Apr 212014

Latoya Francois (via opcso.org)

Latoya Francois (via opcso.org)

Earl Russell (via opcso.org)

Earl Russell (via opcso.org)

A husband shot to death on Willow Street in west-Carrollton last summer was the victim of his estranged wife’s plot to have him killed, New Orleans police allege in court documents and recent testimony, but defense attorneys are already questioning whether investigators identified the correct triggerman in the case.

Clardie Ellis III was standing outside his grandmother’s house in the 8500 block of Willow Street around 10 p.m. June 7, 2013, when he was gunned down by a man with medium-length dreadlocks, an eyewitness would later tell police.

“He sees the individual raise his arm, and sees gunfire,” Detective Jeffrey Vappie said of the eyewitness, who then saw Ellis fall to the ground near his car, a white Dodge Charger.

The shooter wrapped the gun in a spare T-shirt and left, and the eyewitness did not see his face, Vappie said. Investigators found shell casings and bullet fragments at the scene afterward, Vappie said.

Police almost immediately took an interest in Ellis’ estranged wife, 26-year-old Latoya Francois, who had been charged earlier in June with criminal damage to property for allegedly throwing a brick through the rear windshield of Ellis’ car, court documents show. The night Ellis was gunned down, Francois agreed to be interviewed at police headquarters and tested positive for gunshot residue, according to court records. But she denied any involvement in her husband’s death, and without further evidence connecting her to the shooting, they released her, Vappie said.

On Jan. 16, 2014 — nearly six months after Ellis was killed — Detective Timothy Bender had an interview with someone who put the pieces together, according to warrant for Francois’ arrest.

“This individual stated that he/she spoke with Latoya Francois on several occasions and was told in detail how she and another subject conspired to murder Mr. Ellis,” the warrant reads, noting that the informant knew details that could only have come from someone who had first-hand knowledge of the incident. “Additionally, this individual has also been threatened by Ms. Francois as he/she will receive the same fate as her husband, Ellis, should he/she ‘screw with her.'”

Francois was arrested on a charge of principle to second-degree murder about a week later. Her alleged co-conspirator and the gunman seen by the eyewitness, according to court documents, was a cousin, 24-year-old Earl Russell, who was arrested on a charge of second-degree murder Feb. 11.

Last week, prosecutors and defense attorneys for both Francois and Russell met in magistrate court to discuss whether there is enough evidence for the case to move forward. Russell’s public-defender, Barksdale Hortenstine Jr., led questioning as to whether investigators looked into the possibility that another cousin may have been the gunman instead.

Further, Hortenstine suggested, phone records may be able to show that Russell was making and receiving calls in New Orleans East the night that Ellis was killed, placing him far from the shooting scene.

Vappie’s testimony in the preliminary hearing for Russell and Francois concluded last week in magistrate court without a ruling by the magistrate judge, as attorneys have more questions for another homicide detective, Timothy Bender. No trial date has been set in the case.

Both Russell and Francois remain in jail, on bonds of $450,000 and $250,000 respectively, according to jail records.

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