Cardell Hayes pumped bullet after bullet into Will Smith’s back, the attorney for Smith’s wife said Wednesday, then stood over the fallen Saints star’s dead body to let out a remorseless yell.
Attorney Peter Thomson said Hayes first shot Smith’s wife, Racquel, in both her legs, then turned his .45-caliber handgun on her 34-year-old husband, the one she considered her “Superman.”
Smith was protecting his wife during a confrontation in the Lower Garden District late Saturday night after a minor traffic crash, Thomson said, when he was slain by a “cold-blooded murderer.”
Thomson’s accusations came as one of the most contentious homicide investigations in New Orleans in years took another turn in the harsh glare of national TV news crews’ lights. After days in which Hayes’ attorney seemed to be building a public case for a claim of self-defense — and police acknowledged they had found a fully loaded gun in Smith’s SUV — the former Saint’s family lashed back.
One key claim of the Smith family lawyer, who works for a law firm that has a long relationship with Saints owner Tom Benson, was supported by a forensic examination.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, said an autopsy revealed that Smith was shot eight times, including seven times in the back.
Smith was shot once in the left upper back, once in the left midback, three times in the left lower back, once in the left upper back and once under his left armpit, Rouse said. Most of the slugs remained lodged in Smith’s body, but the one that entered through his upper left back exited through his right shoulder.
The barrage of bullets “perforated” Smith’s vital organs, Rouse said, including his lungs and heart.
Rouse said Smith’s death had been “preliminarily classified as a homicide.”
“As coroner, I must stress that this classification is a medical determination,” Rouse said. “Questions of guilt or innocence, justifiable versus non-justifiable are matters that are decided by the legal system.”
Hayes, 28, remained jailed Wednesday on a single count of second-degree murder. The District Attorney’s Office has not accepted charges against him, and with any trial likely months away, the question of his guilt or innocence continued to be contested in the court of public opinion.
Hayes’ lead attorney, John Fuller, announced that he was forgoing appointment as a temporary Criminal District Court judge to continue defending his client. Fuller cited “recent developments in my private law practice” as his reason in a letter to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Fuller also claimed to have a witness who saw Smith in possession of a handgun during the confrontation.
“Cardell Hayes was not the aggressor, and during the course of the preliminary hearing and the trial, that will become readily apparent,” Fuller said in response to Thomson’s comments. “This case is the absolute, ultimate example of a person being prejudged. Cardell Hayes was tried and convicted before I got out of church on Sunday.”
Thomson spoke to reporters Wednesday at University Medical Center to address what he called “some lies and factual distortions ... being levied and thrown out to the media by the killer’s defense lawyer.”
Thomson then laid out a detailed timeline he said he pieced together after speaking to Racquel Smith, 33, known to friends as “Rockie,” as well as other people with knowledge of what happened a little before midnight Saturday.
According to Thomson, the Smiths had eaten dinner at Sake Cafe on Magazine Street with friends, and Will Smith drove his wife and a couple with whom they were friends away from the restaurant. Thomson said Smith was not inebriated or otherwise affected “to the point where he could not drive.”
Rouse, the coroner, said toxicological analysis of Smith’s body for substances was pending and could take six to eight weeks.
Surveillance videos from businesses on Magazine Street suggest Smith’s Mercedes G63 lightly hit the back of Hayes’ Hummer H2 in the 2000 block of Magazine Street, less than a mile away from Sake. Though one video angle shows Hayes slowing down as he approaches traffic stopped at a red light, Thomson said neither Smith nor anyone else in his car understood why the Hummer had suddenly stopped in front of them.
They also didn’t believe Smith’s SUV had hit the Hummer, Thomson said.
“They don’t know what is going on, so out of concern for the safety of his wife, and ... seeing no damage whatsoever, they continued,” driving around the Hummer and continuing down Magazine, Thomson said.
Then, less than two blocks away, near the corner of Sophie Wright Place and Felicity Street, “this Hummer drove up at great speed behind them and ... intentionally rammed” the back of Smith’s Mercedes, Thomson said. The collision was strong enough that it shattered the Mercedes’ back window and caused the heads of everyone inside to whip around, he said.
Fuller said the second collision was not in retaliation for the first and that his client was simply trying to get Smith’s license plate number after calling 911. However, the force of the crash pushed the Mercedes into a Chevrolet Impala occupied by two more friends of Smith in its front.
After checking on everyone in his vehicle, Thomson said, Smith stepped out and approached Hayes as well as another man in the Hummer; that man, Kevin O’Neal, is described as Hayes’ best friend.
Smith hoped to find out why the Hummer had hit his Mercedes; he also was worried about his wife, Thomson said.
But some words were exchanged, Thomson said. He said the 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound Hayes was “enraged” and cursing at Smith, whose last listed playing weight was 6 feet 3 inches and 283 pounds.
Hayes “had his hands out, shaking them and making signals,” Thomson said.
Racquel Smith and one of their friends in the Mercedes then approached Smith and began pulling him away, Thomson said.
According to Thomson, Racquel Smith told Hayes she and her husband had children at home, and she believed she had the situation defused.
“She was holding her hands up, pleading with this man to back off,” Thomson said. “My understanding is Will and Racquel wanted to just call the police, not engage this guy in any kind of a fight or altercation, because he was obviously enraged or deranged.”
But Hayes followed the Smiths back to the Mercedes, whose front door was still open, Thomson said.
Having drawn a .45-caliber handgun, he said, Hayes fired one bullet into each of Racquel Smith’s legs, causing her to collapse. One shattered her right femur, just above the knee, Thomson said. The other bullet passed through her thigh.
Hayes then fired at Smith’s back, Thomson said.
Smith died from his wounds while partially inside the Mercedes, police said. Hayes then stood over Smith and shouted, showing “no remorse,” Thomson said.
“If that’s not cold-blooded murder, I don’t know what is,” he said.
Thomson insisted Hayes had no reason to feel threatened when he began shooting.
Thomson said Will Smith was licensed by the state to carry the 9 mm handgun found in his car; he said it remained in “a compartment” for the duration of the incident. He also said he was not aware of any threats Smith made to Hayes about getting a gun, despite the existence of a video online that could suggest otherwise.
In that video posted to Facebook, a man speaking at the crime scene shortly after the shooting claimed that he heard someone say, “I have a gun” before being shot himself. The Advocate has not been able to verify that the man saw the shooting.
Fuller said he had not spoken to the man seen in the video, but he said he had a witness of his own who saw Smith in possession of a gun. Fuller also noted that he had suggested another gun was on the scene two days before police announced Tuesday that one had been found in Smith’s Mercedes.
“How would my client know to tell me that if someone didn’t brandish a firearm?” Fuller asked.
Fuller also raised a new possibility of “untoward” behavior on the crime scene that prevented the police from finding the gun immediately — activity for which he said a former cop may be responsible.
“I find it odd that on yesterday, after I communicated with one of the detectives in the case and expressed reservations about possible untoward activity by a former NOPD officer, that all of a sudden now we have three guns,” Fuller said, referring as well to a gun found in Hayes’ vehicle.
New Orleans Police Department spokesman Tyler Gamble said officers confiscated the sole weapon that was outside of Hayes’ and Smith’s vehicles on Saturday night. He said the other weapons were not found until later because, out of an abundance of caution, investigators decided to obtain search warrants for the vehicles and tow the cars to a more secure place to execute those warrants.
Gamble said that decision was standard, adding, “We are investigating this case like we would any other homicide. And we are following it wherever the facts lead us.”
However, Fuller insisted the “untoward” activity of another person could “quite possibly” explain why only one handgun — the one police said Hayes used to kill Smith — was recovered that night.
Fuller continued, “I have been in contact with the witness that saw untoward activity on the part of parties that arrived on the scene after the shooting.”
This was not Hayes, according to Fuller, but another person who he said has agreed to give one more statement to him despite fearing for her life.
“The person who committed the untoward activity was identified. I showed the witness a photograph and she said, ‘Yes, that’s him,’ ” Fuller said.
Fuller would not say whether he was referring to Billy Ceravolo, a retired NOPD captain who had dined with Smith at Sake that night and who was at the scene after the shooting. Ceravolo was a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Hayes after police fatally shot his knife-wielding father in late 2005, though Fuller has said the two deaths are not related.
Ceravolo declined to comment on Fuller’s remarks Wednesday, referring questions to the NOPD.
Fuller’s assertions about his client’s innocence were backed up by a statement from an attorney for O’Neal, Hayes’ passenger and his teammate on the Crescent City Kings, a semi-professional football club.
“My client believes that Hayes saved his life,” attorney Tanzanika Ruffin said. “We believe in Cardell’s defense team, and when the dust settles, everything will come to light.”
Fuller said Hayes did not recognize Smith during their encounter. When he learned later it was Smith he had shot, Fuller said, he collapsed in a chair. “He adored Smith,” Fuller said. “He wanted to be like him.”
No one other than Smith or his wife — who was still hospitalized Wednesday — was shot.
Hayes had not been booked with Racquel Smith’s shooting as of Wednesday, but police have said they plan to do that.
Thomson said he expects Racquel Smith will recover from her physical injuries but that her emotional scars may never heal. He said she has shared her version of events with homicide detectives.
John Simerman contributed to this report.