The family of murder suspect Kernell Harrell let out cries of relief just after 2 p.m. Wednesday. Someone said Harrell had turned himself in. His long standoff with SWAT officers at a Gentilly motel had ended peacefully.
It was a fleeting reprieve.
Minutes later, police announced that Harrell, wanted in the death of his girlfriend last week, had in fact shot himself. His family’s relief quickly dissolved into rage, anguish and a desperate scramble to the hospital. At 4:28 p.m., police said Harrell was dead.
The long standoff had begun nearly six hours earlier as U.S. marshals attempted to take Harrell into custody at the New Orleans Inn underneath the Danziger Bridge.
Harrell was wanted in the June 3 shooting death of his girlfriend, Melissa Hunter. Police said he shot Hunter several times inside a home in the 3600 block of Metropolitan Street in the Desire area. When officers arrived on the scene about 10:30 p.m., they found her dead on her bedroom floor.
It was not the first time that Harrell had been accused of domestic violence. In May 2014, he pleaded guilty to domestic aggravated assault and domestic battery involving strangulation. Relatives said he had only recently been released from prison after serving an 18-month stint for attacking Hunter.
Somehow the marshals were able to trace Harrell to the low-rent, one-story motel in the 5000 block of Chef Menteur Highway. When marshals went to his door about 8 a.m., he was seen inside his room with a gun, Deputy U.S. Marshal Brian Fair said.
“He started making threats to harm himself and implying that he might have someone else in the room,” Fair said. The New Orleans Police Department SWAT team was quickly called in.
Guests staying at the motel huddled underneath the shade of a building in a strip mall down the street. One said she had been awakened by a marshal telling her to leave.
A man said he was ushered out so quickly he didn’t have time to put on his shoes.
Police said they made steady attempts to negotiate with Harrell inside a wide cordon around the 5000 block of Chef Menteur. A “throw phone” was tossed into the room for communication.
Officers’ primary concern, said SWAT Team Capt. James F. Scott, was that a female acquaintance of Harrell’s might be inside the room with him. But at some point, police determined that the woman in question was actually at the 1st District Station.
With the woman safe, Scott said, police decided that “we have all the time in the world.”
As Harrell paced inside his room with a handgun by his side, members of his family waited beyond the cordon.
Harrell’s grandfather, Grover Harrell III, spoke to the media. If he could talk to Kernell, he said, he would tell him to give himself up, and “we would be behind him 100 percent.”
Harrell said his grandson had told a family member that he did not want to give himself up because he did not kill the girlfriend.
At one point, relatives of the victim showed up, eyeing the suspect’s family warily.
“I want them to catch the son of a gun,” said Albert Greenleaf, Hunter’s grandfather. He had interrupted planning for her Saturday funeral to come to the scene of the standoff.
Hours ticked by under the hot sun.
Inside the strip mall near the motel, the long day’s monotony was broken by occasional visits from a woman selling lemonade. Firefighters, reporters and Harrell’s anxious family members pulled out cash for refreshments.
Finally, not long after 2 p.m., there seemed to be some movement near the motel. SWAT vans were rolling off. Officers from the different agencies on the scene — including the NOPD, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, the State Police and Kenner Police — walked back to their cars and took off their helmets.
Somehow Kernell Harrell’s family heard that he had turned himself in. The tense mood evaporated.
“Thank you, Lord, that’s all I can say,” his aunt Keyta Harrell said. “He surrendered on his own, and I’m glad.”
The relief didn’t last long. Just a few minutes later, police were saying that Harrell had shot himself. Relatives yelled at news photographers to back off and they jumped into cars, speeding toward the hospital.
The murder victim’s family learned later that Harrell had died. Hunter’s grandmother, Jeanette Greenleaf, said she wished he had turned himself in but was glad the standoff had ended.
“Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus,” Greenleaf said. “He has to suffer. He’s burning in hell, baby. ... I’m just glad he’s gone.”