As surehanded as he was on the college gridiron, former LSU wide receiver Nemessis “Nemo” Bates played no defense, and he struggled Wednesday to handle the darts a federal prosecutor tossed at him concerning charges that he ordered up a $20,000 hit in 2010 on a friend who had stolen his cash and pricey jewelry.
Bates, the former owner of Nemo’s Car Wash on Tulane Avenue, alternated among choked-up, combative, prolix and evasive over more than three hours of testimony, acknowledging he was “fighting for my life right now.”
Bates claimed he was “not a violent person” and had no idea that Aaron “Beadie” Smith and Walter “Urkel” Porter had orchestrated a hit on Christopher “Tiger” Smith until they came calling for cash on Nov. 23, 2010, two days after Porter allegedly shot Tiger some 20 times, killing him in the doorway of his Gretna home.
Bates claimed the two men perpetrated the hit on their own, then harangued him for weeks over payment, squeezing him for proceeds from the car wash and leaving him in fear of his life if he told a soul.
Porter is best known for his alleged exploits as the top hitman for Central City crime don Telly Hankton. Federal prosecutors have tied Porter and his guns to nine killings over a three-year span, with several of those murders — including that of Tiger Smith — committed with the same 9mm semi-automatic handgun.
“Smith and Mr. Porter came to the car wash. We stepped into the room and Porter told me that — I didn’t even know his name — he told me he done me a favor and I owe him some money,” Bates testified. “I told him, ‘For what?’ He said the death of Tiger. I told him, ‘That’s the guy that stole from me. I really have no money.’ ... My exact words.”
Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Kennedy, Bates professed a far spottier memory on other details of his interactions from around that time.
Among them were myriad phone calls with Aaron Smith, who testified Monday that Bates ordered the hit; interviews with investigators in which Bates professed ignorance and never mentioned extortion; and the reasons he rented a car for Aaron Smith after Tiger Smith’s death, if it wasn’t as a form of collateral, as prosecutors allege.
Bates, 36, faces charges of solicitation to commit murder, use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of a murder for hire, and two firearms counts related to the killing of Tiger Smith, a friend and former car wash employee.
He acknowledged Wednesday that he told anyone who would listen — including Aaron Smith — about his anger at Tiger Smith’s theft, but he said he was crushed by word of Tiger’s death, which came after Aaron Smith called him and told him, “Well, just watch the news.”
“I was crying, and I couldn’t hide it. I’m a very emotional person, period,” Bates said.
Bates also confirmed that Tiger Smith had confronted him shortly before his murder about a rumor that Bates had ordered a hit on him.
“I wouldn’t hire a hit man. First of all, I’m the one that called the police” about the theft, Bates testified. “You don’t call the police on somebody you want dead. You’d be the first suspect. It’s common sense.”
Despite testimony from other witnesses, Bates insisted he told no one afterward about the hit that prosecutors allege Porter carried out.
“I wanted to go home and kill myself, I was that afraid. It went from zero to 60 that quick. I didn’t know how I got myself in that situation,” he said. “I was just crying. I didn’t know what to do. I was just scared for my life.”
Bates was soon questioned about the killing by Jefferson Parish detectives and later was arrested by the FBI, but he never brought up his claim of an extortion scheme. He explained Wednesday that as a black man in New Orleans, he simply distrusted police.
“I believed in Porter more than y’all, the police officers,” he said.
Aaron Smith pleaded guilty in 2013 to a charge of causing death through the use of a firearm; in exchange, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table. He testified Monday, admitting that he was seeking leniency on a possible life prison term.
Smith said the killing was “about the money.” Bates ordered up the hit and Smith, who had an electronic monitor strapped to his ankle at the time, enlisted Porter to carry it out, he said.
He and Porter agreed to split the $20,000 Bates had promised, said Aaron Smith, who is no relation to the victim.
Bates claimed Wednesday that virtually every witness who testified before him — FBI agents, a former girlfriend and her male partner, a jailhouse friend — lied.
The ex-girlfriend testified Tuesday that Bates “did admit to me that he did hire someone to kill Tiger,” and that she once sat in a car when Bates talked about Aaron Smith and Porter.
“He said, ‘Those are the killers.’ He talked to them,” she said. “He said, ‘The light-skinned one (Porter), he’s crazy.’ ”
Porter, 39, who also goes by “Moonie,” is slated to be tried later, having spent much of the last year in a federal medical facility to restore his mental competency. Porter also is named in two other pending federal cases: a massive racketeering case involving several reputed members of the Hankton clan, and a federal bank robbery case.
The ex-girlfriend identified both Porter and Aaron Smith in photo lineups as the ones whom Bates identified as Christopher Smith’s killers.
Bates, who played football for LSU in the late 1990s before transferring to Southern University, said he turned over a Mercedes-Benz and a Corvette to Porter and Aaron Smith to keep them at bay when they demanded money.
“I was afraid for my life,” he said. “I would have given them anything they wanted because none of that stuff is important to me.”
Later, prosecutor Kennedy probed him about his collection of jewelry.
“You were so scared of Walter Porter and Beadie Smith that you wanted to go home and kill yourself?” Kennedy asked.
“I didn’t have a chance in hell to pay them anything. I knew I was dead,” Bates responded.
“You wouldn’t hock your jewelry to give them money?”
“I have to show them I had no income. It was keeping me alive at the time,” he responded. “I did not tell them about my jewelry because I felt I did not deserve this.”
After Bates stepped off the witness stand, defense attorney Peter Strasser rested the defense case.
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance set closing arguments for Thursday morning.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.