A day after the killing, a state of disbelief seemed to surround the fatal shooting Wednesday of Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Deputy David F. Michel Jr., as the law enforcement community grasped for answers and confounding new details emerged about the alleged gunman.
Michel’s death drew an outpouring of grief that officials described as overwhelming, including a makeshift memorial that drew streams of visitors to the scene of the shooting in Harvey. But it also raised agonizing questions about a slaying Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand condemned as a “cold-blooded murder.”
“I wish I had the answer,” the sheriff told reporters late Wednesday night, having returned from an out-of-town conference the day of the shooting. “I don’t, and after 39 years in law enforcement, I’m as baffled today, I guess, as I’ve ever been.”
The family of the alleged gunman, Jerman Neveaux, described a similar shock Thursday, pointing in part to the 19-year-old’s scant criminal history. Neveaux’s grandmother in New Orleans said she was so surprised by the shooting that she believed her grandson must have been under the influence of drugs.
“People aren’t going to believe what we say, but that was out of his character. I don’t know what he was thinking about,” said the grandmother, who helped raise Neveaux and spoke about his childhood on condition of anonymity. “But you can’t sugarcoat it. He made a decision he’s got to live with the rest of his life.”
The shooting devastated Michel’s family, even as the deputy’s closest relatives expressed gratitude — and humility — over the signs of sympathy. On Thursday, they gathered with Normand at the memorial, which quickly collected an array of flowers, balloons and a sign that read “Jesus Saves.”
“It’s wonderful that everybody has come together to honor my son,” David Michel Sr. said. “I am just speechless.”
The elder Michel fought back tears as he recalled the daily phone calls he received from his 50-year-old son, who checked in regularly just to let his father know he had finished a shift or was about to begin one. “I just feel like I’ve lost a life — I’m empty inside right now,” the father told reporters. “When I got the word, it floored me. I’m going to miss him bad.”
After being taken into custody, Neveaux admitted to the killing and said he pulled the trigger because he was on probation and did not want to return to jail, Normand said. The young man had only three rounds in his .38-caliber revolver and fired all of them into Michel’s back at “point-blank” range, the sheriff said.
“David, I wish I had a thousand of him,” Normand told reporters at a news conference late Wednesday night, choking up as he recalled Michel’s dedication to the badge. “He was a great officer.”
Normand said he knew Michel loved his job in part because he “used to do this for free” when he served in the Sheriff’s Office’s Reserve Division.
“Whether we recognize it or not in this country, we are in a crisis,” Normand said. “All too often, the people that serve in the law enforcement community, that are here to protect all of us, far too often (they) face the end of their watch so unnecessarily.”
The shooting happened shortly before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday outside the Dunkin’ Donuts shop at Manhattan Boulevard and Ascot Road in Harvey. Michel, a member of the Sheriff’s Office’s Street Crimes Unit, had been patrolling the Pebble Walk neighborhood when he noticed that Neveaux, who was on foot, appeared to be following somebody, the sheriff said.
“That individual being followed by (Neveaux) was on the phone with his girlfriend articulating that he was very concerned about being followed,” Normand said.
Michel, who was in street clothes and not wearing a protective vest, confronted Neveaux and, at some point, grabbed him and placed him against his unmarked vehicle “in an attempt to try to search him,” the sheriff said.
Within seconds, Neveaux “flipped around” and went “chest to chest” with Michel, then pulled the five-shot revolver from his waistband, reached over Michel’s shoulder and fired a shot into the deputy’s back, Normand said. The deputy fell to the ground, the sheriff said, and Neveaux fired his remaining two rounds into the deputy’s back before fleeing.
Michel managed to call for backup, prompting a manhunt that involved dozens of law enforcement officers and a helicopter. He died later at University Medical Center in New Orleans.
Following a series of tips from residents, investigators captured Neveaux in the 1500 block of London Cross Road, less than a mile from the scene of the shooting. He had been “crossing into a number of backyards” in the area, the sheriff said.
Deputies have not recovered surveillance footage of the shooting, Normand said. But Neveaux quickly confessed to the shooting, according to Normand. “He knew he was on probation,” the sheriff said, “and he didn’t want to go to jail for possession of a weapon, so he killed a deputy.”
Normand said detectives interviewed five independent witnesses who identified Neveaux as the gunman. The authorities also linked the bullets that killed Michel to Neveaux’s firearm, which was recovered.
The sheriff said investigators are looking into a cellphone video, obtained by WVUE-TV, that showed Neveaux being struck by officers trying to take him into custody. He was taken to University Medical Center following his arrest, where he was treated for injuries that included an orbital fracture.
“We will look into that happenstance,” Normand said, adding that Neveaux had been armed at the time and “recalcitrant” toward deputies’ commands.
Neveaux was booked into the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center on counts of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, battery of a police officer and resisting a police officer. He was being held without bail Thursday.
Authorities said one of the most surprising aspects of the case is Neveaux’s lack of an extensive criminal history. The grandmother said her grandson had been “green to the streets” and had “far too much free time.”
She scoffed at the allegation, made by authorities, that her grandson had used an alias at some point, saying he did not have “a lick of sense.” She said Neveaux had been diagnosed with lead poisoning as a young boy and had a host of developmental disabilities that gave him “the mind of a child.”
The grandmother said she recently asked Neveaux to move out of her New Orleans home after he lied to her about having a job at McDonald’s that in fact he no longer had.
“It was like he went from playing marbles and skateboarding to going to jail,” she said.
Neveaux’s sole known previous run-in with the law was on Feb. 9, in the 500 block of Adele Street, when New Orleans officers patrolling the area approached Neveaux and another unidentified person seated in the back of a blue Acura with the back passenger window “busted,” according to a police report.
The officers said they smelled marijuana and, after searching the vehicle, found two .40-caliber Glock pistols, one of which had been reported stolen from a New Orleans East resident’s car five months earlier.
Neveaux was booked on first-offense possession of a stolen firearm, a felony that can bring between 12 months and five years in prison. But he ended up pleading guilty last week to possession of stolen things, a misdemeanor, and Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman ordered him to complete six months of inactive probation. A charge of contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile, stemming from Neveaux’s February arrest, remains pending in New Orleans.
If Neveaux had been found guilty of violating his probation following his encounter with Michel, he would have been required to serve a six-month jail sentence. If he is convicted of killing Michel, he could face the death penalty or life in prison.
“I hope whoever did this sees this: My nephew was murdered by a cold-blooded, yellow coward,” said Michel’s uncle, Corley Eubanks, of Mobile, Alabama. “Why that punk had to do that, I don’t know.”
Michel’s funeral is scheduled for Monday at Believer’s Life Family Church, 501 Lapalco Blvd., Gretna. Private visitation for family members will be held from 8:30 to 10 a.m., followed by a viewing for the general public until 1 p.m. A memorial service will be held at the church after the public viewing.
Burial will be in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westwego.
Reporter Paul Murphy of WWL-TV contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.