The shooting death of an ex-NFL player in a New Orleans suburb was a "road rage" incident that began on a nearby bridge, a sheriff said Friday, as he urged against a rush to judgment and defended his handling of the case.
Joe McKnight was shot Thursday afternoon in Terrytown, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Authorities identified 54-year-old Ronald Gasser, who stayed at the scene, as the shooter and released him overnight, sparking criticism.
At a news conference Friday, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said the altercation that ended with McKnight's death started on a nearby bridge — possibly when one of the two men cut the other off — and then proceeded into streets of the New Orleans suburb. He didn't say which driver cut off the other.
Authorities said Gasser shot McKnight three times from inside his car with a semi-automatic handgun while McKnight was standing outside. Witnesses reported the two had been in a heated argument, the sheriff said.
Normand defended his handling of the case, saying the investigation was ongoing. No charges have been filed. Some protesters upset at Gasser's release gathered outside the sheriff's office earlier Friday.
Speaking of Gasser's release, the sheriff said the state has certain "statutes" that provide a defense to certain crimes but did not go into further detail.
"The easiest thing for me would have been 'Book him, Danno.' Right?" Normand said, referring to the police saying made popular on "Hawaii Five-0." But Normand urged caution.
"Mr. Gasser is not going anywhere. He has been completely cooperative with us in every request we have made," he said. "We will do a very through and deliberate investigation."
But news late Friday that Gasser was involved in a similar altercation with a driver a decade ago will likely raise further questions about who was the aggressor.
Normand said in a press release late Friday that in February 2006, Gasser chased down and beat another driver in what appeared to be the same intersection where McKnight was shot and killed Thursday.
In the 2006 incident, a man observed a truck driving erratically and called a number on the truck, speaking to a man later identified as Gasser. Gasser and the man got into a fight on the phone and then Gasser followed the man to a service station, confronted him and hit him several times. Gasser drove away and the victim called 911.
Investigators found Gasser and issued a misdemeanor summons for simple battery, which was later dismissed. Authorities said they are trying to determine why it was dismissed.
Normand earlier Friday didn't go into details from the investigation, saying he didn't want to taint any prospective witnesses that might still come forward.
But he did reject a number of accounts in local media speculating about the shooting. In particular, Normand said there was no video of the incident and that Gasser did not stand over McKnight and fire shots into him.
Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich backed that up, saying Knight's three wounds were not consistent with being shot from above.
McKnight's grandmother said family members are still seeking information about the player's death and why Gasser was released.
Barbara Franklin told The Associated Press relatives are "trying to find out our own selves" just what happened. Of Gasser, she said by phone, "He might be released now, but God is going to bring about justice in it."
McKnight is the second former NFL player this year to die in the New Orleans area in an apparent road rage incident. Former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith was killed in a shooting last April sparked by a traffic altercation.
Normand said no gun was found outside either vehicle. A sheriff's office spokesman, Col. John Fortunato, said authorities are searching both vehicles. Fortunato said McKnight didn't have a weapon on his person or near his body when found.
Gasser couldn't immediately be reached by The Associated Press.
His release raised questions about what exactly led to the shooting. Arthur A. Lemmann, a New Orleans-based attorney not connected to the case, cautioned that it was too early to tell but it could indicate Gasser says he acted in self-defense.
"It's not the end of the matter ... but what it indicates to me is that there was some basis to believe that the homicide was justified. And the most typical justification of a homicide is self-defense," Lemmann said.
McKnight played three seasons for the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent this season in the Canadian Football League.
McKnight was considered the nation's No. 1 running back recruit when he came out of Louisiana in 2006 and signed with the University of Southern California. He was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round in 2010.
In a mostly somber New York Jets locker room, former teammates remembered McKnight. Only a handful of players remain from those New York teams, but the impact McKnight left was clear.
"In my rookie year, he was like the first guy who actually talked to me here," said quarterback Geno Smith, who was drafted in 2013. "Joe was cool, man. He was funny. Just a real laid-back guy, always kept you laughing and always a smile on his face."
A few veteran players declined to comment in the locker room because they were so upset by the news, but later issued statements through the team.
"My memories from him are working hard," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "He came in his rookie year and it was a little rocky for him trying to learn the system. And then his second year, he took off as an explosive kick returner and he won us numerous games."
The Jets organization tweeted: "Rest in peace, Joe McKnight. Our thoughts and condolences are with his loved ones."
Former Jets teammates were also tweeting about McKnight, expressing shock and grief.
"This hurt to my heart. I can't stop crying," said Antonio Cromartie.
"Just senseless violence... great teammate and sense of humor," Damien Woody said.