to call 911 after the shooting.
Thompson said under questioning that after Woodridge was arrested, she seemed guilt-ridden and told an officer taking her to jail, “We were wrong.” While her boyfriend was still at large, Thompson added, she called him from jail and said, “Baby, they know everything.”
Toale dismissed those statements as vague. During cross-examination, he was able to force the detective to admit that police have no evidence Woodridge participated in or planned the shootings.
“You don’t have any information that she had any specific intent to kill these two people?” Toale asked.
“I do not,” Thompson replied.
Thompson also acknowledged she had no evidence that Woodridge knew an argument would break out over moving the motorcycles.
Both Woodridge and Rainey left the scene after the shooting. Woodridge turned herself in on Dec. 30, but Rainey waited another day. During a jailhouse call, Thompson said, Rainey told his girlfriend he was making sure their four children would be taken care of before he surrendered himself.
Rainey faces a much steeper climb in court. Thompson said police recovered eight spent shell casings from the scene. She also said Millon and Lewis were accompanied by the upstairs neighbors — as well as 1-year-old and 9-year-old children — when the shooting broke out.
“Mr. Rainey is a serious threat to the community, to witnesses, to everyone, really,” Assistant District Attorney Abigail McDonald said. “He’s the person who started the verbal argument and who shot and killed two defenseless people.”
Rainey’s defense attorney, Brigid Collins, pointed to Lewis’ criminal history to suggest that Rainey thought he was in a dangerous situation when he began shooting.
Thompson said police did not recover any firearms from either Lewis’ or Millon’s bodies.
“Believing that somebody may or may not have, at some point in their life, had a weapon is not grounds for self-defense in a homicide. Even in New Orleans,” McDonald said.
Rainey’s attorney pointed to testimony that her client had picked up and then put down the rifle twice before firing it as evidence that he did not plan the killings.
“Mr. Rainey wasn’t looking to start a fight. Mr. Rainey wasn’t looking to shoot two men that evening,” Collins said.
Cantrell set bail for Rainey at $400,000.