Confession in doubt in officer's death

Suspect allegedly paid $50,000 to take fall

The salvaged white Porsche Panamera that fatally struck New Orleans Police Officer Rodney Thomas on the Interstate 10 high-rise in July was bought two months earlier at an online auction for Kenneth Halley, one of two men indicted last month for manslaughter in the officer’s killing, according to police documents obtained by The New Orleans Advocate.

And according to at least one person interviewed by police, Halley was the man behind the wheel when Thomas was killed, and he later paid another man $50,000 to cop to the charge.

The purported fall guy, Justin McKey, 25, turned himself in to police July 8 and confessed to ramming into Thomas on the high rise at Louisa Street, then fleeing, sloughing the officer’s body onto the roadway as he sped off.

The police documents include no clear corroboration for the allegation that Halley paid McKey to take the rap. One person told police that Halley paid the money to McKey’s mother — a claim she denied, while also telling police she didn’t believe her son was the driver. Police interviewed McKey’s mother at City Hall, where she works in the Management Information Systems department.

Forensic tests tied a pair of fingerprints in the car to McKey, but both prints were found on the passenger side front wood panel, above the glove box, according to police.

Evidence of Halley’s prints on the gear shift may not implicate him, since police say he drove the Porsche to an auto shop near NOPD headquarters in an alleged cover-up, telling his girlfriend, Nephateria Jones, that “Jigga messed up” — referring to McKey. Halley, 28, had also been driving the SUV hours before Thomas was killed. Police stopped him driving recklessly near the Superdome, gave him a warning and let him go.

A state grand jury indicted both Halley and McKey on manslaughter counts. Halley and four others also were indicted on counts related to the alleged cover-up attempt. They include Jones, a pharmacist assistant at Ochsner Hospital on Jefferson Highway.

According to a tipster cited in police documents, a relative of Jones said it was Halley who drove the car first into Thomas’ pickup, then rammed into Thomas. The officer was speaking to his wife on the telephone while standing on the freeway after running his 1993 Ford Ranger into a stalled, stolen car.

“Kenneth hit this man on the bridge and kept going,” the relative reportedly told the tipster on the night of the accident. The relative appeared “nervous, shaking and out of breath,” the tipster told police.

The names of witnesses and most of those interviewed by police are redacted from the documents. Halley, who has a long rap sheet and now also faces a murder charge from before Hurricane Katrina, could face a lengthy sentence under the state’s habitual offender law if convicted in Thomas’ killing. The manslaughter charge is McKey’s first adult offense, at least in Orleans Parish, online court records show.

Jones’ sister, Michelle Jones — who was McKey’s ex-girlfriend — told police she paid Halley $30,000 to $35,000 to buy her the Porsche at auction, but that she never saw it because it was in the shop for work.

According to records and interviews conducted by police, it cost significantly more than that.

Police traced the origins of the car to Thomas Robinson, now an NBA forward with the Portland Trailblazers. Robinson, who bought the car last year for $104,000, totaled it in California in January after a game while he played for the Sacramento Kings.

Found to be a “total loss,” it changed hands a few times before landing with an auto auction company in New York state. Herbert Golden, who owns Easy Finish Auto on North Galvez Street, bought it online and had it shipped to Texas. He then drove it to New Orleans.

Golden told police he bought it for Halley, though it was insured in Michelle Jones’ name and the title never went over to either Halley or Jones.

The winning bid was $49,750.

Golden, who did some work on the car after buying it, said Halley paid him $60,000 in cash and still owed him $12,000 for the car, which had “severe undercarriage damage.”

Also indicted in the case was Bill Cager, 34, owner of the auto shop where McKey told police they could find the Porsche. According to the police documents, Cager told detectives he got a call at 1:30 a.m. the morning of the crash from “Jigga,” asking him if he could bring the car by the shop.

“Mr. Cager stated ‘Jigga’ arrived at the shop a short time after the call in a white Porsche and he opened the doors to the shop, at which time ‘Jigga’ drove the vehicle inside,” a report states.

Video surveillance cameras, however, showed it was Halley, along with Nephateria Jones — not McKey — who pulled up to the Best of the Best Automotive and Collision Center.

Halley and Cager both face charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice and accessory after the fact to manslaughter.

Jones, 27, faces charges of obstruction of justice and conspiring to obstruct justice. Two others — John Chambers, 28, and James Ratliff, 38 — also face those two counts.

According to police, when Officer Chad Gagnon pulled up to Nephateria Jones’ apartment in Metairie on July 8, Halley ran off, then later turned himself in.

McKey’s attorney, Jerry Settle, declined to comment on the case, as did Halley’s attorney, Robert Glass.

Nephateria Jones’ attorney, Robert Hjortsberg, denied that his client knew anything about the crash when Halley picked her up outside a house in New Orleans East in the wee hours of July 7, and drove to the shop.

“I don’t know why they got her involved,” Hjortsberg said.

He said the charges suggest that police don’t know who was driving.

“I don’t think they have a theory, which is why they’ve charged McKey and Halley with the manslaughter,” he said. “I don’t think they know which one was which.”