Justin Matthew Payne hoped to be among the New Orleans Police Department's best and brightest.

The fact he applied at all suggests he was neither.

Payne's application in October to become a New Orleans police officer prompted his arrest by Chicago police this week on suspicion of murder in the Windy City, NOPD spokesman Beau Tidwell confirmed Friday.

Payne, 26, is suspected of killing trucking company owner Luis Peña, 64, in December 2016, although Chicago police had not issued a warrant for his arrest at the time he applied to join the NOPD, a police source said.

He had passed the Civil Service exam and an initial criminal records check when a recruiting investigator began checking with previous employers he'd listed on his application.

Payne's prior work includes driving a truck, and Chicago police soon got wind of his policing aspirations through a former employer. 

"Detectives with Chicago PD contacted NOPD to verify address and phone number for Payne," Tidwell said in an email. "The Chicago PD notified NOPD that Payne was a suspect in a homicide."

On Wednesday, NOPD investigators called Payne into police headquarters under the pretense of needing him to complete more paperwork. Chicago detectives then walked into the room and confronted him.

A Chicago police detective told Peña's family on Thursday that Payne had confessed to the slaying, said 19-year-old Karina Peña, one of the victim's seven children.

Tidwell confirmed that Payne "confess(ed) to the homicide of his former supervisor at the trucking company where he worked prior to coming to New Orleans."

Detectives then walked Payne from NOPD headquarters to jail, booking him on an arrest warrant for first-degree murder.

Karina Peña said Chicago detectives had told the family they thought Payne fled to Georgia before landing in New Orleans.

She said her father had fired Payne as a truck driver about five weeks before the slaying, which occurred inside a trailer at Luis Peña's trucking yard on Chicago's Southwest Side.

Authorities in Chicago initially said Peña had been shot, but the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office concluded after an autopsy that he had been physically assaulted.

"He worked for my dad for so little (time). My dad fired him because he was lazy," Karina Peña said of Payne.

A mechanic at the trucking yard had identified Payne in a video from the crime scene, she said. But more than a year later, she said, the family had despaired that her father's murder would ever be solved.

"To be honest, everybody was feeling not much was being done. People were starting to lose hope," she said. "I'm happy because just the fact he confessed is a good confirmation that it was him. We're not worried that we were chasing after the wrong guy the whole time."

When they called the family on Thursday, Chicago police did not mention that Payne had applied to wear a gun and badge in New Orleans, she said.

"What? Really? Wow, that is crazy!" Karina Peña said.

A Chicago Police Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Payne's arrest, referring questions to the NOPD.

Payne was being held without bail in the Orleans Parish jail on Friday pending an extradition hearing scheduled for Monday.

His arrest was something of a good news story for the Police Department's vetting process for officer applicants, which came under heavy criticism in a January 2017 report from the federal monitors overseeing the department's reform process.

The monitors said then that recruiters were far too eager to hire applicants with red flags like drug use and prior arrests.

Since then, the Police Department has hired additional background check investigators. In June 2017, the monitors said that a follow-up audit had shown "dramatic improvement" in the recruit vetting process.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.

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