Family prepares to bury NOPD officer killed in hit-and-run; investigators continue to search for answers

Reginald Jackson didn’t think about it for the first few days. The loss early Sunday of his older brother, officer Rodney Thomas, was too surreal. It left him numb.

But on Thursday, as fellow officers from the New Orleans Police Department gathered outside of the 2nd District station for a candlelight memorial service, reality overtook him.

Come Friday morning, Jackson realized, he would lay his brother to rest.

Thomas was killed early Sunday when the driver of a Porsche Panamera slammed into him on Interstate 10 near the high rise. The impact happened as he directed traffic away from an accident in which he’d been involved while on his way home from work. Police say the speeding car crushed Thomas against its windshield, sloughed him off and sped away.

“I didn’t accept it. I didn’t want to make sense of it,” Jackson said. “I promised myself that I wasn’t going to be affected by this, but I guess I was wrong.”

His voice cracked and quivered as he remembered his brother during the memorial service that took place outside of the century-old 2nd District station where Thomas reported to work for the last eight years. Around Jackson were several dozen fellow NOPD officers, as well as a handful of Louisiana state troopers, Westwego police officers and New Orleans firefighters.

While the city at-large has only recently come to know Thomas as an officer with a reputation as a caring man, Jackson said he was always that way.

One of 12 siblings who grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in the old B.W. Cooper housing development, Thomas developed a sense of concern for others at a young age, Jackson said.

“Part of that giving to help others came from the fact we never had anything,” he said. “When he gave, he was giving of himself.”

That selflessness will be missed in the ranks of the NOPD and in the areas Thomas patrolled, said 2nd District Commander Paul Noel.

Soon, he said, Thomas’ photo will hang inside of the station on the corner of Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue.

“He’ll never be forgotten,” Noel told Thomas’ family.

Barely an hour before the memorial for Thomas, New Orleans police released a photo of yet another “person of interest” in the case, raising the number to five men that detectives suspect were involved in or knew about the fatal hit or the alleged cover-up that followed.

The photo shows a man reportedly inside Best of the Best Automotive and Sales, the Gravier Street shop where police say they found the luxury sports car that hit Thomas, along with evidence of an attempt to clean up blood from the fatal strike.

The man is dressed in a blue Air Jordan T-shirt and dark-colored pants and appears to have a short stature in the photo, which looks like it ca me from a surveillance camera high on a wall inside of the shop.

Police so far have arrested three men in the officer’s death. Justin McKey, 25, turned himself in to police Monday and allegedly admitted he was the driver of the car. Police booked McKey with manslaughter and hit and run causing death or serious injury.

Bill Cager, 34, the auto shop’s owner, was arrested on charges of accessory after the fact to manslaughter and obstruction of justice, after police said he had grabbed some towels and wiped blood off the car about an hour after the incident.

Police lodged the same counts against Kenneth Halley, 28, alleging that he helped orchestrate the attempt to hide the evidence. He might also have been in the car with McKey, having been stopped hours before the early Sunday morning incident, driving the Porsche erratically near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, according to police.

Police have yet to say who owns the white sports car, who else aside from McKey was in the car when it struck Thomas or discuss other details about an incident that has prompted myriad alternative theories across the city.

Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen set bail for McKey at $50,000 and $100,000 for Halley. Commissioner Harry Cantrell set bail at $100,000 for Cager.

Both McKey and Cager have since been released, with the bail amounts for the three drawing the ire of a spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

“Keeping in mind bail is not a punishment. It’s to ensure you come to court,” said Raymond Burkart III, who also is a lawyer for the group. “The very fact these people ran from the scene should indicate they have a tendency to run.”

“It’s absolutely outrageous, infuriating,” added Burkart, calling the bond amounts “an abuse of the court’s discretion.

Burkart said Thomas was helping the other driver in the minor collision and directing traffic, indicating he was killed in the line of duty. He urged Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to seek higher bail amounts for the three men.

Cannizzaro spokesman Christopher Bowman said prosecutors pushed for Hansen to set McKey’s at $150,000.

“McKey’s bond was low,” Bowman said.

But the $100,000 levels for Cager and Halley “are equal or higher if not higher than most people that face those charges in New Orleans.”

He said the office was still screening the case to decide what charges to accept and would evaluate the bond amounts following that process.