Robert Trackling was steering his two-door black Sentra east across the city of New Orleans when Juan (Short Dog) Smith, sitting in the backseat, told the two other passengers what was going down that winter night. All the men in the car except Trackling were members of the Cutthroat Posse, a loose-knit gang that for several years had been terrorizing residents of the city's St. Thomas housing project. As Trackling would tell it, two of the gang members, Donielle (Fat) Bannister, 20, and Kintad (Buckle) Phillips, 21, sat in the car holding AK-47 assault rifles equipped with banana clips. Smith, 20, was holding Bannister's semiautomatic 9-mm Ruger, a nickel-and-chrome pistol with a five-inch barrel, a 15-round magazine and the serial number 303-25147.
Only Smith knew where they were going. He had picked the target and was directing the 18-year-old Trackling along Interstate 10. "The dude's got dope," Smith said. "The dude's got at least 20 grand in dummy money floating around. It's going to be a quick hustle."
It was around eight o'clock on Saturday, Feb. 4, 1995, and the dude in question was Andre White, 30, who had a history of drug arrests. On Smith's instructions, Trackling left the interstate and cruised down Morrison Road. Smith was searching house numbers.
"Slow down!" he told Trackling. "All right, there's the house." It was a two-story brick dwelling at 8130 Morrison Road, where White lived with his girlfriend, Tangie Thompson, 28, who owned the house, and her three-year-old son, Devyn, an outgoing, precocious sweetheart of a kid. When the boy's father, who lived two miles away, had friends over to his house to watch a postseason football game, Devyn would work the room at the final whistle, high-fiving all the guests, or take off with his arms crossed in front of him and run splat into a wall. "That's what my daddy does," Devyn would say. He was the only son of Bennie Thompson, a former member of the New Orleans Saints and the Kansas City Chiefs and, in 1994, captain of the Cleveland Browns' special teams.
After six years of marriage, Bennie and Tangie Thompson had divorced in July 1994. By then White had moved in with Tangie, and on several occasions Bennie, fearing for Devyn's life because he believed that White was peddling dope, had threatened Tangie. "If anything happens to my son, I'll kill you," he had told her.
Now, in the dark of a February night, Smith and Phillips were carrying guns and casing Tangie's house for signs of life. When it appeared that no one was home, Smith had Trackling drive them to the Glow & Shine, the New Orleans auto detail shop that White owned. When one of the Posse asked what they were looking for, Smith said, "A white Lexus." That was Tangie's car, but White often drove it.
No Lexus was at the Glow & Shine. The Posse decided to make one more run past 8130 Morrison. It was about 8:30 p.m.
Back at the house, Smith and Phillips got out, scouted around and climbed back into the Sentra. "We got to do it another time," Smith said. "No one's home." But there were people in the house. The three occupants had just eaten pork chops for dinner, and Tangie had gotten Devyn ready to spend the night at the home of her mother, Brenda Mayfield, dressing him in a black turtleneck shirt under a jumper. White entered the garage from inside the house and hit the light switch and the door button.
At his $500,000 house on Wright Road, Bennie Thompson had unwittingly arrived at an unmarked intersection of his life. He was a 31-year-old veteran safety and special teams player whose violent, reckless charges down the field on punts and kick-offs suggested a man willing to die for his emperor. He had just ended his sixth season in the NFL, one of his finest years in football since, as a Saint in 1991, he had been selected for the Pro Bowl.
Upon signing as a free agent with Cleveland in 1994, Thompson had played with a dedication and joy that had lifted, like a rising tide, the players around him. "I'd never seen anybody play like that," says Jerry Simmons, then the Browns' strength and conditioning coach. "He was on a different level from other players. Nobody could block him. Within three or four days of coming here he was the leader of the special teams." In his flights down the field Thompson was routinely double-and triple-teamed, but by season's end he was tied for the Browns' lead with 21 special teams tackles.