City Council members express residents’ fear, frustration after high-profile robberies: Crime ‘is threatening the soul of the city’ _lowres

This image taken from surveillance footage provided by the New Orleans Police Department, shows three men suspected of an armed robbery on Aug. 20, 2015, at Patois restaurant in New Orleans. The latest headache for the beleaguered New Orleans Police Department: late night robberies in which gunmen burst into tony establishments in normally quiet areas, making off with the night's take and the wallets of terrorized patrons. It's happened at two restaurants in recent weeks and at an upscale bar on Monday night, Sept. 28. (New Orleans Police Department via AP)

As U.S. marshals surrounded a house in Hollygrove two years ago, Wesley Davis looked out a window, shouted “It’s them people” and tossed a backpack with a chrome handgun into a closet, police said.

On Thursday, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson ruled that prosecutors can use that bag to help establish a connection between Davis and a fatal shooting, as well as a series of Uptown restaurant robberies in 2015. 

Her decision swept away one of the final roadblocks to trial for Davis and four other men who are still awaiting trial in those cases. Prosecutors said all of them will receive final plea deal offers on Nov. 15 ahead of a trial date early next year.

It could help bring to a close one of the most notable chapters of recent New Orleans criminal history. For months, a band of masked gunmen forced patrons at Uptown restaurants and bars to worry about being forced to surrender their wallets and phones.

The New Orleans Police Department was criticized for an ineffectual response after it was revealed that it took officers more than 10 minutes to arrive the night the Patois restaurant was held up.

Behind the scenes, however, detectives were working with federal agents to identify and locate the men behind the robberies. Police said they were able to tie the suspects to a seemingly unrelated fatal shooting in Gentilly that happened before the men began hitting restaurants.

Davis, 21, was a suspect in the death of Harold Martin, 30, who was found collapsed on a porch in the 2500 block of Mendez Street in May 2015 after an apparent shootout. Authorities have not said how they tied him to the killing.

However, a procedural hearing on Thursday opened a window into how police arrested Davis. Detective Andrew Roccaforte testified that around noon on Oct. 28, 2015 — weeks after the last restaurant robbery — U.S. marshals spotted Davis in the 5000 block of Lakeshore Drive. The marshals watched as another man handed Davis a backpack. Then they swooped in, but both men managed to flee.

Davis hopped into a vehicle and rammed a marshal’s vehicle to escape, Roccaforte said.

About 3:45 p.m., the marshals tracked Davis to the 8800 block of Forshey Street in Hollygrove and surrounded the house. A woman, a man, two teenage boys and two children were also inside the house, Roccaforte said.

That was when Davis shouted his warning that “them people” — slang for police — were outside. Everyone else in the house rushed outside, Roccaforte said. Davis ultimately surrendered to a robot sent inside to negotiate.

Roccaforte said the house’s lessee then led him to the closet with the backpack inside, where the chrome handgun was found.

“This firearm looked very strikingly similar to a weapon that was used in the Patois armed robbery,” Roccaforte said.

The detective said that ballistics testing showed that the gun was a match for shell casings found at the scene of Martin’s killing in Gentilly, as well as a home invasion on the West Bank seven hours later during which two people were shot.

The hearing on Thursday centered on whether prosecutors can present the backpack to jurors. Davis’ attorney, Keith Couture, said police should have obtained a warrant before opening it.

Couture also questioned the detective as to who handed Davis the backpack on Lakeshore Drive. Roccaforte said the man was located but not arrested in connection with the case.

“Is he a paid informant in this case?” Couture asked.

Landrum-Johnson cut off the detective before he answered, ruling that the answer would be irrelevant to the hearing. She also ruled that the backpack can be used as evidence at the trial, finding that Davis lost his expectation for privacy when he tossed it into a closet at someone else’s house.

Davis was booked in connection with the killing of Martin after his arrest in October 2015. Three months later, he was indicted in connection with the robberies of the Atchafalaya restaurant, Patois restaurant and Monkey Hill bar in Uptown and the Purple Rain bar in Central City.

Eight men were charged in total in connection with the robberies. Three of them — Nicholas Spiller, Dwayne Stevenson and Jockquaren Van Norman — have pleaded guilty in the case. It is unclear whether they will be required to testify at trial under the terms of their deals with prosecutors.

Still awaiting trial are Davis; Larry Quinn, 23; Dennis Moore, 23; Shawn Dennis, 21; and Rolandus Campbell, 21. Only Campbell and Davis are accused of roles in the killing of Martin.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432