Jefferson Parish deputies fatally shot a man who opened fire on them Monday afternoon after fleeing a traffic stop in Harvey, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office said. It was the fourth officer-involved shooting of the year involving Jefferson deputies.
Sheriff Newell Normand said witnesses interviewed by JPSO investigators reported that Desmond L. Willis, 25, of Marrero, fired at officers first as he ran south from the Holiday Inn Express off Manhattan Boulevard and behind a Waffle House before exchanging gunfire with about a half-dozen deputies in the parking lot of New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co., just north of Lapalco Boulevard.
Stunned relatives gathered at the scene for hours after the shooting, expressing disbelief that Willis — described by some of them as quiet and respectful — could have been involved.
Normand said the names of the officers involved won’t be released until as late as midweek as investigators piece together what amounted to four crime scenes. He said the chase stretched from the Pebble Walk subdivision, where Willis was pulled over at 1:49 p.m., to the restaurant parking lot where he died minutes later.
Normand said the officers had been debriefed and would meet with crisis intervention specialists, but that JPSO policy does not mandate automatic reassignment to desk duty after a shooting. He said there would have to be some preliminary finding of wrongdoing for any officer to be reassigned.
“Unless we find that there’s an issue, we have never — at least since 1980 — administratively reassigned,” Normand said.
2515 Manhattan Blvd. in Harvey, just north of Lapalco Boulevard.
Smh on Manhattan pic.twitter.com/0IHRXZM7Cr— KB (@Dejeankeran) April 6, 2015
“The independent witnesses that we have at this point in time have indicated that he fired at us first,” he said. “It was a very close encounter, and we are fortunate that no officers were hit.”
Normand said two deputies who pulled Willis over in Pebble Walk just east of Manhattan smelled marijuana through an open window as they approached the vehicle. He said they spoke to Willis through the window briefly before he sped off, leading the deputies on a chase through the subdivision before heading to Manhattan and turning south.
From there, Normand said, Willis turned down the street between the Holiday Inn Express and an office building, cutting through the parking lot behind the hotel and over the curb and down a strip of grass on the north side of the hotel.
Rounding the corner of the building, the car struck a wooden fence on the Manhattan side of the hotel, likely because of a flat tire caused by hitting the curb, Normand said.
Willis left the car and ran back out to the street serving the hotel while holding a 9mm pistol, Normand said. He said people in the office building told investigators Willis fired at officers coming down the hotel street from Manhattan. The officers returned fire, with bullets striking a light pole, several cars and the office building.
Normand said no blood was found between that point and the New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Co. lot, suggesting Willis was not hit in that exchange.
From there, Normand said, Willis ran south behind the Waffle House toward the Hamburger & Seafood Co., where witnesses in the restaurant said he turned and took a “tactical stance” and began firing at officers who had come into the parking lot through two Manhattan Boulevard entrances.
Normand said the autopsy report will have to determine how many times Willis was shot, but that he dropped the 9mm pistol and fell right in front of cars parked in front of the restaurant.
Normand said Willis had a Ruger .380 pistol in addition to the Glock 9mm, plus $900 in cash in small bills under $20. He said there was no indication Willis fired the .380.
Orleans Parish court records show Willis pleaded guilty in December 2013 to illegal carrying of a weapon and possession of marijuana.
Willis’ relatives gathered at the scene, however, described him as a quiet, respectful young man they couldn’t believe would be involved in such an incident.
He was "humble, quiet, from a good family,” said a great-aunt, Sandra Crump. “I think that’s why we’re all out here. It’s so baffling. Just the mere fact that this is Desmond, I’m just totally … this is just not his character.”
Willis’ death was at least the fourth time this year JPSO deputies have shot someone.
Last month, a deputy opened fire on a suspected heroin dealer, Jonathan Arnold, 22, striking him once in the arm after a brief car chase. JPSO detectives had attempted to approach Arnold’s vehicle but he allegedly threw it into reverse, crashed into a JPSO vehicle and accelerated toward a deputy. The incident shut down part of Causeway Boulevard for a couple of hours.
That shooting came just days after another deputy, Lt. Heather Sylve, fatally shot Richard White, a machete-wielding man who had attacked Transportation Security Administration agents at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Sylve fired three shots at White, who authorities said also used wasp spray in the attack, striking him in the chest, face and thigh.
In late February, two Jefferson Parish deputies executing a search warrant opened fire on Steven Ellis at his home on Pauger Street in New Orleans, striking him in the lower leg. Authorities said Ellis had fired first as the deputies, accompanied by New Orleans police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, attempted to enter the residence.