A road rage incident led to the death Thursday afternoon of former NFL player Joe McKnight, officials said Friday, as questions mounted about why the man who shot the former running back was allowed to go free without charges.
Ronald Gasser, the other motorist in the confrontation, admitted that he shot McKnight to death at an intersection in Terrytown a few miles from the Crescent City Connection bridge, where one of the two men apparently had cut the other off, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said.
The two drivers then exited on Gen. de Gaulle Drive, turned right on Behrman Highway and pulled up side-by-side at the intersection of Behrman and Holmes Boulevard, Normand said, citing reports from eyewitnesses as well as a statement from Gasser.
The sheriff said Gasser appears to have fired three times from inside his vehicle — where the shell casings were found — while McKnight stood near Gasser's passenger window.
Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich said McKnight, 28, had one wound in his hand and two wounds in his upper body.
Normand said investigators have not managed to recover any video of the incident. Gasser was allowed to go free Thursday night or early Friday.
Authorities opted against immediately booking Gasser with a crime, Normand said, because "if you rush to judgment from the beginning and make a strategic error, it makes it very difficult to recover later.”
Normand acknowledged that the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law could come into play, though investigators were not finished interviewing witnesses Friday.
Normand said no evidence so far indicates the shooting was racially motivated, an assertion echoed by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite. And Normand said his agency is pursuing the investigation aggressively, pointing out that McKnight's stepfather once served as a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy.
McKnight was black while Gasser is white, and local civil rights groups questioned why Gasser was released so quickly, a topic stoking heated discussion on social media.
Ten years before he admitted to fatally shooting former NFL pro Joe McKnight on a Terrytown street on Thursday, Ronald Gasser was accused of …
'Stop believing rumors'
Normand was obviously aware of the online commentary, asking that residents “stop believing” rumors that have circulated about the shooting.
He said, for instance, that no witness interviewed by the Sheriff's Office has reported that McKnight was apologizing when he was killed. He also denied accounts that have spread on the internet suggesting that Gasser fired while standing over McKnight.
U.S. Attorney Ken Polite told WWL-TV on Friday there's no evidence of a federal hate crime in the case of football standout Joe McKnight's fat…
Cvitanovich echoed Normand, saying that McKnight's wounds were "not consistent with being shot from above."
The autopsy found three bullet wounds on McKnight’s body, Cvitanovich said.
The first bullet grazed the knuckle of the third finger and exited through the index finger. The second entered his right shoulder and then punctured his right lung, lodging in his chest. The third bullet entered his chest just below his right nipple, passed through his liver and exited through his right lower back.
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Normand’s remarks to the media, which took place inside the Sheriff’s Office headquarters, came about an hour after members of the local NAACP had gathered outside to demonstrate.
A group of perhaps 20 held signs reading, “A man was lynched yesterday,” a reference to a nearly 100-year-old flag that used to fly in front of NAACP headquarters in New York City. And they argued that a black gunman would never have been freed without charges had the races of the two men involved been reversed.
“We think a black man was lynched on yesterday,” said Morris Reed Sr., president of the NAACP branch in New Orleans. “We are demanding some answers.”
Reed encouraged witnesses who might be “intimidated” by the idea of approaching the Sheriff’s Office to contact the local office of the FBI or Polite's office. He said community members have heard rumors that Gasser may be a former law enforcement officer, but Normand later said nothing suggests that is the case.
“We’re hearing things in the community,” Reed said. “These witnesses’ statements need to be formalized.”
Gaylor Spiller, the president of the NAACP's chapter on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, said she had heard rumors that Gasser might have shouted either a racial slur or something about President-elect Donald Trump. Speaking of McKnight, she said, “This young man, from what I can understand, begged for his life.”
Case 'not about race'
In an interview with WWL-TV, Polite said he had been briefed on the incident by Normand and felt there was no evidence that a federal hate crime had taken place.
“With that said, I intend to personally monitor the matter,” Polite told the station. “Sheriff Normand and I have been in regular communication, and he is committed to continuing that regular and timely dialogue as the case develops.”
Normand insisted that the case “isn’t about race.” He said demonstrators have a right to protest but warned them against obstructing roadways or acting violently.
At the sheriff's side during the news conference was Mark Spears, the lone black member of the Jefferson Parish Council, whose district neighbors the high school where McKnight enjoyed a legendary prep football career.
"It shouldn't be a rush to judgment," Spears said, "We should base it on facts and not Facebook and other social media."
Dozens of protesters gathered at the site in Terrytown where Joe McKnight was shot to death …
In a subsequent statement, Spears expressed disappointment that "another black male ... has been taken away from his family so early." He said, "My office will remain vigilant in our search for answers and ... justice."
Later, a group of black clergymen gathered Friday evening in Gretna to urge against what Pastor Alex Bellow called "unnecessary interruptions to the community."
Three black members of the Legislature who represent parts of Jefferson — state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter and state Rep. Rodney Lyons — expressed their concern about the shooting.
"In this divisive, racially charged environment, which is in no way unique to our community, we fully appreciate and share in the public’s concern over the killing of Joe McKnight," they said in a statement. "Our prayers are with the family of Joe McKnight, because violence is never the answer."
Despite appeals for calm, Normand seemed to anticipate further protests over his office’s decision to release Gasser, and he signaled that he would take a hard line against anyone who broke the law.
“You will go to jail,” Normand warned. “I am more than willing to work with you so that you can get your message across, but it’s not going to be to the detriment of the other citizens of Jefferson Parish.”
Spiller urged a handful of protesters who had strayed onto the Sheriff’s Office driveway to get back on a median. "They looking for an excuse, so we not going to give it to them,” she said.
Protesters urged McKnight's supporters to attend a memorial planned Friday evening at the scene of the shooting.
'Sad to hear him cry'
McKnight's loved ones on Friday continued grieving over a local prep football legend they knew as their brother, son or dad.
McKnight's brother, Jonathan McKnight, said telling Joe's young son in California on Thursday that he would no longer be able to speak with his father was one of the most difficult things his family has ever done.
"It was sad to hear him cry," Jonathan McKnight said of his nephew.
Joe McKnight, who starred on a John Curtis Christian High School football team that won three state championships from 2004 to 2006, was working at a local mental health hospital and eyeing a potential NFL comeback opportunity with the Minnesota Vikings when he was slain, his brother said.
He played for the NFL's New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs after a run in college with the University of Southern California, but a torn Achilles tendon derailed his career. He rehabbed the injury around his hometown of Kenner before playing for two Canadian Football League teams and showcasing a potential return to the NFL.
However, until that panned out, he shared his knowledge of the game and life in the NFL whenever he encountered his younger counterparts while training, said Duke Rousse, a well-known sports performance coach with whom McKnight frequently worked.
Prep football legend Joe McKnight was working at a local hospital treating mental health pat…
Two such players were Duke Riley and Donte Jackson, both LSU Tigers, Rousse said.
"People would always tell him, 'Man, I want to be like you.' And he'd look at them and say, ... 'Be better than me,' " Rousse said. "That was his life. He gave back to football and people."
Gasser, for his part, has not spoken publicly since the shooting.
Late Thursday, his sister, Sharon Gasser Weileman, expressed shock at the events earlier in the day, calling him "a gentle giant. The most generous person. Low-key."
Gasser's involvement in McKnight's death came as a surprise to several neighbors who said they knew Gasser mostly as a private man who would give them a friendly wave as he mowed his lawn.
Gasser's next-door neighbor Regina Sam, who is black, smiled when she heard his name and called him "my baby boy."
Sam said that when her son went off to serve in Iraq, he asked Gasser to watch over his mother.
"He's just about the same age as my son in the military," Sam said. "He's a good guy."
But Thursday wasn't Gasser's first encounter with law enforcement. He was cited for misdemeanor simple battery in 2006, though prosecutors later dismissed the case, the details of which haven't been available.
Another man claimed that he recognized Gasser from their neighborhood and earlier confrontations on the road. “He’s been like this. He’s been road raging,” said Mohammad Mussa.
Mussa said he passed Gasser’s Infiniti sometime shortly before Halloween 2015, but Gasser then sped ahead of him and tried to race him down Behrman Highway. “I got to the red light. He started cursing me out, and I started cursing him,” Mussa said.
Only the presence of a Sheriff’s Office vehicle nearby prevented the situation from getting worse, he said.
Another time, on Terry Parkway, Gasser tried to race him again, Mussa said. “He rolled his window down and he told me 'F*** you' and he rolled off,” Mussa said.
Mussa recalled telling his wife, after that interaction, that the other driver “needs to slow down. They need to take his car away from him.”
Mussa said neither of the interactions resulted in a police report, so they could not be independently verified Friday.
'The man's innocent'
A man answering the door at Gasser's sister's residence in Belle Chasse on Friday ordered a reporter off the property, warning that he would call the Sheriff's Office.
"The police just gave his side of the story, didn't they?" the man said, referring to Gasser, the registered owner of a telecommunications firm. "The man's innocent."
Whether Gasser eventually faces charges could depend in large part upon whether authorities believe his apparent contention that he pulled the trigger in self-defense.
Louisiana law defines a justifiable homicide as a killing committed by someone “who reasonably believes that he is in imminent danger of losing his life or receiving great bodily harm.”
The law includes a stand-your-ground provision that says someone not engaged in “unlawful activity” has no duty to retreat before using deadly force. Still, a killing must be deemed “necessary” in order to be justifiable.
“The most salient fact is whether or not this was necessary for him to save himself from the danger he believed he faced,” said Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University law professor.
Were Gasser to stand trial in McKnight’s death, the jury would not be permitted to consider “the possibility of retreat” under the state’s stand-your-ground statute, Ciolino said.
“This would be a case where the stand-your-ground principles would almost definitely apply,” he added. “He was in his own car, so he was not engaged in unlawful activity like selling drugs or anything of the sort.”
McKnight's death drew immediate comparisons to the killing in April of former Saints player Will Smith, a fatal shooting that occurred after a minor traffic collision in New Orleans. The defendant in that case — Cardell Hayes, who is scheduled to go to trial Monday — contends he opened fire on Smith in self-defense.
But Hayes also shot Smith's wife. He was jailed immediately and later charged with murder as well as attempted murder and has been portrayed by prosecutors as the aggressor.
Ciolino said both Gasser and Hayes appear to have viable self-defense claims. But he said Gasser’s appear to be “somewhat stronger, in the sense that he was in his car” when he opened fire.
“There’s no evidence that’s been reported that Gasser was ever an aggressor,” he added. “In the Cardell Hayes situation, the facts seem to be a little bit more ambiguous.”
Advocate staff writer Jim Mustian contributed to this report.