NOPD traffic commander removed over lagging investigation into NYE '16 dragging death

Tourist from Nebraska dragged from French Quarter to Algiers.

NEW ORLEANS -- A veteran New Orleans Police Department lieutenant has been removed as commander of the agency's traffic division while an internal investigation examines whether he disobeyed orders and failed to properly supervise his subordinates in probing the 2016 New Year's Day hit-and-run death of a tourist, according to records released Friday.

The NOPD transferred Lt. Anthony Michieu out of his post as leader of the unit in charge of investigating traffic fatalities and put him atop the nightwatch platoon in the 8th Police District on Nov. 5, the records said. Eighth-district officers patrol the French Quarter, Marigny and Central Business Districts.

Lt. Avery Theard is now in charge of the traffic division after serving in the 6th Police District, which protects areas including Central City.

The move came after a number of signs hinted at dissatisfaction with the investigation into the death of Nebraska native Joshua Woodruff, 28, who was hit by a car in the French Quarter and then dragged over the Crescent City Connection.

The NOPD self-initiated an investigation on Oct. 30 into whether Michieu violated rules governing obeying "instructions from an authoritative source" and his responsibility properly oversee employees in connection with the Woodruff case, which remains unsolved and has produced few leads.

Also on Oct. 30, Woodruff's parents lodged an unusual lawsuit in Civil District Court against the unidentified driver who killed their son. The lawyer for the Woodruffs said the lawsuit sought to give the family subpoena power as they investigated the case themselves.

Four days after the lawsuit's filing, NOPD published new images of the never-recovered, dark-colored sedan that is suspected of hitting Woodruff at Dumaine and Decatur streets and carrying him across the Mississippi River. The department also announced that Homicide Detective Robert Barrere would take over the case from the traffic division.

“We want to release numerous pictures now, different angles … in an attempt to maybe jog someone’s memory who was down there,” Barrere said. “Our main piece of evidence is this video surveillance that we have from the French Quarter.”

The images are dark and often blurry, but NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison said he hoped their release would spark some memory in anyone who might have seen the incident.

On Friday, Michieu's attorney, Donovan Livaccari of the Fraternal Order of Police, bristled at the notion that his client may be to blame for the status of the Woodruff case. He said the traffic division went from being run by a captain and two lieutenants to just being managed by Michieu, who joined NOPD in 1991 but has no prior experience as a fatality investigator.

That meant Michieu had less manpower at his disposal while being left to oversee both the fatality investigation and traffic-law enforcement functions of the division.

"Lt. Michieu did the best that he could considering the manpower restrictions and all of the other job duties he was expected to perform," Livaccari said.

Additionally, Livaccari pointed out that the first detective on the case, seasoned traffic fatality investigator Anthony Pontiff, died of a heart attack in August. It should not be surprising that a case would remain unsolved after a development like that, he said.

"Even if he left detailed notes in his case file, you still lose an unknown amount of information, passing a case from one investigator to the next," said Livaccari, who was previously in charge of the NOPD's traffic fatality investigations. "When the original investigator isn't around to answer questions, it's even more difficult."

Livaccari said the administrative investigation into Michieu is in its early stages, and he is at least months away from facing any consequences, which could include a suspension or a reprimand.

Woodruff was a Harvard University graduate who was visiting the French Quarter with friends for New Year's. His body was found about 3:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day 2016 near a Crescent City Connection offramp in Algiers.

Woodruff’s survivors included his parents, a brother and a sister.

Neither his mother nor his family's attorney, Billy Gibbens, could be reached for comment Friday.

New Orleans Advocate staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report. 

© 2017 WWL-TV


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