The lead attorney for Cardell Hayes, who is accused of killing former Saints lineman Will Smith, is asking the city to pull the New Orleans Police Department off the case, claiming misconduct in its investigation.
Defense attorney John Fuller issued a letter Friday addressed to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison, declaring “a grave lack of faith in the honesty and competency of the investigation” and asking for either State Police or the FBI to take over the case.
“This lack of faith in part stems from factual misstatements from high-ranking members of the Police Department,” Fuller wrote. “As such, justice demands that this investigation immediately be relinquished to a more appropriate, uninvolved agency.”
Fuller’s letter does not specify the factual misstatements he ascribes to police, although he previously has criticized the NOPD for initially saying only one gun — the one used to kill Smith — was confiscated at the shooting scene.
In statements, police have been circumspect about precisely where and when they first learned of a gun, which was never fired, that they said was found in Smith’s car. Police revealed the existence of that gun days after the killing.
Harrison declined to say where the gun was found in comments to WWL-TV on Friday. But he defended the police investigation against “conspiracy theorists,” while adding that he was not responding directly to the comments of any lawyer involved in the case.
“When we first got to that scene, it was about scene control, public safety and making sure everyone was safe,” Harrison said. “The best practice was for us to confiscate everything that was available to us and visible to us at that moment. Then we impounded, as per our protocol, all of those vehicles that were involved in this incident.
“We are making sure that we are thorough, that we are precise and that we are following best practices on all of our police protocols.”
Fuller’s letter was his latest attempt to suggest police bent over backward to avoid public revelations that might reflect badly on the popular former football player.
In response to the letter, NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble issued this statement: “Every homicide in New Orleans deserves a fair, thorough and complete investigation, and that is what we are doing in this case. We will continue to follow the facts wherever they take us.”
Smith was shot eight times, seven in the back, an autopsy by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office found. Smith’s wife was struck first, according to her attorney, with bullets to both legs.
Neither police nor an attorney for Racquel Smith have identified a couple riding with the Smiths, nor those in a Chevy Impala driving ahead of them that was struck by the Smiths’ Mercedes SUV after it was rear-ended by Hayes’ Hummer.
Police normally do not identify witnesses to a violent crime.
Subpoena requests filed
Along with his letter to the mayor and police chief, Fuller filed subpoena requests Friday with Orleans Parish Magistrate Court, seeking to secure testimony from former Saints running back Pierre Thomas and retired NOPD officer Billy Ceravolo at a preliminary hearing scheduled for April 28.
Both Thomas and Ceravolo had dined with Smith that night at Sake Cafe, not far from the incident, and both appeared at the shooting scene. Police have refused to say if either was a passenger in one of the cars.
Ceravolo, for his part, has said he was in another car, a few minutes ahead of the Hummer, the Mercedes and the Impala, when the shooting occurred.
On social media, Thomas said he “witnessed” Will Smith get “shot to death over a fender bender” but didn’t make it clear exactly where he was when the killing occurred.
Harrison told WWL-TV he has given Ceravolo, a reserve officer for the NOPD, “specific instructions not to be involved in this investigation, not to make any statement to anyone.”
“I don’t know that he had any involvement on that scene, and we have members of our department who are looking into that very thing. If we find there were any infractions, then our department will deal with that the way we deal with all infractions,” Harrison said.
Also on Friday, Hayes’ attorneys filed motions to preserve evidence from two French Quarter strip clubs — Larry Flynt’s Hustler Barely Legal Club on Bourbon Street and the Penthouse Club on Iberville Street.
Fuller and fellow attorney Jay Daniels said they believe the Smiths went to one of those clubs on Saturday prior to eating at Sake Cafe. Video from them, Fuller said, would “go to the ultimate true narrative in the case that’s different from what was initially laid out in print, TV and social media.”
Workers at both the Larry Flynt Hustler Club and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Barely Legal Club said they had not heard of Smith visiting either location on the day he was shot. A manager at the Penthouse Club said he couldn’t answer any questions about Smith and referred a questioner to a corporate office, which did not immediately return a request for comment.
Man without a shirt
Three people who live in the area of the shooting scene told The Advocate they heard the chain reaction when Hayes’ Hummer rammed into the Mercedes, which in turn hit the Impala, according to police. They also saw pieces of a volatile argument on the street and its bloody aftermath.
All three said they saw a man without a shirt who appeared to play a central role in the altercation. That wasn’t Smith, according to one witness, who said the man he saw slumped in the Mercedes with an arm over the steering wheel was fully clothed.
Two witnesses, who refused to be identified, said the shirtless man had charged the big man standing by the Hummer — their description of the latter matching the 28-year-old, 300-pound Hayes. The man without a shirt was acting “ridiculous,” one witness said.
Two witnesses said a woman struggled to hold the shirtless man back from going toward the Hummer.
There were several big men there, the witnesses said. One of them — Hayes’ close friend Kevin O’Neal, according to his attorney — stepped out of the Hummer’s passenger seat. The witnesses said they could not see well enough to know whether he held a gun.
The two witnesses who saw the scuffle said that shortly after the shooting, the big man near the Hummer who matched the description of Hayes slammed his open palms on the hood of the car and placed a gun on the windshield.
Another witness said he heard shots — first two, then several more — and walked over to see a man without a shirt walking up Camp Street, near the tip of a narrow triangle at Felicity Street, paces from the shooting scene. He was agitated, the witness said, as if wanting to leave.
The witness said he then turned down Sophie Wright Place toward Magazine Street to see Racquel Smith lying on the sidewalk alone, with parked cars between her and the shooting scene. Police cars were just arriving.
She appeared to be in shock, the witness said, adding that he didn’t see the shirtless man leave the scene.
“We have reason to believe it was someone other than Smith who removed his shirt. He was part of Smith’s group,” said Daniels, one of Hayes’ attorneys. “He and Smith approached our client’s vehicle, and we believe Cardell wasn’t the aggressor.”
Pictures of a distraught Thomas taken shortly after the shooting show him wearing a shirt.
In carefully worded statements, police first said they had confiscated only one gun from the scene. Three days after the shooting, police said they found a fully loaded 9 mm handgun in Smith’s SUV after all three cars were impounded and search warrants were obtained for them.
Police normally secure such warrants in New Orleans through magistrate commissioners, who are on call 24 hours a day.
Man on the video
None of the witnesses The Advocate spoke with said they heard what an anonymous person on a darkened online video of the incident described as dueling threats exchanged by two men before one man was shot dead. The Advocate has not been able to verify who the man in the video is and whether he witnessed the shooting.
That video pans to the late-night crime scene and shows men matching the descriptions of Hayes and O’Neal standing near a Hummer as police handcuff them. O’Neal was questioned and released. Hayes was booked on suspicion of second-degree murder, a charge that carries a mandatory life prison term.
Police said Wednesday they also expect to book Hayes in the shooting of Racquel Smith, known to friends as “Rockie.” An NOPD spokesman said the agency may book Hayes on suspicion of either attempted murder or aggravated battery, depending on the evidence.
An attorney for O’Neal has said her client believes Hayes saved his life.
Fuller has never explicitly said Hayes killed the former star defensive end but has said his client is “legally not guilty.”
He has asserted that a witness saw Smith “in possession of a gun” before he was shot dead, and he has alleged that a witness spotted “untoward activity” — possibly by an unnamed former New Orleans Police Department member — that could explain why Smith’s weapon apparently wasn’t found until more than two days after the shooting. He has not said whether he was referring to Ceravolo or someone else.
None of the witnesses The Advocate interviewed claimed to have seen such things.
Fuller also has alleged that Hayes accidentally ran into the back of Smith’s Mercedes in an attempt to get the license plate of someone who hit Hayes’ Hummer and drove off a little while earlier.
Surveillance videos from neighborhood businesses suggest the Mercedes may have bumped the back of the Hummer as the vehicles approached traffic stopped at a red light shortly before Smith was fatally shot. The Hummer pulled over, the Mercedes drove away and the Hummer followed, videos show.
Paul Murphy, of WWL-TV, contributed reporting.