HARVEY, La. — The Louisiana man who fatally shot ex-NFL player Joe McKnight during a road rage dispute was jailed on a manslaughter charge as a sheriff angrily defended the investigation Tuesday, saying authorities “strategically” waited for days to make the arrest because they needed to find independent witnesses.
Ronald Gasser, 54, was initially taken into custody after the shooting last Thursday but he was released without being charged, drawing heated criticism from protesters who said race played a role in the investigation. Gasser, who is white, was arrested late Monday. McKnight was black.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand pounded on a podium during a news conference explaining the investigation. “This isn’t about race. Not a single witness has said … a single racial slur was uttered,” the sheriff said.
The case comes at a time of intense scrutiny in the African-American community about the shootings of black men, in particular by police. While this case doesn’t involve a police shooting, it has flared temperatures and drawn protests at the sheriff’s department.
It’s not clear whether Gasser has an attorney. Attempts to reach Gasser’s family unsuccessful Tuesday.
The sheriff said the dispute between the men started on a bridge and proceeded into a New Orleans suburb, with both men driving erratically and yelling at each other. Eventually, the cars came to a stop and McKnight confronted Gasser, who was still seated in his car, the sheriff said. Gasser pulled out a gun and shot McKnight three times, killing him. When deputies arrived, the sheriff said Gasser handed them his gun and said he shot McKnight, 28.
The sheriff said McKnight did have a gun in his vehicle but no evidence suggested he insinuated anything about it. It was his stepfather’s gun, and his stepfather’s vehicle.
During the news conference, the sheriff read aloud some of the derogatory remarks about the investigation, including racially charged comments.
“We have sometimes unrealistic expectations of how these things work … you don’t just run out and start slapping cuffs on people,” Normand said.
He noted that on Thursday, Gasser gave authorities a statement that included him being fearful and defending himself, saying that McKnight had made threatening comments. At that point, authorities hadn’t interviewed any independent witnesses. One person they had talked to lied to authorities about what happened, the sheriff said.
Normand said had an arrest been made Thursday, he was certain people would be afraid to come forward. Instead, authorities identified more than 250 people they wanted to talk to by identifying license plates in the area at the time, and conducted more than 160 interviews. The sheriff said several witnesses were the key to making the arrest and made comments contradicting Gasser’s statements.
He also pointed out that Gasser didn’t ask for an attorney but instead sat with authorities for over ten hours of interviews in the days after the shooting and gave permission for them to search his home.
McKnight played three seasons for the New York Jets and one with the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Jets held a moment of silence Monday night before their game against the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium to honor the former running back.
McKnight was rated the nation’s No. 1 running back recruit when he signed with the University of Southern California. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the Jets in 2010 and played three seasons for New York. McKnight had a 107-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 2011, and it remains the longest play in Jets history.
He also spent a season with Kansas City, and most recently played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.
McKnight’s death was eerily similar to that of former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith, who was killed last April in a shooting sparked by a traffic altercation. Cardell Hayes is charged with second-degree murder.
A decade ago, Gasser was involved in a similar altercation — at the same intersection — with a driver. The sheriff said that in February 2006, 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 have said they are trying to determine why it was dismissed.