Questions persist amid hints of a broader conspiracy in wake of N.O. officer’s death
Authorities have charged three more people in the fatal hit-and-run accident that left New Orleans police Officer Rodney Thomas dead by the side of the interstate last month, suggesting a broader conspiracy to hide the damage to the Porsche SUV that ran Thomas down.
Police announced Thursday evening that the three new suspects, as well as the three already booked, had been indicted by a state grand jury. Bonds for the three initial suspects have been raised dramatically.
Five of the six were in custody Thursday night, police said.
Those charged include the three people who had already been arrested in the case — Justin McKey, 25; Kenneth Halley, 28; and Bill Cager, 34 — as well as the three new suspects: John Chambers, 28; James Ratliff, 38; and Nephateria Jones, 27.
“We are very satisfied with the work of the grand jury and district attorney,” police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said late Thursday. Serpas had been critical of the courts because of bonds that he believed judges set too low, allowing McKey and Cager to leave jail for a crime that outraged the city.
McKey’s bond, which had been $50,000, is now $1 million; Halley’s bond, which had been $100,000, is now $1.6 million; Cager’s bond, which had been $100,000, is now $800,000.
McKey and Halley are both charged with manslaughter, while Halley also faces charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to act as an accessory after the fact to manslaughter. Cager faces only the latter three charges.
While police did not say what roles the new suspects allegedly played in the crime, Jones, Chambers and Ratliff are only charged in connection with the cover up; all three face charges of obstruction of justice and conspiring to obstruct justice. Jones and Chambers also face charges of accessory after the fact to manslaughter and conspiracy to act as an accessory after the fact to manslaughter.
Bond for Jones and Chambers is set at $800,000 apiece. Bond for Ratliff is set at $400,000.
Serpas said that all six suspects began working “within minutes” of the July 7 accident to start spinning a whitewash of the events that led to up to it. He said it’s possible that more arrests will be forthcoming.
McKey turned himself into police a day after the July 7 wreck, saying he was the driver of the white Porsche Panamera that struck Thomas as he got out of his truck to check on damage to another car on the Interstate 10 high-rise over the Industrial Canal. The Porsche sideswiped another car and kept going, leaving Thomas to die on the side of the road.
Halley, who was supposedly a passenger in the Porsche, allegedly then drove the vehicle to a friend’s house. From there, he and at least one companion drove the Porsche to an auto body shop in the 2600 block of Gravier Street — in the shadow of police headquarters. Cager, who owns the body shop on Gravier, met them there, and they tried to clean up the car to hide evidence of the wreck, according to police, who have said video surveillance tapes at the shop confirmed their account.
The charging of a trio of new suspects adds another wrinkle to a case that has puzzled some legal observers from the start. Police have never said who owns the Porsche, which retails for $93,200; McKey had been working as a laborer at the Sewerage & Water Board until shortly before the wreck.
Meanwhile, Halley, who has faced heroin distribution charges alongside Chambers, was driving the car a few hours before the accident, leading some observers to wonder if he — not McKey — was driving when the wreck happened.
Both Halley and McKey are charged with manslaughter, suggesting authorities still aren’t sure who was driving when Thomas was killed.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Serpas on Thursday night declined to answer any of those outstanding questions, though he said detectives know the answers.
The new bond amounts and the charges suggest that the police theory of the case has not changed much — just that investigators have found evidence that more people were involved in the cover up.
Lawyers for two of the suspects, however, said that prosecutors are overplaying their hand with the new charges, which they predicted won’t stick.
Robert Hjortsberg, who represents Jones, said his client wasn’t in the car when the wreck happened, though he declined to elaborate on her relationship with the other suspects or the incident.
“The grand-jury process is very one-sided,” Hjortsberg said. “They’re going to have a very hard time proving the heart of the case which is who was driving the car and what happened. I think they’re reaching.”
John Fuller, Cager’s attorney, said that his client “didn’t do anything. They have to prove my client knew a human being was killed with that car, as opposed to him (Halley) just coming in to have that car fixed.”
Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that the district attorney is responsible for setting bonds. While prosecutors make arguments about how high bonds should be, bond are set by judges.