The police never arrested Bennie Thompson. Two significant developments may have given them pause. Kelly and Kohnke had been approached in late March by one of their street sources and told, in some detail, what had happened on Morrison Road. The lawyers had shared this intelligence with the police. In addition, one month after the Thompson-White murders, five people had been massacred in a similar house invasion on North Roman Street.
Then, on May 6, came the turning point. At 8:30 p.m., a 13-year-old girl wearing a gold chain had just left a snowball stand in New Orleans's Uptown district when a red Grand Am pulled up next to her on the street. A man got out of the car and reached for her necklace. When the girl pulled back, he shot her in the neck. The car sped away. A few minutes later, police in a squad car spotted the Grand Am and began a highspeed 45-minute chase. A pursuing policeman saw a pistol being tossed from the window of the passenger seat. A trailing officer stopped and picked up the weapon. It was a 9-mm Ruger, nickel and chrome, with a five-inch barrel and the serial number 303-25147. When the fleeing car was finally stopped by police, among those arrested were the driver, Robert Trackling, and the man who had shot the girl and tossed the gun: Donielle (Fat) Bannister.
There are so many 9-mm guns and so many shootings in New Orleans—365 people were murdered there in 1995—that no one thought to match the markings of spent casings from Bannister's Ruger with those found on Morrison Road three months earlier. In May, while the gun was being held as evidence for the trials of Trackling and Bannister (the girl lived, and the assailants would be found guilty of attempted murder and attempted armed robbery in July 1996), Trackling did something not unusual for a young prisoner. He told his cell mate, Eric Rogers, about a past crime—the slayings of Tangie and Devyn Thompson and Andre White. Jail cells make leaky confessionals; prisoners use such information to try to make deals. So Rogers told the New Orleans police what Trackling had told him. Bannister's Ruger was then sent to ballistics, and spent shells from it matched those recovered on Morrison Road.
Trackling, unaware of these developments, was questioned by homicide detectives on June 1 and asked what he knew about the Thompson-White killings. Caught off guard, he confessed. He named his three accomplices. Thompson's wait for the dreaded call was over.
""Hallelujah!" exclaimed Kohnke when he heard the news. He immediately called the Browns' practice facility in Cleveland, where Thompson was excused from a defensive meeting to go to the phone. "They found the people who killed your son," the lawyer told him.
"Really?" Thompson asked, sounding subdued. "Do they know why they did it?"
"Robbery," said Kohnke. "Drugs and money."
On June 6, New Orleans police superintendent Richard Pennington announced, "Bennie Thompson has been eliminated as a suspect." By July 9 all four suspects—Bannister. Phillips, Smith and Trackling—were in prison on three charges each of first-degree murder and aggravated burglary. In December 1996, with Trackling testifying against him, Smith was convicted of the triple murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. This verdict came after Smith had been convicted and sentenced to life for the North Roman Street slaughter; there was a connection between those two crimes. Trackling has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for manslaughter in the Thompson-White killings. Bannister and Phillips have pleaded not guilty, claiming they were not even on Morrison Road, and Thompson may have to testify at their trial, currently scheduled to begin Feb. 9.
To create reasonable doubt about Bannister's and Phillips's guilt. their lawyers are likely to dredge up all that circumstantial evidence that the police collected against Thompson. "It seems that it will go on forever," Thompson says. "Basically, I don't worry about it. As long as the triggerman is put away. I'm pretty much satisfied."
In 1997, for the first time in two years, Thompson was able to give of himself entirely on the football field. As captain of special teams for the Browns' successor team, the Baltimore Ravens, he played with his old ebullience and abandon and had one of his best seasons, with 18 solo special teams tackles, two fumble recoveries and one caused fumble. That earned him a spot as a second alternate in the Pro Bowl, which will be played on Feb. 1 in Honolulu.