New Orleans mourns slain Saints player as questions over death remain
Off the field, retired defensive end Will Smith won hearts in his adopted city, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and rejuvenated when the Saints won the Superbowl in 2009.
New Orleans — People across Louisiana sought Monday to process the news that one of the Saints' much-loved players, former defensive end Will Smith, was shot in the back Saturday night in what police called a deadly act of road rage.
Smith, 34, arrived in New Orleans in 2004 as a No. 1 draft pick and played with such passion and power that he quickly became a defensive captain. Off the field, he won hearts in his adopted city, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and rejuvenated when the Saints won the Superbowl in 2009.
"I am telling you that this man loved the city of New Orleans," said Terrell Haynes, who got to know Smith and his wife Racquel through their work with Kingsley House, an organization helping underprivileged families and kids. "That's the part that is really disheartening, that this man loved this city."
Police said Cardell Hayes, a former semi-pro football player, rear-ended Smith's Mercedes G63 with his Humvee H2, pushing Smith's big, blocky SUV into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Smith's acquaintances, before Hayes opened fire.
A defense attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, said there's more to the story: He said Hayes himself had been rear-ended moments earlier by a hit-and-run driver, and called 911 to describe the car he was following before he ran into the back of Smith's Mercedes. It remains unclear whether the car he was pursuing was the Mercedes, the Impala or some other unrelated car.
The two men — both big and imposing — then angrily confronted each other on Felicity Street shortly before midnight. Moments later, witnesses heard gunfire. Smith was killed and his wife was wounded.
Police arrived soon thereafter, handcuffing Hayes.
Hayes, 28, was being held on $1 million bond after police arrested him on a charge of second-degree murder. He was in court Monday as arrangements were made for a new lawyer to eventually replace Fuller, who will soon begin work as a temporary judge. Prosecutors now have 60 days to decide how to proceed.
Police plan to add a charge accusing Hayes of shooting Racquel Smith, spokesman Tyler Gamble said Monday.
Fuller insisted outside court Monday that Hayes will be vindicated once the full story emerges. Someone "besides my client" was behaving in a threatening manner, he said, though he wouldn't say who. "My client has been pilloried, convicted and tried" by news media and social media, he added.
In court, he got an order to preserve ballistic evidence. He wouldn't say whether he believes two guns were fired.
Questions remain about what exactly happened that night. Police haven't released the accounts of Racquel Smith, the passengers in the other cars, nor any other witnesses.
Gamble said the investigation prevents him from saying whether Hayes called 911 to report a hit-and-run accident.
The news was hard on many who had closely followed Smith's career.
The Queens, New York native came to New Orleans from Ohio State where he was on the 2002 national championship team, and quickly became a team leader, Saints' play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson said Monday.
"He played with great leverage and such great passion and such incredible power that he was there for you day after day after day, game after game," Henderson said.
Smith created his share of football highlights, particularly in the 2009 run to the Super Bowl, when he had 13 regular-season sacks — fifth best in the NFL that year. His postseason play included an interception of a Kurt Warner pass in a Saints playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
"He might do a little fist-bump or he might take a look at his bicep after a sack. But he wasn't one to gloat on individual statistics. He was a team leader," Henderson said.
Smith was preparing for his second season when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005. That season was dismal for the Saints. The Superdome, initially a refuge for thousands of people whose homes were submerged, was badly damaged. Forced to play the entire season on the road, they went 3-13, and some speculated the team might never return.
Local radio broadcaster and talk show host Eric Asher said Smith became a locker room leader after the storm, convincing others that the 2006 season under new coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees was about more than getting more wins on the field.
"He had been in New Orleans before the storm. He'd dealt with the aftermath of the storm. He understood that football was really secondary here — this was about uplifting the entire region," Asher said. "He was always a guy who was a leader on and off the field for this team."
Those ties endured after Smith retired from football. He continued to live in suburban Kenner with his wife and three children, coaching his son Wynter's football team while studying for a Masters' in Business Administration at the University of Miami.
The Smiths also hosted a yearly Christmas party and dinner, giving presents to families in need. One of those families was Ruby Smith's, an 81-year-old woman raising her three grandchildren.
"I found that they were just wonderful people. And I was just really struck and almost in disbelief that that had happened to them," Smith said Monday.
Smith's career was not without controversy. He was at the center of the NFL's bounty probe in 2012, his last regular season. The league concluded that he and fellow defensive captain Jonathan Vilma helped run a locker-room pool paying cash bonuses for heavy and even injurious hits.
Smith successfully appealed a four-game suspension, though Payton was suspended the entire 2012 season.
In 2011, Smith served a two-game suspension for using a weight-loss diuretic banned by the league for masking steroid use. And before that season began, Smith was indicted on misdemeanor charges of domestic abuse battery and public intoxication after officers saw him grab his wife's hair in an argument.
Those charges were dismissed at his wife's request after Smith went through counseling and performed community service. Smith also wrote a letter of apology to the Lafayette Police Department, a prosecutor said.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been made public.