Wendy Byrne would have celebrated her 40th birthday on July 27. Instead, she was fatally shot in an attempted robbery Jan. 17 at the corner of Dauphine and Gov. Nicholls streets.
A public outcry followed, louder than any in the French Quarter since the 1997 robbery-murders of three employees inside the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen adjacent to the French Market. Byrne's family and friends from here to her native California assembled for a solemn candlelight march past the scene of the crime. New community organizations were formed. A meeting at the Omni Royal Orleans hotel, initially designated for neighbors only, drew City Council members and top brass from the New Orleans Police Department. Letters demanding safer streets were delivered to the offices of Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. French Quarter groups — new and old — banded together to demand greater public safety, scoffing at NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley's insistence that the Quarter was as safe as it had ever been. They called for security cameras, for streetlight repair and for cops to walk beats.
After that meeting, police patrols increased and holdups in the Quarter all but disappeared — for a time. Shortly thereafter, the parents of three juveniles — two age 15 and one 14-year-old — surrendered their children to police. Then the story ebbed, becoming just another of the 97 murders in New Orleans in the first half of 2009.
Gambit wanted to know what has changed — and what has not — six months after Byrne's murder. NOPD did not grant our requests for interviews with police district commanders about public safety in the Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods. Nor did Mayor Ray Nagin's office respond to our request to interview the director of the Vieux Carre Commission about street lighting and city crime cameras. We found plenty of encouraging, if guarded, praise among Quarterites for 8th District police and city officials — with the notable exception of Nagin. We also heard worries about slippage.
It happened on a Saturday night in a residential section of the French Quarter. Shortly before 8 p.m., Byrne and a male friend were walking lakebound in the 800 block of Gov. Nicholls Street near the corner of Dauphine, almost midway between the two Lower Quarter clubs where Byrne tended bar: the gay bar Starlight by the Park on N. Rampart Street and the punkier hangout Aunt Tiki's on Decatur Street.
A figure approached them from behind. He mumbled something, Byrne's friend later told police. The friend added he thought the stranger might have been "intoxicated."
Byrne and her friend walked off. The stranger demanded money.
The two friends turned around once more. The stranger was an African-American male, Byrne's friend later told police. He wore a hoodie and held a revolver in his right hand. "Give me your money. I've got a gun," he said.
He shot Wendy Byrne and fled without taking anything.
Byrne's friend said he watched the gunman run toward a second figure, who the victim estimated stood about 40 feet away. The would-be robbers then ran down Gov. Nicholls toward Bourbon Street and west toward the heart of the Quarter.
The friend says when he turned back to Byrne, she looked at him and asked: "What just happened?"
She collapsed on the sidewalk.
Eighth District Officers Adam Garner and Blake Munster were the first NOPD officers on the scene. They were in the Downtown Development District, but arrived within six minutes of the 911 dispatcher's call for help. Garner and Munster said they found Byrne laying face up, bleeding from the abdomen. Her friend was kneeling next to her. An EMS ambulance arrived and transported Byrne to a local hospital, where she died a short time later of a gunshot wound to the back.
Meannwhile, at Dauphine and Gov. Nicholls, Munster rimmed the crime scene with yellow tape and kept spectators at bay, while Garner interviewed Byrne's friend, who recounted the botched robbery, the shooting and the flight of the suspects. "The initial report came out as three perpetrators running," Garner testified later in a court hearing.
Three robberies in the same area — shortly before the Byrne murder — contributed to the development of three juveniles as suspects in the slaying, as well as public confusion that still persist, six months later.
The job of sorting out suspects in three robberies prior to the deadly hold-up of Byrne fell to NOPD Det. Richard Chambers. On Jan. 17, Chambers had been assigned to the Homicide Division for just six months. He arrived at the crime scene at approximately 9 p.m. — moments after Byrne was pronounced dead.
According to published reports, Chambers later told a juvenile court that police developed composite sketches of two juvenile murder suspects based on descriptions by two victims of a pickpocket robbery earlier that night. At 7:49 p.m., a 29-year-old man was robbed as he walked in the 800 block of Gov. Nicholls — the opposite end of the same block where Wendy Byrne was shot two minutes later. Two armed youths forced him to lie on the ground as they took his cash, cellphone and driver's license, according to published reports and juvenile court records.
The victim told police he heard "shots being fired in the area as the perpetrators were fleeing," French Quarter crime blogger Thom Kahler wrote, citing a police report by a "Sgt. J. Waguespack."
On Jan. 18, NOPD released composites of two thin black males wanted in connection with Byrne's murder.
Today, three juveniles remain locked up awaiting trial for the slaying. Court filings show their defense attorneys are searching for information not previously reported in local news accounts, including:
• a fourth "suspect" — allegedly reported to homicide detectives, mentioned to NOPD Officer Desmond A. Pratt on the night of Byrne's murder;
• police reports of as many as three Quarter robberies (including two pickpocket cases) — minutes before Byrne was shot — incidents that NOPD never posted on the city's online crime maps:
• a police report of a "reasonable suspicion stop" of three youths in the Quarter the day of the murder;
• and a police lab report on "two latent fingerprints and DNA samples taken from a cell phone" stolen in the armed robbery two minutes before the murder of Wendy Byrne.
Reggie Douglas, 15, surrendered to police first, accompanied by his mother, according to a transcript of Det. Chambers' testimony at a hearing before Criminal Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen. At about 9 p.m. on Jan. 19 — two days after the murder — NOPD Sgt. Gerard Dugay brought Douglas and his mother to the homicide division, testimony shows. Douglas then confessed to killing Byrne, the detective said.
Earlier that day, Douglas told police he and a neighbor, Drey Lewis, 15, had talked about robbing people. Joined by a third youth — later identified as Ernest Cloud, 14, of Kenner — the trio went to the French Quarter, Chambers said. Douglas said he saw a white man and a white woman walking lakebound on Gov. Nicholls Street, the detective testified.
Douglas said he approached the two victims and tried to rob them, the detective recalled. "He stated he fired one shot, the victim was shot, he fled the scene," Chambers testified.
Later, the detective continued, his police supervisor said Lewis' mother would surrender her son. Lewis was wearing an electronic-monitoring bracelet at the time of the shooting, court records indicate. He had previous arrests: one for possession of a stolen car on Sept. 26, 2008 and two for curfew violations; the disposition of those cases was unavailable.
Lewis admitted that he and Douglas (whom he called "Milk") discussed robbing people on the day of the murder, the detective testified, adding that Lewis said they later went to the Quarter with Cloud. Lewis said he was no more than 9 feet away when Douglas fatally shot Wendy Byrne, the detective said. Under questioning by Harry S. Tervalon Jr., Lewis' lawyer, Chambers allowed that his investigation may have yielded surveillance video relative to the killing — but not of the actual homicide.
After Chambers recounted the eyewitness testimony of Byrne's friend at the crime scene, Douglas' defense attorney Randall Green asked the detective, "Was there anyone else who identified Reggie Douglas, either tentatively or positively, as the person who pulled the trigger?" Chambers replied, "No, not as the person who pulled the trigger. Your client confessed." The separate confessions of both youths were captured on police videotape and audiotape, Chambers added.
Ernest Cloud, whose parents turned him into police on Jan. 22, also stated that Douglas shot Wendy Byrne, the detective continued.
Police retrieved a dark-colored hooded sweatshirt from Douglas' residence. Chambers said the clothing was consistent with the description given by the surviving victim/witness to the murder. (However, the seized clothing appears at odds with the descriptions NOPD broadcast Jan. 18, the day after the murder: two black males — one wearing a "tan hooded sweatshirt" and the other, "a lime-green jacket with an [sic] bright orange lining.") The gun was never recovered, Chambers testified.
Tervalon appeared to probe for mitigating evidence as he questioned Chambers about the police interrogations of the juveniles: "There were no plans to shoot anyone?"
"No, sir," Chambers replied.
On April 30, a grand jury indicted Douglas and Lewis for the second-degree murder of Wendy Byrne and the attempted armed robbery of her and her friend. Bond was set at $500,000 each. Both juveniles will be tried as adults.
Cloud is booked with robbing the 29-year-old man in the 800 block of Gov. Nicholls — two minutes before and one block away from the fatal shooting of Wendy Byrne. Police say Cloud also admitted to participating in the Bryne hold-up. However, William B. Jantzen, a court-appointed clinical psychologist who interviewed Cloud on Feb. 12, said Cloud denied robbing anyone, adding he left his co-defendants (whose names he could not recall) in the French Quarter when they started discussing robberies. Later, Jantzen added: "[Cloud] had two attorneys but could not recall their names, even though one of the lawyers came in the office."
Lewis and Douglas are housed at Templeman V, the juvenile section of Orleans Parish Prison, according to Joshua Perry, one of three public defenders for Reggie Douglas. Ernest Cloud, 14, of Kenner, is confined at the Youth Study Center in New Orleans on a $250,000 bond. Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Mark Doherty said a hearing to determine whether Cloud should be tried as an adult has been reset for 8:30 a.m. Sept. 1. "He has been found competent to stand trial — whether here or at adult court," Doherty said, referring to a series of mental health examinations by court-appointed experts.
Because the Byrne case involves three youths, few expect the case to go to trial anytime soon.
"I know the public is going to want this (case) resolved quickly but considering the very serious nature of the charge — it's not going to happen" says Tervalon, a former state prosecutor and New Orleans cop. "This is a case that gets to people's hearts."
Kalen Wright lives a block away from where Wendy Byrne was murdered. Wright, a computer analyst, says she was preparing to leave her home that night for a Sonny Landreth concert in Mid-City. She heard a gunshot. Moments later, her car was hemmed in by emergency vehicles responding to Byrne's shooting.
Wright says the murder led her to a path of civic activism. Within days, she and fellow activist Camille Burgin co-founded Lower Quarter Citizens Against Crime. "We are the waitresses, the bartenders, the shopkeepers and the retirees," she says. "We are treated by city officials and NOPD as if we are equal. It's very encouraging."
On Jan. 23, more than 100 residents of the Lower Quarter and Marigny packed the back room at Buffa's Bar and Restaurant on Esplanade Avenue to share their concerns and strategize. City Councilmen James Carter and Arnie Fielkow also showed up, as did then-newly elected District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Riley and NOPD 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli were not there; Hosli sent word that without a formal request, he would not be able to attend. Fielkow urged organizers to make sure a request was filed in the future, but added, "Frankly, it is BS that even if they weren't invited that they didn't come to this meeting."
Riley and Hosli did appear at a later meeting of the group, as well as at another, more high-profile community meeting of another organization that sprang up in response to Byrne's murder. Meeting of the Minds (MOM) is a consortium of 13 French Quarter resident/professional organizations, including the French Quarter Business Association, Bourbon Street Merchants Association and the French Market Corporation. On Jan. 29, MOM held a well-attended press conference at the Omni Royal Orleans, to which police and politicians were specifically not invited. They showed up anyway: Riley, Hosli and several members of the NOPD, as well as Councilmembers Carter and Jackie Clarkson. Chuck Ransdell, chair of MOM, presented members of the media with petitions demanding increased police presence in the Quarter, to be delivered to some two dozen public officials, from President Barack Obama and Gov. Bobby Jindal to state senators, representatives and the New Orleans City Council.
Clarkson offered to broker a meeting between MOM members and the mayor's office, which had sent no representatives to the meeting. Ransdell was open to the possibility, but he wasn't hopeful. After the meeting, he told Gambit, "I don't know if she can get us into the mayor's office. I think I'm on his shit list."
Ransdell never did hear back from the mayor's office, he said last month: "It's like the crime tape is across his door and we're not allowed in." But MOM meets monthly and has established a good relationship with both Hosli and Riley, with whom the group meets on a regular basis. As for public safety, Ransdell says, "One of our members did a walking tour [of the Lower Quarter] about three weeks ago. All but one light was repaired."
Wright's group also is still active. She says the killing hardened her resolve to stay here after returning to the city from Seattle in January 2008. "Wendy's murder a block from my home made me dig my heels in," she says. But Wright adds she does not see the same police show of force that resulted in the crime decline six months ago. "There was a patrol on Burgundy and Dauphine streets every 20 to 25 minutes," Wright says. "More often than not, [criminals] flee on one of those two streets. I don't see patrols every 20 to 25 minutes any more."
Residents are split on how safe they feel when police patrol with blue flashing lights for visibility, Wright says, adding she knows a lot more residents with guns in their homes than she did six months ago. Like other Quarterites interviewed, she has trouble believing officers still spend one hour of each shift on foot patrol, a post-Byrne pledge from NOPD. However, on a recent July night near Gov. Nicholls, a lone, square-shouldered patrolman walked confidently toward a dark stretch of Decatur Street.
At the Jan. 31 gathering of anxious residents at Buffa's, Police Superintendent Riley insisted that Quarter area crime was lower than it had been since 1996. "We still have crime problems, but it's not this massive amount of crime that people continue to say," he told WWL-TV reporter Maya Rodriguez. The chief cited NOPD statistics, which critics have discounted as unaudited by independent experts.
On July 31, exactly six months to the day after Riley's declaration, a lone gunman robbed Buffa's in the wee hours of the morning. Eighth District detectives quickly issued an arrest warrant in the case, and on Aug. 5, Darwin Hunter, 26, turned himself in. He is charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault, and is being held on $160,000 bond.
— Kevin Allman contributed to this story.