Suspects in NOPD officer’s death allegedly tried to hide evidence

Police say witness gave tip that led to discovery of car in hit-and-run case

Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- A memorial to Officer Rodney Thomas, who was killed last week in a hit-and-run, sits Tuesday at the Second District Police station on Magazine Street.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- A memorial to Officer Rodney Thomas, who was killed last week in a hit-and-run, sits Tuesday at the Second District Police station on Magazine Street.

Less than an hour after New Orleans police officer Rodney Thomas was run over and left to die on the side of Interstate 10, the men in the white Porsche Panamera that struck him were inside a body shop across town, a block away from police headquarters, trying to dispose of the evidence, police said Tuesday.

But the entire cover-up was caught on tape by surveillance cameras inside the body shop, which is owned by one of the three men now booked in Thomas’ death and the alleged effort to obstruct justice that followed.

Justin McKey, 25, turned himself in to police Monday afternoon, allegedly admitting he was the driver of the Porsche. He was booked on one count each of manslaughter and hit and run causing death or serious injury.

His alleged co-conspirators, Kenneth Halley, 28, and Bill Cager, 34, were each booked with obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact to manslaughter, authorities said.

According to court records filed Tuesday, the Porsche struck Thomas about 12:44 a.m. Sunday after first sideswiping Thomas’ pickup on eastbound Interstate 10. Thomas, who was on his way home from a shift, had been involved in a fender-bender near the high-rise over the Industrial Canal, and he had gotten out of his truck, wearing his uniform a reflective vest, to check on the other car. He then began to direct traffic away from the accident, according to police.

When he tried to flag down the speeding Porsche, the sports car first hit his truck, and then hit Thomas, briefly carrying him on its hood. When Thomas fell to the pavement, the car accelerated away, continuing eastbound toward Slidell.

Shortly after 1 a.m., the documents indicate, Halley turned up at the home of an unnamed friend. That person, labeled a “witness” in the police report, walked outside to find Halley in the car and got in the back seat, according to the police report. “Jigger messed up,” Halley reportedly told the witness, an apparent reference to McKey, who goes by that nickname.

The report doesn’t say whether McKey was present .

The witness told police that he or she noticed damage to the car — including “severe” damage to the front windshield — but “never brought this knowledge to the attention of Kenneth Halley,” according to the police report.

The witness told police that Halley then drove to Cager’s shop, Best of the Best Automotive and Sales, in the 2600 block of Gravier Street.

There, Halley and the witness were met by Cager about 1:42 a.m., and the men got to work trying to hide the evidence of the wreck. The car had damage to its passenger side and front end, while the windshield had a “massive indentation” where the glass shattered, likely from the impact with Thomas, according to court records. Cager allegedly grabbed some towels and began to wipe Thomas’ blood off the car.

An investigation of the garage once the car was removed revealed white rags in the garbage cans “in and around the facility” with what appeared to be blood on them.

Crime-scene technicians found hair stuck in the cracks on the windshield. Meanwhile, surveillance cameras inside the shop recorded Cager trying to clean the car, according to police.

Police, following the information from the witness and McKey’s interview, located the Porsche at Cager’s garage on Monday afternoon, at which point they announced they wanted to speak with Halley.

When he turned himself in Monday, McKey allegedly told police that he was driving the car “in and out and it was dark” and he didn’t see Thomas.

Bail for McKey was set at $50,000.

Oddly, less than four hours before Thomas was killed, the same white Porsche attracted the attention of another police office working a detail outside the Essence Festival. Officer Victor Gant Jr. pulled the car over after the driver — which at that point was Halley — ran over some traffic cones. He let Halley go with a warning.

It is not clear whether McKey was in the car at that point.

Police have declined to answer questions about who owned the Porsche, which retails for $93,200.

McKey until recently worked for the Sewerage & Water Board as a laborer; he was fired several months ago for tardiness and insubordination. He shares an address with Cheryl McKey, a veteran employee of the city’s management information systems department. A person who answered the phone at the home Tuesday said she did not want to speak to a reporter.

Meanwhile, neighbors of the McKeys in the Bayou St. John area on Tuesday said they never saw a Porsche in the area; one neighbor said he believed McKey drove a Chrysler.

Before his arrest Monday, McKey had only faced minor municipal charges related to criminal damage and criminal trespassing related to domestic violence, according to court records.

Halley’s rap sheet, meanwhile, includes arrests for murder, car theft, heroin distribution and gun charges.

The second-degree murder charge was refused by the district attorney in June 2005, a couple months after it was filed. In that case, Halley and another man were accused of shooting 22-year-old Joseph Lucien in the chest during a fight in an alley off Alabo Street in the Lower 9th Ward.

A forgery charge in 2004 also was dismissed, as were a 2003 arrest for illegal possession of a stolen car and a 2005 charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Halley pleaded guilty in 2004 to possession of heroin and was handed a four-year suspended sentence.

He pleaded guilty again in 2009 to a series of charges including both possession and distribution of heroin and cocaine and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was sentenced to five years in prison that time, then pleaded guilty again a few months later to an additional heroin-possession charge. The judge tacked on another four-year sentence, but ordered it to run at the same time as the five years he already was serving.

Halley also has several municipal charges, including arrests for domestic violence, unauthorized use of a moveable, battery and assault, those many of those charges were eventually dropped.

Bond had not been set for Halley on Tuesday night.

Cager, whose bond was set at $100,000, was booked in July 2002 with three stolen car-related crimes –- illegal possession of a stolen automobile, altering a vehicle identification number, and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. All three charges were refused by the Orleans Parish district attorney’s office that September.

Cager also faced charges of disturbing the peace in May 2002, but city attorneys dropped those charges days later.

A funeral for Thomas will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 2515 Franklin Ave. Visitation will begin at 8:30 a.m.

A procession will pass the 2nd District NOPD station on Magazine Street at Napoleon Avenue, where Thomas was based, at 11:30 a.m. Thomas will be buried at Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery.

Staff writers Claire Galofaro, Gordon Russell and John Simerman contributed to this report.