As the family of Will Smith began preparing to bury him this weekend, the New Orleans Police Department revealed a potentially significant new finding Tuesday in the investigation into the former Saint’s death following a minor, three-vehicle collision Saturday night in the Lower Garden District.
Authorities said Cardell Hayes, the 28-year-old dog breeder and tow truck company owner accused of fatally shooting Smith after hitting his SUV, wasn’t the only person on the scene with potential access to a gun.
Detectives who searched Smith’s Mercedes G63 on Tuesday morning said they found a fully loaded 9 mm handgun inside. Police have not said who owned the weapon or where in the SUV it was found, but its presence could lend credence to a theory of self-defense for Hayes.
However, police said they found “no ballistic evidence” to show that the weapon in Smith’s SUV was fired during the encounter between the two men.
Police accuse Hayes of shooting Smith, 34, in the back and right torso with a .45-caliber handgun after crashing into the longtime Saints defensive end’s vehicle with his Hummer H2.
Hayes’ defense attorney, John Fuller, has maintained his client was not the aggressor in the confrontation. Fuller said the entire incident began not at Sophie Wright Place and Felicity Street — where Smith was shot and died — but a few blocks uptown, when someone rear-ended Hayes’ vehicle in the 2000 block of Magazine Street.
New video obtained by The Advocate and other outlets seemed to bolster that claim: It appears to show whoever was driving Smith’s SUV apparently hitting the back of Hayes’ rust-red Hummer in front of Juan’s Flying Burrito, then driving away without stopping to exchange information or check on the damage.
As police and video evidence complicated the narrative of the killing, a well-known former Saints player took to Facebook to express his frustration over the death of his friend and former teammate, and to confirm that he was a witness to the fatal shooting.
Running back Pierre Thomas, who shared in the glory of the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl championship with Smith, did not enter into specifics about what he saw. He did say, however, that “these images that I have in my head will never leave me.”
“The last few days has been a whirlwind and I am still trying to wrap my head around this whole thing,” Thomas, 31, wrote on Facebook. “I witnessed a close friend, teammate and a man that I thought of as one of my big brothers in the NFL shot to death OVER A (expletive) FENDER BENDER!!!! Why!? I just don’t get it.”
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has said investigators believe Smith was returning to the SUV after exchanging words with Hayes when he was shot. His body was found halfway inside the driver’s side of the vehicle.
One open question is where the 9 mm in Smith’s vehicle was uncovered: near Smith’s body or stored away in a place where it could have played no role in the late-night confrontation. Tyler Gamble, a Police Department spokesman, declined to say where the gun was found, calling that information “part of the ongoing investigation.”
What is clear is that Hayes’ Hummer and Smith’s Mercedes carried ample deadly weaponry between them. Police said they also found another weapon, a fully loaded revolver, inside Hayes’ Hummer.
Neither that revolver nor the 9 mm handgun in Smith’s vehicle was fired during the incident, according to ballistics evidence police said they recovered from the scene.
Police also said for the first time that besides Smith and his wife, another man and woman were in Smith’s vehicle at the time of the shooting. Police did not identify them.
Shortly before the shooting, Smith and Thomas were part of what has been described as an easygoing gathering of friends at Sake Café, less than a mile upriver on Magazine Street from the site of the killing.
Smith had documented a long day of celebration at the French Quarter Festival and later at Sake Café on social media.
Fuller, Hayes’ attorney, has said that parties other than his client were intoxicated during the argument that apparently preceded the shooting. He has declined to state whether he believes Smith was one of those under the influence, but the claim seems to be another potential building block for a self-defense theory.
However, one witness disputed the notion that Smith was drunk or otherwise impaired shortly before the shooting. Sake Café general manager Dave Matherne said Smith showed “no signs of intoxication when he left.”
“He seemed fine. There was no slurred speech; there was no stumbling,” said Matherne, 37.
Matherne said he could not speak to what had happened before the dinner, but he believed the two bottles of wine that were shared among seven dinner party members would not have been enough to make any of them drunk.
Hayes remains in jail in lieu of $1 million bail on a count of second-degree murder.
The public’s most revealing window into the investigation could be opened on April 28, when Hayes is scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing.
Lawyers frequently pepper homicide detectives with questions about the case against their clients at such hearings. However, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office could choose to avoid a preliminary hearing by securing an indictment of Hayes before then.
Members of the public continued Tuesday to lament Smith’s death in private and on the street corner where he died.
The Saints said Smith’s family will host a visitation from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday at the team’s indoor practice facility, 5800 Airline Drive, in Metairie. There will not be a ceremony during the visitation, according to the team.
A private burial will take place Saturday.