NEW ORLEANS (April 13, 2016) — When police first described the slaying of former New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, their account of what unfolded was simple.
There was a vehicle crash, police said, followed by a heated exchange and a deadly shooting after the suspect brandished a gun.
But the story of exactly what happened on the streets of New Orleans on Saturday night is getting more complicated.
The latest clues in the high-profile case: Surveillance footage showing an apparent hit-and-run crash and the discovery of loaded weapons inside vehicles days after police towed them away from the scene.
Footage revealed by CNN affiliate WVUE and another surveillance video obtained by CNN show a Mercedes SUV trailing a Hummer, until the latter vehicle stops abruptly. The Mercedes pulls up quickly, too, possibly hitting it from behind. Both vehicles are a standstill briefly, until the Hummer starts to pull over; the Mercedes, though, goes around and drives off.
A short distance away and a short time later, according to police, an altercation occurred between Smith, in a Mercedes G63 SUV, and Cardell Hayes, in a Hummer H2. This time, it was the Mercedes that was rear-ended, police said.
But Hayes didn’t drive off.
And Smith ended up dead.
‘Six gunshot wounds to the chest’
Hayes’ lawyer insists his client wasn’t the aggressor, but the victim of a hit-and-run.
“Someone hit him, the person failed to pull over,” attorney John Fuller told reporters. “My client trailed behind this person in an effort to get this license plate number. My client also called 911.”
Fuller didn’t specify whether Smith — who not long before had been enjoying a fun night out with his wife and friends — was the one who rear-ended his client.
Police say the two men did exchange words, after which shots were fired. One person called 911 to report, according to dispatch audio, “there’s a male down with about six gunshot wounds to the chest.” That referred to Smith. His wife was shot once in the right leg.
Police arrived four minutes later.
They found Smith’s body “in the middle of the street, partially inside of his vehicle, suffering from multiple gunshot wounds to the body,” the police report said. “He died at the scene.”
Hayes was still there. That he didn’t leave — and, moreover, that he’d secured a witness who was heading out — is telling, according to his lawyer.
“Now, tell me if that’s the behavior that’s consistent with someone who’s an animal out here looking for blood,” Fuller said. “His actions are totally consistent with someone that is complying with a police investigation.”
Additional weapons found
New details from the police investigation appeared to add credence to at least one claim by the defense attorney: that Hayes wasn’t the only one who had a gun that night.
Detectives found a fully loaded 9-millimeter handgun inside Smith’s vehicle on Tuesday morning, police said. Investigators also found a fully loaded revolver inside Hayes’ vehicle.
Police haven’t said who owned the guns. In addition to the Smiths, another man and woman were inside the Mercedes. And there was also a male passenger in Hayes’ Hummer.
“No bullet casings were found inside either vehicle, and no ballistic evidence was recovered to show that either weapon was fired during the incident,” police said.
But did those weapons play any role in what unfolded Saturday night? Police haven’t said. At least one witness has said he heard two men shouting about having guns before the shooting.
After the Saturday night shooting, police confiscated one gun at the scene: the .45-caliber handgun they say Hayes used to shoot Smith and his wife. Hayes is charged with second-degree murder.
Anger, sadness in New Orleans
The place where Smith’s bloody body lay, near the intersection of Sophie Wright Place and Felicity Street, has gone from crime scene to memorial.
There are balloons, flowers and other remembrances. One is a shirt from Smith’s alma mater, Ohio State University. Many more items speak to his nine seasons with the Saints, during which time he helped the franchise win its first Super Bowl. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2006 and, the Saints announced Sunday (a month ahead of schedule), recently had been unanimously been picked to join the football team’s Hall of Fame.
Gun violence is not new to New Orleans. It’s something that Smith himself took note of a few years ago after a stretch of 20 killings in 26 days in the city.
“Please Stop the Violence!” he tweeted.
That same message is among the signs on what’s now Smith’s memorial. And it’s been echoed by his longtime coach, Sean Payton, who called it “madness” that “everyone needs a gun.”
“I hate guns,” the Saints head coach told USA Today. “I find myself leaning to the right on some issues. But on this issue, I can’t wrap my brain around it.”
His feelings were heightened by his personal relationship with Smith, who was his defensive captain as a longtime locker room leader. The fact that his three children, William, Lisa Mya and Wynter Chase, will now grow up without a father makes it even sadder, his friends said.
“Mourning the loss of a great friend and teammate, Will Smith,” tweeted New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who like Smith was part of the post-Katrina squad that went on to win Super Bowl XLIV in 2010. “Such a senseless tragedy.”
That view was echoed by Nikole Jessie, who used to live down the street from where Smith was shot. That’s how New Orleans is, she says: One moment people are out having fun and then, “boom, someone gets shot over nothing.”
“It’s really, really sad,” Jessie told CNN near the memorial site. “You know the Saints are such a part of this city.”
‘Tragic at every level’
No doubt, the stature of Smith and the Saints has focused the region’s attention on his killing, more than other homicides in New Orleans over the years.
But Fuller, the lawyer representing Hayes, urged people — even if they care passionately about this case — not to jump to conclusions.
“Whether the victim is famous, infamous, popular, unpopular, black, white, Catholic, Baptist, the law applies equally to everyone,” he said. “If the law is applied fairly in this case, I think the results are going to surprise a lot of folks.”
Fuller hinted that toxicology tests, results of which should come back in about six weeks, will “absolutely” be key to his client’s case.
Whatever police learn in their probe, New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison called the incident a sad one for his city and those involved.
“While this was an isolated incident, it is certainly tragic at every level and on all sides,” the superintendent said. “One life is over, and another life is ruined.
“Make no mistake about it: We absolutely don’t tolerate this type of behavior on the streets of New Orleans.”