By John Simerman & Missy Wilkinson | | May 5, 2022

Police say it was months of deadly tit-for-tat between well-armed groups on either side of the Mississippi River that reached Magazine Street last Friday night, in a roll-up gun attack that left six people shot at Balcony Bar.

As details emerge on the man police describe as the target, 23-year-old Nairobi Davis, public focus has turned to rampant street justice, its impact on a surge in violent crime across the city, and the response from authorities.

A law enforcement source said Davis is affiliated with a violent group from the former Fischer housing development in Algiers. The source said evidence points to a running beef with a group from the 10th Ward, which includes part of the Lower Garden District and the former St. Thomas housing project.

Police have not named a suspect in Friday’s shooting. Investigations are ongoing.

Davis, who has been linked to several violent incidents as shooting victim, alleged shooter or both in recent months, was facing murder and attempted murder charges over an attack that killed two men outside an Uptown church in October. He turned up at a Gretna hospital shortly after the killings shot through his shoulder.

But court records show prosecutors in December agreed to a steep bond reduction for Davis – from $600,000 to $50,000 — in exchange for putting off a preliminary hearing. Davis’ attorney, Gary Wainwright, turned up phone records that detectives never sought, supporting Davis’ claim that he was shot in Algiers. The charges were refused in March.

The narrative of street justice gone wild in the Balcony Bar case has revived a running blame game between Mayor LaToya Cantrell and District Attorney Jason Williams over Davis’ release, leaving residents miffed at a lack of results.

Links to multiple shootings

Friday night marked the second time in as many years that Davis showed up at a hospital with a gunshot wound soon after a mass shooting.

On Oct. 6, he arrived at Ochsner Medical Center’s west bank location with a bullet wound within half an hour of the shooting on the other side of the river. Police found four men shot when they arrived at the New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church on Annunciation Street.

The men were installing permeable pavers for a local youth workforce training group when they were ambushed. Several of the victims were armed with semi-automatic weapons, according to the warrant. Dead were Zernell Lee, 19, and Derrick Copelin, 25.

Greg Lirette, a veteran and former neighborhood resident, ran to the scene when he heard gunshots.

“I went in soldier mode. I felt like I was on a battlefield,” Lirette said.

According to the arrest warrant, Davis said he was riding in a gray car when “it (the shooting) went down.” Under questioning, Davis changed his story about his whereabouts.

The murder case against Davis was circumstantial, built on his arrival at the hospital with a gunshot wound through the shoulder.

Police compiled photos and videos to trace two figures in a stolen Ford F-150 pickup truck who they said traveled to Algiers from the crime scene. They said the pickup was found torched that day by the Algiers levee minutes after Davis showed up at the Gretna hospital.

But Wainwright said the police narrative fell apart under scrutiny. 

“The only thing they had that police believe linked him to the shooting on Annunciation was that he got shot,” Wainwright said. “Well, a lot of people get shot in New Orleans. It’s unfortunate.”

At a Dec. 16 hearing, Assistant District Attorney Alex Calenda, for years the city’s lead gang prosecutor, conceded that Davis’ phone records complicated the state’s case.

Magistrate Commissioner Jonathan Friedman criticized the police investigation as he reduced Davis’ bond, saying detectives pressed for an arrest without “taking the time to ascertain this information.”

More mayhem

While out on bond, Davis was supposed to remain confined on house arrest.

He didn’t. On Dec. 26, he survived what police described as another attempt on his life, this one in Algiers. His assailants instead hit 7-year-old Dillan Burton, who was riding in the backseat of her mother’s car.

Maquisha Burton, Dillan’s mother, declined to comment on the feud that may have led to her daughter’s death.

“My only concern is Dillan and getting justice for her,” Burton said. “Someone out there knows something, and I just want them to give my family justice by calling the police and saying what they know.”

But Wainwright said the evidence connecting Davis to that shooting was also sketchy. 

“He’s the victim of two attempt murders and you want to make him be what, a prisoner? Because he was shot?” Wainwright asked.

At the same time, Wainwright said New Orleans isn’t safe for Davis, seeming to acknowledge a target on his back. Wainwright said he told Davis well before Friday night’s violence to leave Louisiana, but Davis didn’t listen.

“It was only a matter of time before he was shot because of the way the streets operate at this point in time in New Orleans,” Wainwright said.

Murder charges dropped

In March, Williams’ office finally dropped the case against Davis, citing a lack of evidence.

“Prosecuting someone without adequate evidence is a relic of the past and a practice that has directly contributed to our infamous standing as the mass incarceration capital of the world, and it stands in diametric opposition to the values for which this office stands: fairness, justice, and accountability,” First Assistant District Attorney Ned McGowan said in an emailed statement.

At a Tuesday press conference, Mayor LaToya Cantrell condemned retaliatory violence, and suggested the DA had dropped the ball.

“When we know that we’re making key arrests, only to see these individuals back on the street, it has an impact,” Cantrell said. “And that is why the system needs to operate as a system, and the focus needs to be on that entire criminal justice system.”

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said retaliatory violence is driving much of New Orleans’ crime surge over the past couple of years.

“As long as Nairobi Davis is on the streets, this isn’t going to stop,” he said. “The people who are hunting him are not going to stop hunting him until he’s behind bars or in the hospital or dead.”

While Davis was a victim in Saturday night’s mass shooting, not everyone sees him that way. A neighbor of the Balcony Bar, who asked not to be named, wondered aloud as she walked down Magazine Street on a recent morning: Why wasn’t Nairobi Davis in jail? And if he had been, could this have been avoided?

“The details of the guy that was shot at started coming out,” she said. “Why is Nairobi Davis, an alleged criminal, getting beers at the Balcony Bar?”

Lirette, who was at the scene of the double murder in October, expressed a similar view.

“I’m so f—king pissed off,” Lirette said. “How the hell could (Davis) be released from jail? Why is he walking the streets?”

‘Retaliatory street justice’

Though police have yet to offer a specific motive for the Balcony Bar shootings, Goyeneche called it “a classic case of retaliatory street justice.”

Goyeneche touted the NOPD’s Violent Crime Abatement Investigative Team and a recent revival of a multi-agency partnership as steps in the right direction.

But Goyeneche, a frequent critic of Williams’ office, didn’t fault the DA or the NOPD in this particular case, saying the evidence just wasn’t there.

“I think they’re both right. The police had probable cause (to arrest Davis), but there wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Goyeneche said. “You have to play the evidence you’ve been dealt. If there isn’t sufficient evidence to indict and prove beyond a reasonable doubt, then these charges are refused. These people go out and street justice is the recourse.”