City mourns Smith as questions remain

NEW ORLEANS – People across Louisiana were trying 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 an act of deadly 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 it into a Chevrolet Impala carrying Smith’s acquaintances, before Hayes opened fire.

A defense attorney for Hayes, John Fuller, says 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 by bullets in his back and torso. His wife was wounded in the leg.

Police arrived soon thereafter, handcuffing Hayes. As paramedics wheeled Racquel Smith away on a stretcher, her husband’s lifeless arm could be seen above his steering wheel, his body slumped partially outside his car.

Hayes, 28, was being held on $1 million bond after police arrested him on a charge of second-degree murder. He was in court again 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.

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. “My client has been pilloried, convicted and tried,” he added, complaining about media coverage.

Questions remain about what exactly transpired that night. Police haven’t released the accounts of Racquel Smith, the passengers in the other cars, nor any other witnesses. A police spokesman, Tyler Gamble, said he had no immediate information about the 911 call.

The news was hard to stomach for people 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.

Funeral arrangements have not yet been made public.