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Presumed Guilty When the three-year-old son and former wife of NFL special teams star Bennie Thompson were savagely murdered the night before the Pro Bowl, police were sure they had another O.J. on their hands

Feb. 02, 1998
Feb. 02, 1998

Table of Contents
Feb. 2, 1998

Faces In The Crowd
Hockey

Presumed Guilty When the three-year-old son and former wife of NFL special teams star Bennie Thompson were savagely murdered the night before the Pro Bowl, police were sure they had another O.J. on their hands

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.

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 1998 issue Original Layout

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 kickoffs
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.

The Pro Bowl was to be played in Hawaii on Sunday, Feb. 5, 1995,
and Thompson had been picked as an alternate on special teams.
When starter Steve Tasker of the Buffalo Bills broke his arm in
mid-December, the NFL told Thompson that he would go to
Honolulu. Thompson had already bought plane tickets for his
girlfriend, Angie Heisser, and for Devyn when Tasker received
medical clearance and decided to play.

So Thompson had canceled the Hawaii trip and was sitting at home
alone when White hit the garage light switch and the door
button. For Thompson, caught in those intersecting lines of time
and space, no breath he would take would be the same again.

As Trackling recalls, he was about to drive away when he glanced
back at 8130 Morrison and saw a light flick on and the garage
door begin to rise. He backed the Sentra to the driveway of the
house, blocking it. Smith, Bannister and Phillips, all armed and
wearing gloves, scrambled from the car and swept up the drive.
White was about to get in his 4Runner. Devyn was walking around
the back of the vehicle to the passenger side.

Trackling saw Bannister lead White at gunpoint back to the house
door. Phillips picked up the child and followed them inside.
Smith, hitting the button, brought down the garage door.
Trackling then eased the Sentra a few yards forward, away from
the driveway and behind some bushes, and cut the engine and
doused the lights. He waited alone in the dark. Twenty minutes
passed. Twenty-five, perhaps 30.

Inside the house, the three intruders were tearing up the place,
ransacking it for drugs and money. They ripped the phone out of
the wall in the master bedroom. They tore the bed apart. They
pulled out dresser drawers and emptied bathroom cabinets. They
tipped over shoeboxes, scattering their contents, and pulled
clothes out of the closet. They turned up the sound of the TV in
the family room, where they held their three hostages. The
intruders had taken ski masks into the house, but they weren't
wearing them.

The next thing Trackling remembers is the garage door opening
and Phillips, behind the wheel of the 4Runner, backing it out.
Then the carnage began. Smith seemed determined to leave no
witnesses. Trackling heard the pistol shots in quick succession.

Devyn was in his mother's arms when Smith opened fire with the
Ruger. He shot the boy eight times--once in the chin, once
through the right ear, five times in the back and a final time
behind the head as Tangie tried to shield him. Devyn died with a
fist clinging to his mother's hair. Then Smith killed Tangie
with three shots to the back of her head. And White? He died
like Tangie, instantly, facedown on the floor, shot three times
in the head. Police would find 14 9-mm shell casings strewn
around the bodies, and the coroner would find 16 entry wounds
among the dead. Two of the bullets in Devyn passed through
Tangie as she cradled him in her arms. A neighbor's dog barked
at the sound of the shots.

Trackling remembers seeing Smith leave the garage at 8:55 with
the Ruger in his hand. Smith hit the button on the way out,
bringing the door down behind him. He and Bannister and Phillips
pulled away in the 4Runner, which, authorities believe, Phillips
had stolen because he thought that Trackling had fled and left
them without wheels. Trackling now drove away in the Sentra, and
the others followed him for a few blocks before blinking their
high beams for Trackling to pull over. They abandoned the
4Runner and jumped into the Sentra to make their escape. Smith
was gloating over the way White had died. "Did you see the
dude's head when I hit him?" Smith said.

Bannister, as Trackling recalls, was angry at Smith. "Man, you
hit the woman and child more than you hit the man!" he said.
"The dude didn't have nothin'!" No cocaine. No $20,000 in dummy
money. They drove west through New Orleans. When they dropped
Smith off at his girlfriend's house on their way back to St.
Thomas, he handed the murder weapon to Bannister. It was a
fateful moment for all four men.

As for Bennie Thompson, he was in the worst place to be on a
night like this. He was home alone. There was no witness to
confirm it. Thompson had nearly had the perfect alibi, a Pro
Bowl appearance. Instead, he says, he had been rattling around
his five-bedroom house, talking on the phone to friends and
relatives, when he decided to watch a movie. He picked through
his collection of tapes and chose Fatal Attraction. He slipped
it in his bedroom VCR. A half hour into it, long before Glenn
Close boiled the pet rabbit, Thompson slipped off to sleep.

What happened to him through the next four months, while the
media spread the murder story nationwide and he was the prime
suspect in the case, played like an eerie sideshow to the more
spectacular circus under way in California. America was stoned
on the O.J. Simpson trial. On Feb. 12, the day after Bennie
placed a game ball and his 1992 Pro Bowl watch in Devyn's casket
and buried the boy with his mother, the Simpson jury toured the
defendant's Los Angeles estate. Among many people in Orleans
Parish and beyond, the perception of Thompson and the Morrison
Road murders coalesced with that of Simpson and the Brentwood
killings, both featuring a jealous, violent football player who,
after threatening his wife's life, apparently went into a rage
and killed her.

As a star defensive player at John McDonogh High in New Orleans,
Thompson had been the most passionate head-cracker in the city's
schools. "Bennie was so intense," recalls his coach, Warren
Skinner. "He'd hit you and break you up. He was vicious." In his
three years with the Saints, Thompson was known as a wild-eyed
headhunter, and New Orleans fans loved to watch him play. For
those who knew him only from seeing him on the field, it was not
a stretch to imagine him flying into a murderous rage. So he
became a victim of his long-cultivated professional image.

For all his earnest protestations of innocence, Thompson was the
lone suspect in the slayings almost from the start. Even though
White's Glow & Shine had been under surveillance for three
months by a federal narcotics task force, authorities did not
link the murders to drugs. The police had no material evidence
placing Thompson--or anyone else--at the crime scene, not so
much as a fingerprint, but Thompson had those two weights around
his neck that cops look for in suspects: motive and opportunity.
Nor did Thompson make his own cause any easier. He got caught
lying to the police, and then his faulty memory blew his alibi.

For months Thompson lived in dread of a telephone call from his
lawyers telling him that a warrant had been issued for his
arrest on three charges of first-degree murder. There is no bail
for triple murder; only handcuffs and hard cots. For weeks, in
an attempt to avoid the scrutiny of the press and the public,
Thompson wore dark glasses and a brimmed hat and averted his
eyes at stoplights and in airports. For weeks he had neither the
chance nor the peace of mind to grieve. He stopped eating and
dropped from 220 pounds to 200. He awakened regularly at 3 a.m.
and lay staring at the ceiling until daybreak. His family and
friends and both his lawyers, Rick Kelly and Rick Kohnke,
watched as he became increasingly withdrawn, at times almost
catatonic, and feared he might take his own life. One day in
March 1995 he thought about it.

"I don't think anything in the world can describe what I went
through," Thompson says. "Devastation doesn't describe what I
felt. I had just lost my son and ex-wife. The police were trying
to arrest me for a crime I had nothing to do with and knew
nothing about. Kill my own loving, three-year-old son? He was
the most important thing in my life. It was like the earth fell
on top of me. I was a walking zombie."

Thompson learned about the killings late on the day after they
happened. A group of friends were waiting for him at his house
as he pulled up in his red Mercedes. He had been out all
afternoon. He remembers hearing a voice tell him, "Devyn's been
killed, Bennie.... Tangie was killed, and the guy she was dating
was killed.... It's been on the news, and the police are looking
for you.... They think you might have done it."

"It didn't really hit me," Thompson says. "I jumped in a car
with a friend. My first reaction was to go down there. I didn't
believe it. I really didn't. It took me a long time to believe
it. Sometimes I still don't."

They drove past 8130 Morrison, where there were police cars and
reporters and TV camera crews, and Thompson asked his friend to
stop. "I want to see my son," he said. His friend, an off-duty
cop named Wilfred Carter, kept driving.

"You don't need to go over there to see that," Thompson
remembers Carter saying. They went to the home of Lottie Guter,
Thompson's older sister, who had raised and spoiled him, just as
she had been helping to raise and spoil Devyn.

"Devyn's not dead, Lottie," Bennie told her. "He's strong like
me. Stop crying!"

She held him. "Bennie, Devyn is gone," she said.

The rest of that evening, Thompson drifted in and out of a daze,
crying and muttering, "I can't live without my son. Somebody's
going to have to shoot me." By the time he got home that night,
his girlfriend, Heisser, was so alarmed that she suggested to
two friends who were at the house, Carter and Derrick Jones,
that Thompson's two guns be removed from the premises. Thompson
wanted to keep one of the weapons, a .357 Magnum, for
protection, but he agreed about getting rid of the second gun,
an Uzi-type assault weapon. It was, like the murder weapon, a
9-mm. Thompson had painted it red to match his Mercedes, and he
says that the last time he had fired it was in celebration,
perhaps on Super Bowl Sunday 1995, in his backyard. Thompson
feared being caught with the red gun; he had bought it privately
and had no license or papers for it. So the red gun disappeared,
and Thompson never saw it again.

The cops caught up with Thompson that night. He showed them the
.357 Magnum, but he lied when asked if he owned a 9-mm. Kelly
and Kohnke knew that Thompson had threatened Tangie for exposing
Devyn to White--he had recently sought the lawyers' advice on a
strategy to win sole custody of Devyn--and they knew that Bennie
and Tangie had quarreled not long before the murders. "I'm not
going to take this anymore," Thompson had told his lawyers.
"I've had enough of this." When he heard the news of the
killings, Kelly thought, Oh, s---.

Kelly and Kohnke bolted for Thompson's house, only to learn, to
their dismay, that the police had already talked to him. Not
only that, but he had also agreed to give a formal statement to
the cops the next day. "Bennie was in shock," Kelly says. The
lawyers told Thompson he would give no statement on Monday. As
Kohnke left Thompson's house, he noticed the vanity plate on the
front of Thompson's Mercedes: DEATH ROW. Thompson meant it as a
reference to the gangsta-rap record label. But it now made
another allusion, one that wouldn't do Thompson's case any good.
"Bennie, take that off and give it to us," Kohnke said.

The police complained indignantly when the lawyers canceled
Thompson's statement the next day. Meanwhile, homicide
detectives began interviewing people who had known Bennie,
Tangie and White. A section of their confidential report,
compiled over the next week, told of the Thompsons' turbulent
relationship, Bennie's threats against Tangie's life and a
confrontation that Bennie had had with Tangie and White at a
nightclub 10 months earlier. In one interview, Tangie's sister,
Raynell Hurst, described Tangie as sounding like Nicole Brown
Simpson living in fear of O.J. Hurst quoted Tangie as saying,
after one of Thompson's threats, "I'm not running from Bennie
anymore. If he kills me, then I guess it's my time to go."

Knowing that the cops were focusing on Thompson, his two lawyers
went on an offensive of their own. Kohnke had a network of
sources on the New Orleans streets, former clients and
informants he had worked with over the years, and he sent out
word that he needed to know what was behind the Morrison Road
killings. From the start, Kohnke says, the word from his street
sources was emphatic: "This was purely a drug hit. Drugs and
money."

Maniacal interest in the Simpson trial heightened the media
frenzy around the Morrison Road case, trapping the cops in a
brightening glare of lights. In turn the heat increased on
Thompson. He had admitted in a March 31, 1994, deposition
connected with his divorce case that he had threatened to kill
Tangie. In seeking a temporary restraining order against him,
Tangie had alleged that Bennie had once "physically attacked"
her. That story broke at the worst of times. On Feb. 10, 1995,
Thompson's 32nd birthday and the day before the funeral, the New
Orleans Times-Picayune led its front page with an article
relating the threats and the alleged abuse. The four-column
headline read, MURDERED EX-WIFE CLAIMED THOMPSON THREATENED HER.
As 400 mourners gathered at Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel
Baptist Church the next day, with Guter wailing hysterically and
Thompson near collapse, the lead story in the paper ran under a
one-column head reading, EX-SAINT DENIES ABUSING WIFE.

Thompson had been in no condition to hold a press conference.
"He was catatonic," Kelly says. "Totally blank. Never saw a
thing like that in my life." Kelly and Kohnke wrote this
statement, which ran with the Times-Picayune story: "Bennie
Thompson is deeply distraught by any suggestion that he is in
any way responsible for these brutal killings. Though involved
in an emotionally charged divorce proceeding, which sometimes
resulted in unfortunate comments, Mr. Thompson has never caused
any harm to his former wife."

Thompson finally gave the police a sworn statement on Feb. 13,
but it would only sink him further into trouble. He was home
alone on the night of the killings, he said, and telephone
records would bear out his alibi. As he had sworn before, he
denied owning a 9-mm gun. Near the end of February, as he lived
in seclusion at Heisser's house, Thompson got a call from an
angry Kohnke: "Get down to my office as soon as you can!" Kohnke
had just learned, from one of Thompson's friends, about "the
Uzi" she saw one day in his house.

"Do you own a red gun?" the lawyer asked Thompson.

"No," he replied.

"Don't lie to me, Bennie."

"O.K., yeah. It's an Uzi-like machine gun."

"What caliber is it?"

"Nine-millimeter."

"Where is it?"

"I don't know." Thompson was embarrassed and contrite. "Look, I
was scared. I didn't think anybody'd hear about it."

The police searched everywhere for the gun. Heisser acknowledged
that she had suggested having Thompson's guns removed from his
house, and she said the 9-mm had ended up in Carter's car.
Carter denied any knowledge of the gun. It has never been found.

The police dug up half of Thompson's yard and found one 9-mm
shell casing. The marks on the casing didn't match those found
on the shells at the murder scene. Of course, the cops were
bristling over Thompson's lie about not owning a 9-mm. "The
perception was that he got rid of the murder weapon," Kelly says.

Nor were the police any less agitated when, in early March, they
discovered that phone records didn't support Thompson's alibi;
he had made no long-distance calls from home on the night of
Feb. 4, and there was no way to document his local calls. "The
house was crumbling," Kohnke says. "An arrest was imminent."

Thompson had been sure the phone records would back him up. But
what could he remember clearly about that night? "The police
questioned me two days after I buried my son and ex-wife,"
Thompson says. "You tell me who can think straight at that time."

As the media ran with each grim development--the death threat,
the missing gun, the busted alibi--Thompson looked ever more
guilty. There was also the news that Tangie had taken out a
$200,000 insurance policy on her life when she was married to
Bennie, who was the beneficiary. In the wake of their divorce
she had apparently forgotten to change beneficiaries--a fact
that, Bennie said, he did not know. John Dillman, a former New
Orleans homicide detective who was hired by Bennie's lawyers to
investigate the case, says, "Everything was circumstantial, but
the evidence certainly pointed toward him."

Feeling trapped in his hometown, he knew he had to leave to
survive. "It was on TV every day," he says. "'The Thompson
triple-murder case.' It was in every newspaper. It felt as if
the world was collapsing around me. The walls were all falling
in."

The Browns had embraced Thompson from the first week of his
travails. Coach Bill Belichick and two members of his staff
attended the funeral. Simmons, the strength and conditioning
coach, was one of those who came, and not long after returning
to Cleveland he began urging Thompson to join him. "I was
appalled that he was a suspect," Simmons says. "There's no way.
No way! That son meant everything to him. He talked about him
all the time. I told him, 'Bennie, you need to get up here and
get going. We'll be here to help you.'"

One day in late February, Thompson called Kelly and Kohnke and
said he wanted to go to Cleveland. "It would not be a good idea
right now," Kohnke said. "They may be coming to get you at any
time."

"What would happen if they do?" Thompson asked.

"Well, you'd be charged with triple murder, and there would be
no bond," Kohnke said. Thompson would be imprisoned at least
through the trial.

Thompson was nearly at the end of his tether. Alone at Heisser's
house, he got out his .357 Magnum, sat down by the telephone and
called Glen Haisley, his best friend since high school. "They're
getting ready to get me," Haisley remembers Thompson saying.
"Everybody thinks I'm a murderer. Glen, I'm not going to jail.
Before I go to jail, I'm going to kill myself."

"Where's your gun?" Haisley asked.

"Right here in my hand," he said.

Haisley told Bennie to get his Bible and open it to the Book of
Psalms; then he handed the phone to his wife and rushed out the
door. By the time he got to Heisser's house, the .357 was
sitting on the floor, and Thompson, still on the phone with
Haisley's wife, wore a look that Haisley had not seen on a man
before. "Eyes vacant," he recalls. "Staring off into space.
Looked like he hadn't slept for a week. Burned out. This was it.
The cutoff point."

Thompson was free to go to Cleveland, but Kelly and Kohnke
didn't want to risk the perception that he was fleeing. Besides,
if he were arrested in Ohio, it would create the unseemly
spectacle of him returning to New Orleans in chains. But when
Thompson showed up at their office to make a last, desperate
appeal--"I didn't do it!" he said. "I'm going to be arrested for
a crime I didn't do! My own son!"--the lawyers thought he might
be breaking down.

"Go on, go to Cleveland," Kohnke said.

So Thompson went. He hurled himself into Simmons's world of
weights, mirrors and measures. The previous year he had been the
hardest grinder on the Browns, arriving first for the off-season
conditioning programs and leaving last, but now he was grimmer
and more fiercely driven than ever. "He just worked and worked,
lifting and running the stairs until he was exhausted," recalls
Simmons. "Then he would play racquetball for two hours. He
couldn't sleep, and he was trying to get everything out of
himself and go home and pass out."

He rarely spoke about what was happening back in New Orleans,
and the other players rarely brought it up. "The whole football
team accepted me," Thompson says. "Knowing they had faith and
confidence in me meant a lot."

He might be a murder suspect in New Orleans but not in Simmons's
house. He found some comfort there. Jerry and his wife, Rebecca,
had Thompson over for dinner every chance they could and sought
to make him part of their family. They even encouraged him that
spring to take their three kids--Joe, then 12; Jennifer, 10; and
Jordon, 7--on outings to Cleveland sporting events. It was the
most eloquent way they could express their absolute trust in him.

Only the New Orleans police had problems with Thompson. They had
been badgering Kelly and Kohnke to bring him in to make yet
another statement. Late in March, talking through a speakerphone
with a homicide detective, the lawyers learned just how certain
the police were that Thompson had committed the murders. The
cops needed another statement, the detective said, because the
one Thompson had given on Feb. 13 was a fabrication.

"The whole statement, from beginning to end, is a lie!" the
detective said. "Until Bennie comes forward to straighten it
out, the police will look at him like he's the biggest criminal
in the world.... He threatened to do it, it happened. He said he
didn't have that type of gun, he did. He said he was at home, he
wasn't."

"You say he wasn't at home?" Kelly asked. "Where was he?"

"He was on Morrison Road, that's where he was!"

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 high-speed
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.

Three years have passed since that terrible evening, but the
nightmarish experience still shadows Thompson. "Players on other
teams look at me kind of funny, like, 'Aren't you supposed to be
in jail?'" he says. "People walk up to me on the streets of New
Orleans and say, 'I thought you were in jail, Bennie.' I want my
story out. My ex-wife's family still believes I had something to
do with it."

Indeed, on the day of Thompson's public exoneration, Brenda
Mayfield, Tangie's mother, told reporters, "I'm happy they've
made an arrest, but I just can't see this being a robbery, since
nothing was taken.... I think someone hired these people to kill
my daughter." Mayfield, now Brenda Williams, stood to receive
the $200,000 life-insurance benefit had Thompson been convicted
in Tangie's death. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Thompson is still angry at his former wife for bringing their
son into Andre White's world, and he feels guilty for not having
done more about it. He lives by himself these days, rooming only
with the past. (He and Heisser are no longer involved, though
they remain friends and business associates.) Devyn's death left
a hollow in Bennie's life, and all he is waiting for is the day
when the last trial is over and he will have the space and time
to mourn.

"Once they're all convicted, I can grieve over my son," he says.
"I used to call him after every game. 'You see Daddy play on TV
today?' If I didn't do well, he'd say, 'You didn't do nothin'
today, Daddy.' If I had a good game, he'd say, 'I saw you knock
that man down! Grrrr!' He loved football. He was special.
Nothing will ever bring my son back. I'll be an old man sitting
around telling young people about it. It will never be over for
me."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ANASTASIA VASILAKIS [Collage featuring images of gun, money, newspaper headlines and Bennie Thompson with others at funeral]B/W PHOTO: MATT ROSE/NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE [Bennie Thompson with others at funeral]COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER [Bennie Thompson]COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY [Bennie Thompson in game]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE THOMPSON FAMILY [Tangie Thompson and Devyn Thompson]COLOR PHOTO: NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT ATTORNEY (4) BANNISTER [Donielle (Fat) Bannister]COLOR PHOTO: NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT ATTORNEY (4) PHILLIPS [Kintad (Buckle) Phillips]COLOR PHOTO: NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT ATTORNEY (4) SMITH [Juan (Short Dog) Smith]COLOR PHOTO: NEW ORLEANS DISTRICT ATTORNEY (4) TRACKLING [Robert Trackling]TWO B/W PHOTOS: NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE [Newspaper clippings]
THOMPSON BECAME A VICTIM OF HIS NFL IMAGE AS A WILD-EYED
HEADHUNTER
TWO OF THE BULLETS IN DEVYN PASSED THROUGH TANGIE AS SHE CRADLED
THE BOY IN HER ARMS
BANNISTER AND PHILLIPS CLAIM THEY WEREN'T EVEN ON MORRISON ROAD
WITH SMITH AND TRACKLING