The New Orleans Police Department’s case against three suspects in the mass shooting at Bunny Friend Park could be undermined if one convicted felon can use cellphone calls to his sweetheart to prove he was elsewhere when the bullets started flying, court records suggest.
If Michael Allen, 29, can use cellphone logs to prove he was on the West Bank during the Nov. 22 shooting that left 17 people wounded, that development could weaken the case against two other suspects who were named by the same witness.
An unnamed witness identified Allen along with 19-year-old Lawrence Veals and 20-year-old Quendrick Bailey as among those doing the shooting in the park, according to a bulletin sent to the National Crime Information Center included in court files.
That fact does not exclude the possibility that police have located other witnesses against the three, but it would deal a blow to the police case against all of them.
The testimony of another witness who identified two more of the nine named suspects, meanwhile, would be in jeopardy if a suspect can obtain video surveillance showing he was in a convenience store during the shooting.
Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the Police Department, noted Thursday that in each case a magistrate judge had signed off on arrest warrants for the suspects.
“The investigation is active and ongoing. We cannot get into specifics of the case at this time as it may compromise the final outcome,” Gamble said.
In the weeks since the arrests of the suspects in the case, police may have bolstered their investigation by finding additional witnesses, cellphone video from the park or DNA evidence from bullets and shell casings.
Allen maintains his innocence in the shooting, claiming that he was picking up his young son in Algiers when it occurred about 6:15 p.m. Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell reduced Allen’s bail from $1.7 million to $170,000 last month after his girlfriend and the girlfriend’s father testified as alibi witnesses, which allowed Allen to post bond.
Allen’s defense attorney, John Fuller, has obtained a subpoena for text messages, call logs and cell site location information from Sprint Communications.
Cellphone carriers constantly record a digital trail of their users’ geographic location based on the nearest cellphone tower. The data give only a user’s approximate position, but — if Allen was where he says he was — they likely could show he was miles away from Bunny Friend Park.
Sprint is supposed to answer the subpoena by Jan. 22, according to an order signed by Cantrell. Fuller said his client will then face a preliminary hearing on Jan. 28.
A defense attorney for another shooting suspect, 22-year-old Shawn Ruffin, is also trying to use technology to exonerate his client. Lawyer Miles Swanson has subpoenaed a convenience store for surveillance footage from the time of the shooting in an attempt to prove that Ruffin was elsewhere at the time.
A single witness identified both Ruffin and 22-year-old suspect Allen Offray, according to a National Crime Information Center bulletin included in case files.
If Ruffin succeeds, he would be following in the path of the first suspect arrested in the case, who was freed last month after he used surveillance video from Houston-area stores to show that he was buying baby clothes in Texas with his wife at the time of the shooting.
The District Attorney’s Office asked for and received an order from Cantrell last month consolidating preliminary hearings for Allen, Veals, Bailey and suspect Eddie Copelin, citing the need for “judicial economy.”
“In each case the state would present the same witness,” the application for the order said, likely referring to 5th District Detective Chad Cockerham, who has signed every arrest warrant in the case thus far.
That consolidation presents the possibility that a panel of defense attorneys would pepper Cockerham with questions in court, trying to make the case that police rushed to judgment in their quest to make arrests in the politically charged case.
The District Attorney’s Office could try first to secure an indictment against any or all of the suspects, heading off such a hearing.
Bailey’s lawyer, Jeffrey Smith, said the Jan. 28 preliminary hearing would give him his first clear look at the state’s case. Smith is seeking a bail reduction for his client.
“I’m looking at the strength of the evidence, the kind of evidence being used — eyewitness evidence, or more scientific evidence? — and how that should relate to the bond, so that if I do have to fight this case, I can fight it with him being by my side,” Smith said.