Politicians, prosecutors and hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the country paid tribute to slain Jefferson Parish Detective David Michel Jr. at his funeral Monday.
But as a hearse carried Michel to his final resting place, it was ordinary residents of Jefferson Parish who stood under the sweltering sun along Belle Chasse Highway with American flags in their hands. Among them were the mechanics at a muffler shop, the afternoon crowd at the Yardarm Lounge and passing motorists who decided that honoring Michel was a higher cause than their drive home.
They all took time to pay their respects to a man Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand called a “fallen hero.”
Michel was killed Wednesday in Harvey after stopping a man he suspected of plotting an armed robbery, authorities said.
The courtroom proceedings against murder defendant Jerman Neveaux, 19, have only just begun, but on Monday afternoon, law enforcement officials focused their attention instead on Michel, a Marrero resident who was 50 at the time of his death.
Hundreds of police officers in dress uniforms attended Michel’s funeral at the Believer’s Life Family Church in Gretna. Also on hand were two of the area’s top-ranking federal law enforcers, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite and FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Jeffrey Sallet.
“I guess the easiest thing today is going to be to cry, quite frankly. And the hardest thing is going to be to fight back the multitude of emotions, anger being one, which is a wasted emotion in my view, quite frankly,” Normand said outside the church.
Normand said his deputies heard a story from a man standing in line for the funeral about how the man’s son had called him crying after he heard the news of Michel’s death.
The son told the father, “Dad, that’s the deputy who sat me in the car and talked to me when I was about to make the wrong decision.”
“That boy’s in college today,” Normand said. “And (the man) told our officers, ‘But for David Michel, my son may not have made the right decision.’ That’s the David Michel that we know and love; that’s the David Michel that gave so much to his community. Those are the anecdotal stories that I have heard throughout the week.”
Funerals such as Michel’s, Normand said, “are always a gut check for us in the law enforcement community, of the dangers of what we face, and it always begs the initial question: Why? It can be the most rewarding job in the world, and, at the same time, the most devastating.”
Normand and his deputies have wrestled with those emotions time and again in recent months. In May 2015, former JPSO Reserve Deputy James Bennett was killed while patrolling a housing development site in New Orleans. In December, an off-duty sergeant was shot dead in her truck in an alleged act of domestic violence. In January, Deputy Stephen Arnold was shot and seriously wounded while serving a narcotics warrant in the Lower 9th Ward as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force.
Polite recalled that U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch happened to be in town in January when Arnold was shot.
“When I told her about this incident, it brought tears to her eyes as well. It’s been a difficult year for this particular agency,” Polite said.
After the funeral, Michel’s body was carried to the Gates of Heaven Mausoleum in Westwego. The motorcade that accompanied the hearse stretched for miles.
Gwen Plaisance stood on Belle Chasse Highway with a flag in her left hand, her right hand over her heart and tears in her eyes as the somber procession passed by. Plaisance had worked with Michel at a management company years ago, she said.
Back then, Michel was still a reserve deputy for the Sheriff’s Office.
“He always had that demeanor of a happy person. He was always ready, always willing to help,” Plaisance said. “And his dream was to become a police officer.”
After serving as a reserve officer for six years, Michel joined the Sheriff’s Office full time in 2013. When he found out that he was going from reserve to full-fledged deputy, Plaisance remembered, he was “elated.”
If there was any consolation to be found in the wake of Michel’s death, she said, it was in the crowd gathered by the side of the road to honor him.
“They put their lives on the line every day for us, and we don’t show enough appreciation,” Plaisance said.
That sentiment was echoed by Anne Garcia, the owner of the Yardarm Lounge. She bought the flags that Plaisance and others held in their hands, then helped organize the makeshift roadside tribute.
“He’s just part of the community, and he risked his life for everybody here. They all do, every day,” Garcia said.
The procession ended solemnly as scores of officers and onlookers lined Avenue A in Marrero. Inside the mausoleum grounds, Michel’s loved ones gathered under a tent that shielded them from the sun.
Michel’s survivors include his wife of 21 years, Angela Theriot Michel, who wept through the burial.
The service included the rendering of Taps and “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes, as well as a rifle party firing blank cartridges and a ceremonial helicopter flyover.
Deputies wept as Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office dispatchers halted radio traffic and broadcast Michel’s last call.
By the end of the service, the faces of veteran law enforcement officers had gone from somber to tear-soaked.
Maria Green, a woman visiting the area from Corpus Christi, Texas, walked up to one officer and extended her condolences.
“Law enforcement are brothers and sisters,” said Green, whose husband is a police officer. When one dies, she added, “we all feel it.”