By Eliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Will Smith and his wife, Racquel, were “having a blast” at a city festival mere hours before they were both shot, leaving the former New Orleans Saints defensive end dead and his wife hospitalized.
New Orleans Police Department spokesman Tyler Gamble was reluctant to use the term “road rage,” but a police statement says Smith and the driver of a Hummer SUV “exchanged words” before the Hummer’s driver shot Smith multiple times and shot Smith’s wife in the right leg.
Former New Orleans police officer Billy Ceravolo, who was at dinner with Will and Racquel Smith before the shooting, told CNN over the phone that Racquel Smith was on the mend, but he declined to answer further questions.
“She is out of surgery and doing well, and that’s the highlight of today,” he said.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office booked Cardell Hayes, 28, on second-degree murder charges early Sunday, Gamble said. Bond was set at $1 million, according to jail records.
“I don’t have any information indicating they knew each other at this time,” Gamble told CNN in an email, noting that the investigation was ongoing. New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said during a Sunday afternoon news conference that police are still investigating whether Hayes and Smith knew each other.
One matter that has become part of the probe, Harrison said, is whether a decade-old lawsuit that Hayes filed against the city after police fatally shot his father has anything to do with Saturday’s shooting. Ceravolo is named in the lawsuit.
A dinner, then a deadly shooting
Details are still emerging about the moments leading up to the deadly shooting.
Earlier Saturday, Smith posted a selfie of him and his wife. The caption said the pair were having fun Saturday night at the French Quarter Fest, an annual event in the famed New Orleans district.
Shortly after the Instagram post, the couple had dinner at Sake Café. Ceravolo, former Saints teammate Pierre Thomas and a sports agent joined them, restaurant General Manager Dave Matherne said.
“You could hear them laughing at the table,” Matherne said. “It seemed they were having a really good time.”
Just before the restaurant closed, around 11:15 p.m., the Smiths left in a Mercedes G63 SUV.
They were following two acquaintances in a gray Chevrolet Impala, police said in a statement.
It took only 10 blocks for the situation to turn dramatically.
As the vehicles approached a five-point intersection in the city’s Lower Garden District neighborhood, Hayes was driving behind them in an orange Hummer H2, police said.
Hayes rear-ended the Mercedes, causing Smith’s SUV to hit the Impala, according to police.
“At some point, the … driver of the Hummer and Smith exchanged words,” the police statement said. “The … male driver produced a handgun and shot Smith multiple times, the female victim was also shot to the leg.”
Wounded wife’s cry: ‘Where’s my husband?’
Janis Baehr says she was inside a nearby bed-and-breakfast when she heard the vehicle crash, a heated dispute and at least five shots fired.
The Florida resident, who was in town to celebrate a friend’s birthday at the festival, told CNN she went outside after she heard a woman shout, “Please, God, somebody, please help me!”
“(Racquel Smith) was screaming, lying there on the sidewalk,” Baehr said. “I got there on the ground with her.”
They prayed together, she said, before paramedics rushed Racquel Smith to the hospital with gunshot wounds in her leg. According to Baehr, Racquel Smith cried out, “Where’s my husband? Where’s my husband?”
When police reached the scene at about 11:29 p.m., Will Smith was “in the middle of the street partially inside of his vehicle suffering from multiple gunshot wounds to the body. He died at the scene,” police said.
And Hayes was still there.
Investigators recovered the weapon they believe he used, and it had no record, Harrison said. Hayes also had a male passenger in the car with him. He was not identified, and Harrison said he had no information suggesting the passenger was involved in the shooting.
Detectives transported Hayes to the homicide office for questioning before taking him to Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office Central Lockup and booking him on a murder charge, police said.
A photographer for the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans posted a picture of Thomas, Smith’s former teammate who dined with him Saturday night, standing at the scene of the shooting and looking distraught.
— Michael DeMocker (@MichaelDeMocker) April 10, 2016
Abutting the Mississippi River, the Lower Garden District neighborhood is known for its historic homes, some of which date back to the early 19th century. Lee Circle, a popular gathering spot during the city’s Mardi Gras celebration, sits on the neighborhood’s edge.
It’s a relatively low-crime area, especially when compared with Central City to its west and the Central Business District and French Quarter to its north. Of more than 500 crimes reported in New Orleans in the last week, only a handful occurred in the Lower Garden District, most of them thefts, though there was an assault reported Friday, according to the city’s crime map.