A fatal shooting Wednesday night following an alleged car break-in in Mid-City has fanned the flames over whether New Orleans officials are doing enough to keep young residents on the right side of the law.

Police said that Emanuel Pipkins, 17, fatally shot a woman and wounded her husband after they caught him breaking into their car in the 2700 block of Cleveland Avenue.

Pipkins was booked on a count of second-degree murder after the slain woman’s husband allegedly shot him in an exchange of gunfire that erupted during the botched car burglary.

Investigators believe others in a stolen car helped Pipkins flee from the scene of the killing, and police said they were searching for additional suspects.

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office identified the dead woman as Zelda Townsend, 63. Multiple people familiar with the case identified her husband as Danny Townsend, 54.

Zelda Townsend, who worked as a private security guard, was mortally wounded around the corner from her husband’s barbershop, Danny's Divine Designs. The pair lived next to the shop in the 200 block of South Broad Street.

As word about the killing spread, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro all said that the case illustrated the need for everyone in the city to do their part in a fight against a rise in crimes frequently carried out by minors, such as car burglaries and auto thefts.

Townsend’s death occurred less than six months after a pastor’s wife was fatally struck by her own vehicle while being carjacked by a teenager in Gentilly.

With schools set to close for the summer, Cantrell, Ferguson and Cannizzaro all mentioned the need for stepped-up enforcement of curfew laws and asked for support from parents and caretakers.

“I’m disgusted, I’m disheartened, I’m upset, I’m angry, and I’m disappointed,” Ferguson said while briefing reporters about Pipkins’ arrest. “We all should take a look at ourselves and hold ourselves accountable, from the criminal justice system, to city government, to the community, to the parents.”

According to police, the Townsends heard an alarm on their car go off about 9:50 p.m. The couple stepped outside, saw Pipkins in their car and approached it.

Another car, in which Pipkins’ companions were riding, then pulled up, and someone in it shouted, “Shoot,” Ferguson said. Pipkins then allegedly fired numerous times. He hit the woman multiple times, and her husband was struck in an arm, police said.

Ferguson suggested that Danny Townsend fired his own gun at Pipkins in an attempt to protect himself and his wife.

Pipkins fled with his companions and later showed up at a hospital seeking treatment for a gunshot wound, Ferguson said. Officers arrested him after identifying him as the man accused of shooting the Townsends.

Though he is not 18, because he stands accused of a violent crime, Pipkins is old enough to have been booked at the city’s adult jail.

Police later recovered the getaway vehicle, which had previously been reported stolen.

First responders took both victims to University Medical Center for treatment. Zelda Townsend was pronounced dead there.

Three neighbors of the Townsends recalled hearing at least 10 gunshots during the melee. One recalled a voice yelling out, “Leave him alone,” though it wasn’t clear to which “him” the voice was referring. That same neighbor – who asked to not be named – recalled watching a perturbed Pipkins deliberately walk away as Zelda Townsend lay on the sidewalk next to her car.

“It almost seemed like he couldn’t believe what he had just done,” the neighbor said, speaking Spanish.

Zelda Townsend's cousin, Elmo Vincent, met with reporters near the scene of the killing and described trying to wash away his slain relative's blood from the street. 

"That hurts me – to see my blood on that ground," Vincent said.

Wednesday night was not the first time police had encountered Pipkins, who turned 17 in February. Ferguson and Cantrell said he had recently been arrested for breaking into another car; he was released by a Juvenile Court judge to the custody of an aunt. He also apparently had been booked some time before that in a separate aggravated assault case in Juvenile Court.

Cannizzaro, along with the chief and mayor, used Pipkins’ arrest to reiterate his frustration with authorities’ repeated encounters with the same juvenile offenders on the street.

He has long maintained that repeat teen offenders are a result of pressure put on Juvenile Court judges to limit the number of detainees at the Youth Study Center, the city’s juvenile detention facility.

Gun violence statistics in New Orleans have been relatively low since last year, when the city registered its lowest number of murders since 1971. Homicides this year are nearly half what they were at the same point 12 months ago, but year-to-date car burglaries are nearly double their total at this time in 2018.

Such crimes are typically blamed on youths, and Cannizzaro’s office has noted how that surge came as police de-emphasized the arrest of minors for curfew or truancy violations.

NOPD figures show that officers made nearly 4,100 such arrests in 2011 and 2012 but only 264 last year.

Cannizzaro’s office has called those kinds of arrests important early interventions that are effective in discouraging minors’ criminal behavior from escalating.

Both Ferguson and Cantrell on Thursday left open the door of stepping up curfew and truancy violation arrests as the city tries to drive down the number of car break-ins and vehicle thefts, which are also high.Truancy and curfew arrests of juveniles could mean fines and fees for their parents and caretakers, which was welcome news to the Townsends’ neighbors.

“I have been living 18 years here, and I’ve always seen delinquency,” said one neighbor, speaking in Spanish. “It’s a lack of education and discipline over the children, and it’s parents’ fault.”

In a statement Thursday, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights — which defends juvenile defendants — said it is clear “something is not working” in New Orleans. However, instead of calling for more youths to be locked up, the center asked the public to support programs, ranging from mental health treatment to mentorship, that it said are more effective at preventing juvenile crime.

“These alternatives are proven to be more effective at keeping children out of trouble in the long run – and they’re far less expensive than jail,” the statement said.

Cantrell said her office was working with the City Council to build an enrichment program that children accused of crimes can be ordered to participate in, which should give officials an option beyond simply releasing them or locking them up in the frequently overcrowded juvenile detention center.


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.