Her perpetual smile belies a lifetime of grief.
Now 49, local publicist Denise Verrett knows the painful road ahead of 10-year-old Raven Johnson, the only child of New Orleans police officer LaToya Johnson, a former teenage mother and now the city's first female cop to be slain in the line of duty.
Like Raven, Verrett was a young girl when a cop killer's bullets took the life of her father -- Sgt. Lloyd Verrett Sr. -- more than three decades ago. "My heart goes out to the child," Verrett says. "It is going to be a burden that she will have to carry for the rest of her life."
Like other police-family survivors, Verrett relives her own memories whenever a cop is killed on the job; she speaks publicly for first time in an interview with Gambit Weekly.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 1, 1967, 12-year-old Denise, her 13-year-old brother Lloyd Jr. and their mother were asleep in the family's Uptown home when a police chaplain knocked on the door.
"All I remember is my mother going to the door and screaming and crying," Verrett recalls. Another police officer took her mother to the hospital. The chaplain stayed with Denise and her brother.
Sgt. Verrett, a 14-year police veteran and one of the first black ranking officers in the modern New Orleans Police Department, had been shot multiple times at the Mighty Duke Lounge in Uptown.
"He walked into an armed robbery," recalls retired Police Superintendent Warren Woodfork, then a patrolman. "Two guys were holding a woman hostage. This was long before we had SWAT teams and hostage negotiators. Sergeant Verrett went in and tried to talk them into freeing the lady, and they shot him instead."
The hostage survived. The killers were captured and sent to prison. The sergeant was rushed to Charity.
Two days later, on Oct. 3, Denise's father marked his 37th birthday, clinging to life in a hospital bed. "When they made the call for blood donors, it was overwhelming," Verrett recalls. "Churches from all around the community were asking for blood for my father."
But Sgt. Verrett died two days later. The last time the children saw their father alive was before he went to work. They were playing on the front porch. He gave both children a po-boy and a kiss before heading to the Second District station.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to see Sgt. Verrett's funeral procession, including residents of the housing projects. "He was looked upon as a hero because he gave his life up for that woman to be set free," says Woodfork, who drove the slain sergeant's car in the funeral procession with Verrett's police hat resting on the dashboard.
The crowds made young Denise feel proud. She also remembers feeling that her father was a great man because he had an American flag on his coffin, "like President Kennedy." Although she was only in seventh grade at the time, Verrett recalls thinking her father would not get to see her graduate from high school.
She went on to graduate from the University of New Orleans in 1978 and became a news reporter for WYLD-Radio, covering the 1979 police strike and the 1980 police killings of four blacks in Algiers. Today, she is the proud mother of a 17-year-old daughter and has launched a career in public relations/broadcasting. But neither time nor life's successes have eased the loss and longing for her father, she admits.
"My life has not been the same," she says. "It's been thirtysomething years, but I miss my dad terribly. I visit him regularly at Mount Olivet cemetery near Dillard University. And I still have the flag from his coffin. My mother never remarried. She is 67."
The Verretts' former neighbor, Alfred Harrell, a longtime admirer of Sgt. Verrett, joined the NOPD five years after Denise's father was slain. Harrell was shot to death by a sniper in 1972. Denise used to baby-sit Harrell's brother, Stephen, who is now an NOPD officer.
"I have nothing but respect and admiration for police," Verrett says. "I have a 17-year-old daughter whose friends are afraid of the police. There is racial profiling, and there is brutality, but not like there was in the 1980s.
"I think there should be a movement to show support for our NOPD," she adds. "And I would be ready to lead the cause. I am glad to share the life of my dad with the city that he was born in, loved and protected." And if she could tell Raven anything now, she says, it would be this: "Cherish the memories of your mother and know that she died doing something she loved."
- "My life has not been the same," says Denise Verrett, whose police sergeant father was killed in the line of duty when she was 12 years old.