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Will Smith is Gone but is Road Rage to Blame?

As more facts are revealed through key witnesses, the Will Smith murder appears like more than a simple case of road rage. Is this tragedy an indictment of New Orleans' gun and prison culture?

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Around 11:30pm Saturday night, my friend, who lives across the street from the scene of the crime, was just returning home from another friend’s birthday dinner. She paid the babysitter and told her she would walk her to her car. They were walking out the front door when my friend heard loud shouting from the corner where Sophie B. Wright dumps into Camp Street.

She said drunk and obnoxious sounding people are always emanating from the Half Moon Bar down the street, but as she walked out the door, she could tell a serious argument was brewing. "Between the time I walked from my front door to the gate, Will was dead," she said. "He never left the car. He was slumped over the steering wheel."

It’s no more than 20 feet from her front door to the gate when she heard at least five gun shots and ran back into the house with the babysitter. Somehow, within the several seconds it took for those few short steps, a fender bender had turned into a murder. We have pondered together how the situation could have possibly escalated so quickly, and the more information that continues to come out regarding the suspect Cardell Hayes, the more inclined I am to think there might be more to this story.

For instance, my friend also witnessed a shirtless man down the block, possibly carrying a gun and arguing with a woman. It appeared, my friend said, that the woman was trying to restrain the man from maybe getting involved in the Hayes/Smith skirmish just a half block away. My friend reported this incident to the cops in her statement, but that the man and woman were neither detained nor questioned.

I stopped by my friend’s house Sunday on my way to French Quarter Fest to check on her because I knew she was rattled to say the least. At that time, she told me these extra details of what she witnessed first hand. After placing some flowers on the make-shift memorial at the corner of Sophie B. Wright and Camp, I ran into another friend walking her dog.

She told me her friends were in the Impala with Pierre Thomas, and the whole group, including Will and Racquel, had just eaten dinner at Sake Cafe. They were in that neighborhood to drop a couple of people off before heading to the Windsor Court when Will and Racquel’s Mercedes Benz was rear ended and forced into the back of the Impala carrying Thomas and the other dinner goers.

Here is where Racquel and Pierre’s testimonies will be important because Cardell Hayes’ attorney, John Fuller, said Hayes was the victim of a hit-and-run not long before and was simply pursuing these vehicles to obtain their license plate numbers. He also said that Hayes even called 911 to report the hit-and-run right before the alleged second accident, which soon turned deadly.

My friend even commented how odd it was that Hayes stuck around after the shooting and made no attempt to flea the scene. Fuller defended Hayes’ behavior saying, "Not only did my client call 911, but my client secured a witness who was about to leave the scene and my client waited for law enforcement to arrive. He is completely competent and completely aware of what he did. His actions are consistent with complying with law enforcement. Tell me if that’s consistent with someone who is looking for blood."

Fuller went on to say that his client believed he was not the aggressor and that a full toxicology report should be made of everyone involved to prove that they were intoxicated from dinner and possibly belligerent. Fuller even insinuated that his client may not have been the only party with a gun that night. Hayes' witness supposedly stated that when Hayes approached the Mercedes, he said, "I got one of those too," before brandishing his own weapon.

Whether the Smiths were drinking at dinner or carrying a firearm may not even be the most important questions asked so far regarding this case. Perhaps more intriguing was the presence of one of the Smith’s dinner companions, retired NOPD Captain Billy Ceravolo. A close friend of both Smith and Thomas, Ceravolo accompanied the group to dinner but was not present at the time of the shooting. Ceravolo was one of the officers named in a civil lawsuit against the NOPD filed by Cardell Hayes and his sibling which was later settled in 2011 for "7 figures."

Ceravolo was on the scene in 2005 when several NOPD officers shot and killed Hayes’ mentally unstable and pocket-knife wielding father, Anthony, after he had allegedly punched an employee at a pharmacy just blocks from Smith’s alleged murder. It was the first deadly police shooting following the opening of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Ceravolo has denied knowing he was named in the lawsuit. This is weird to me. How do you not know you are a part of a mutli-million dollar lawsuit involving you and your employer? As a party to a lawsuit, I would think one must be served papers informing them of a suit against them. Ceravolo also told the Daily News that there was "absolutely not" a prior connection between Hayes and Smith. He said it was just "a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just a coincidence. New Orleans is a big small town."

Why is Ceravolo stating so emphatically that he didn't know about his role in the lawsuit or that Smith and Hayes couldn’t have known each other? The Washington Post reported Sunday that Hayes had in fact worked security for the Saints organization during the same time Smith was on the team. NOPD Superintendent Harrison also said there was no evidence to suggest they had known each other. But inquiring minds can wonder, with so few degrees of separation, couldn't they have possibly known each other?

Once considered one of Louisiana’s top 50 high school football prospects, Hayes played for Warren Easton High School. After Hurricane Katrina and the shooting death of his father, it appears Hayes never played in college, instead playing for the local development team Crescent City Kings as recently as last year. Hayes’ close relationship to the New Orleans football community makes me think it would be impossible for him to not at least know who Will Smith was when he approached Smith’s Mercedes.

Another New Orleans football standout, Tyrann Mathieu tweeted, "I know that dude, he been a hating ass coward. Never knew he’d grow up to be a killer tho…May you get what you deserve coward." Judgments aside, this whole situation shines a sad spotlight on the never-ending cycle of violence in New Orleans. A talented athlete survived Katrina to have his schizophrenic father murdered by police (watch the video posted by Travers Mackel, it was murder, not self defense), and later succumbed to the pressure of the streets by shooting another human being dead.

Despite Louisiana locking up more citizens than any state in the US, which locks up more citizens than any other country in the world, this state still boasts the highest crime and violence rate in the country. According to the Times Picayune, 1 in 86 adults in Louisiana are behind bars. This is twice the national average. 1 in 14 black New Orleanians are behind bars and 1 in 7 are either in prison, on parole, or probation.

No matter what we end up finding out in this investigation, one man is probably going to prison for life without parole, another is dead from gun violence, and a wife with three children will join the thousands of other Louisiana families living without their father. Mathieu offered some of the best insight into New Orleans gun violence.

"Until y’all get them crooks out of office and until y’all give these kids something constructive to do, the violence will continue to grow!" Mathieu wrote. "They can’t go to parks like I was able to, because the grass ain’t cut & the rims have no nets nor do they even have rims. The budgets cutting into education, recreation and everything else that is VITAL to a kid having success. Not to mention half of their fathers are in prison. So this isn’t coming from an angry place but from a person who has made it out!"

"All they have is music to influence them, and if you listen closely to music now a days, it’s brainwashing them to believe drugs and killing are the cool thing to do which is why I’m dropping an album… Cause that s–t ain’t cool, cool is being a father and being able to provide. Cool is facing adversity and having GOD having a place in your heart and world. Cool is handling things like men not like cowards. I’m at peace… I’m going to church to pray for all y’all."

New Orleans has a violent crime problem. Praying can certainly help, but we need much more than that to curb the violence that has been growing here for decades. It’s time we treat the disease (lack of access to proper education, housing, social services, and positive paternal mentoring, etc.), instead of the symptoms (commit a crime/go to jail). We shouldn’t have to lose a Saint to gain compassion, understanding, and stewardship for our sinners.