Homicide detectives said Thursday that they have identified several suspects in a wide-ranging probe of the mysterious murders of Lakeitha and Kenneth Joseph, the Reserve couple bound at the feet and dumped into the Intracoastal Waterway in New Orleans East in February.
One man has been arrested on charges he drove the missing couple’s vehicle to Georgia and sought to wipe it free of fingerprints before abandoning it.
Investigators did not release the names of the other suspects, but they confirmed Frank Mike Jr., a convicted felon, was jailed Monday on a federal count of transporting a stolen vehicle across state lines.
Mike was caught on surveillance video outside Atlanta driving a Dodge Caravan that was apparently stolen from the Josephs around the time they were reported missing, but detectives said he is not considered a suspect in the murders at this point.
The arrest marked the first major public break in a complex, multijurisdictional investigation that has spanned more than two months and involved an extensive list of law enforcement agencies.
“We’ve come a long way since they were reported missing,” New Orleans police Detective Ryan Vaught said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve identified most of the persons involved in some form or fashion. It’s just wrapping up a few loose ends, if you will, to the investigation, before we move forward with any (additional) arrests.”
Police recovered the abandoned Caravan — borrowed by the Josephs from Kenneth Joseph’s sister shortly before their disappearance — after an automatic license plate reader flagged it at a motel in College Park, an Atlanta suburb. The inside of the van “contained biological/blood evidence which was collected and submitted for analysis,” according to an application for a search warrant filed in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
The Josephs were reported missing Feb. 19 after they failed to return the borrowed van. The motive for their killings remains unclear.
Investigators believe both victims’ bodies were weighted down in the water by 30-pound kettlebells, and the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office determined they drowned.
Vaught traveled to the Georgia motel and reviewed surveillance footage of the van entering the parking lot of the Travelodge hotel shortly after midnight on Feb. 21 — two days after the couple were reported missing. A man got out of the van and checked into the hotel using the Louisiana driver’s license of Frank Mike Jr.
Earlier this month, Mike contacted authorities and, in a videotaped interview, claimed he had first seen the Caravan in the driveway of a home he had been renovating on Beechwood Court in New Orleans, according to court documents.
Mike said he received a call from a friend, who told him that “we pulled off a little move” in the van, according to a criminal complaint filed at U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
“Mike believed that a ‘little move’ meant an armed robbery or simply a stolen car because he knew his friend to commit that type of criminal activity,” FBI Special Agent Timothy Denny wrote in the complaint.
Mike told detectives he asked his friend for permission to use the van to travel to Atlanta “to go shopping for clothes,” the complaint says. “While in Atlanta, he stated that he learned from news reports that the van was possibly related to a stolen van which involved two missing people,” the complaint says. “He then decided to get rid of the van in Atlanta.”
Mike admitted he drove the van to an apartment complex and wiped it down for fingerprints before abandoning it, the complaint states. He said he observed blood inside the van, which was later determined to match that of the Josephs.
Vaught said investigators are still looking at Mike’s “actual participation and level of involvement in this case.” Police are looking for several other suspects, as well as people believed to have information about the case, he said.
“There are some (individuals) out there who have information, and we would impress upon them to come forward to us and speak to us about the information they have,” Vaught said. “We know who most of them are, and if they choose to continue to avoid us or obstruct justice, then they will be dealt with accordingly.”
The Josephs’ disappearance prompted a massive search involving multiple agencies. The body of Lakeitha Joseph, 29, was found in the Intracoastal Waterway nearly three weeks after she was reported missing. The body of Kenneth Joseph, 34, was located in the same area almost two weeks later; he was identified by his dental records.
“It’s crossing parish lines. It’s crossing state lines,” Vaught said of the investigation. “We’ve had a lot of assistance from our federal partners and our state and local partners as well.”
The investigation previously led detectives to a Wal-Mart on West Esplanade Avenue in Kenner, where Vaught believes the kettlebells may have been bought. A search of store records revealed a $177 purchase made with an American Express card at 1 a.m. Feb. 19 for two 30-pound kettlebells, two fleece hooded sweatshirts, three pairs of “gripping gloves,” some fishing line, blue utility rope, two pairs of shoes and a bottle of degreaser, according to an earlier search warrant.
The purchase was captured on store surveillance video, but the man and woman seen making the transaction have not been named publicly. Vaught said investigators have identified the couple who bought those materials, but he declined to name them.
“We know who they are,” he said, “and we know where they are.”
Police asked anyone with information about the case to call (504) 658-5300.