Dozen murders before age 20: Young New Orleans killer 'Rabbit' and his help for federal government

In a city afflicted by murder, the most prolific New Orleans killer over the past several years might well be a 24-year-old drug dealer who goes by “Rabbit.” At least Gregory Stewart has admitted to more killings than anyone else in recent city history.

By his own reckoning, Stewart had a hand in a dozen homicides over a 15-month stretch of bloodshed that started in early 2010, when he was 18.

Only one of those gun assaults involved multiple slaying victims: acclaimed bounce rapper Renatta “Magnolia Shorty” Lowe and Jerome “Man Man” Hampton, the intended gangland target in a December 2010 barrage of more than 50 bullets.

Stewart, who told authorities he started dealing cocaine at age 11 in the 9th Ward, has acknowledged leaving corpses in neighborhoods from Mid-City to St. Claude to Little Woods in New Orleans East, court and police records show.

U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown tallied up the carnage at a hearing last year, saying Stewart has “accepted responsibility for the murder of at least 14 people.”

Now jailed, Stewart is helping the government in a big way, hoping the feds come through on a promise to try to reduce the four consecutive life prison terms Brown handed him last year.

In his come-to-Jesus moment, Stewart came packing. Court records indicate he has revealed names and other specifics on numerous killings, shootings and the ferrying of heroin from Houston to the streets of the 9th Ward and Central City.

Federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurice Landrieu — Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s brother — have parlayed those revelations into one of the biggest street gang indictments to date in the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Handed up last June, the indictment against 13 alleged members of the city’s “39ers” gang listed 13 slayings, numerous shootings, drug trafficking and gun crimes in a 45-count roadmap of urban mayhem. Three of the 13 defendants already have pleaded guilty.

Federal prosecutors often go to bat for helpful criminals, before or after sentencing. But Stewart’s exceptionally bloody history, and his key role in the case against several of his alleged killing partners and drug mules, has raised questions over just what the cooperation of an admitted killing machine is worth.

Stewart’s murder spree — as triggerman, shot-caller or driver — ended with his arrest in June 2011 at a motel south of Atlanta on federal heroin distribution charges. He was 19.

By then, federal agents had been monitoring him and other alleged members of “G-Strip,” a 9th Ward drug gang, for several months in an expanding array of wiretaps.

Stewart had risen during his teens to upper management. Prosecutors describe him as a top dog in the 39ers, which the FBI says was a “hybrid” force of G-Strip and 3-N-G, a notorious Central City drug clan named for its stronghold at Third and Galvez streets.

The combined group’s aim was to control the heroin trade in two of the city’s hotbeds for drugs and violence, prosecutors allege.

Looking for a deal

By his own admission, Stewart dealt in large quantities of heroin, mostly out of Metairie hotel rooms. In the hierarchy of the group, he stood beneath two men: Merle “Black” Offray and Darryl “Brother” Franklin, who also has turned cooperating witness in the 39ers’ racketeering case, records show.

By Stewart’s account, it was Offray, the purported leader of the heroin trafficking ring, who pulled him into the trade as a teenager.

Stewart was fresh off a 14-month stint in state juvenile detention, the last three months of it on 23-hour lockdown, when Offray and others handed him $10,000 and a supply of heroin to get started on the street, he told authorities.

“They also taught me how to shoot and kill people,” Stewart said at his sentencing hearing in March.

He lived in a motel, dealt heroin, drove a car and “otherwise pretended to be an adult” at age 16, according to the factual basis underpinning his guilty pleas.

Following his arrest in 2011, a federal grand jury named Stewart and several others in an alleged drug conspiracy. By the end of that year, a superseding indictment added more defendants and accused Stewart and co-defendant Evans “Easy” Lewis in the May 2011 killing of Gregory “Smokey” Keys in the 1300 block of Congress Street.

Meanwhile, federal agents were still pursuing Offray and Franklin, key targets of a widening federal probe.

By late 2012, Stewart was jailed in St. Charles Parish and writing overtures to Maurice Landrieu, head of federal gang prosecutions in New Orleans, offering to provide details on killings and heroin suppliers. He stepped up his cooperation in February 2013 in jail phone calls with FBI agent Jonathan Wood.

Stewart asked Wood for an audience with Landrieu while seeking assurances that he wouldn’t face more charges for detailing his role in several slayings. Wood insisted that Stewart would need to admit to some killings over the phone before earning a chat with Landrieu. The FBI agent also signaled a possible payoff.

“There are guys who have been looking at life who have come in and told Maurice about 20 murders they’ve done, and they’ve walked away with, you know, with deals,” Wood said. “I mean, they haven’t sat for the rest of their life. I think you are in a good position to give us a lot of information that we could possibly use, and that would be good, that would help you, OK?”

As an offering, Stewart described his involvement with Offray and Franklin in the April 2010 slaying of Quelton “Gutta” Broussard — a killing to which Stewart and Franklin both would later plead guilty.

The three men fired off at least 48 rounds at a Chevy Impala in retaliation for a drive-by attack near the Wing Shack on Desire Street, in which an associate, Terrence Butler, was killed.

Over the phone, Stewart also admitted roles in the February 2011 slaying of Calvin “Plucky” Celestine and the October 2010 killing of Elton “Bo” Fields in the 7th Ward.

Police reports show that several of Stewart’s killings involved other gunmen. In most, dozens of rounds were fired. Police reports on several of the slayings suggest that Stewart didn’t take chances. He kept shooting, often with assault rifles.

Building a relationship

Stewart pleaded guilty in July 2014 to heroin and firearms conspiracies and to three killings done in connection with a drug conspiracy. He admitted running a heroin ring since June 2009 while meting out violence with other members of a group that attached pet names to their guns.

One, a .223-caliber assault rifle with a double-drum magazine, they dubbed “Monkey Nuts.” In the group killings of Lowe and Hampton, Stewart opened fire with a Glock .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun that he dubbed “Barack.”

In return for his cooperation, prosecutors took the death penalty off the table for Stewart, and state and federal prosecutors agreed not to try him for eight other slayings dating back to the 2007 killing of Calvin Brumfield.

In that case, New Orleans police arrived at a house on Urquhart Street to find three people suffering from non-fatal gunshot wounds. The officers apparently didn’t check the backyard next door. Hours later, officers were called out again and found Brumfield’s body there.

Stewart was 16 at the time.

The two men who allegedly set him up in the business and supplied him with heroin to sell met differing fates.

Franklin pleaded guilty in late 2013 to firearms and heroin conspiracies and Broussard’s murder. He is now serving two life prison terms and another 20 years, running concurrently.

Offray would never face federal charges. He was gunned down in July 2013 outside a bar across South Broad Street from the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse. His killing remains an open case, an NOPD spokeswoman said.

In his bid for eventual freedom, Stewart agreed in November to let federal authorities access his Facebook account, tied to the email address “gstrip rabbit@gmail.com.” He pointed them to messages discussing illegal activity with alleged co-conspirators and photos of them flashing stacks of cash and contraband — compelling fodder for a jury. The feds got a warrant for the records because Stewart forgot his password, the warrant states.

Over the course of his admissions, Stewart’s relationship with Landrieu grew familiar, records show.

“Mr. Stewart has been very cooperative with the government,” Landrieu told the judge at a hearing last year. “I have sat down more times with him than I’ve probably done with my own children in the last six months or so.”

Earlier, Stewart had written Landrieu from behind bars, with various offers to admit to new slayings, along with some modest requests.

“What’s up Mr. Maurice Landrieu? I am writing you about setting a meeting so we can talk. It’s some good (stuff) that you been wanted. It’s about Darryl and Merle my friends,” Stewart wrote in September 2012. In return, he requested a deal for his girlfriend and asked Landrieu to jettison “that murder charge that I didn’t do.”

“And the last thing I want (is) to help Mark St. Pierre out on a time cut,” Stewart wrote, in an odd reference to the former city contractor who was convicted of bribing former Mayor Ray Nagin to secure millions of dollars in no-bid contracts.

Stewart apparently became acquainted with St. Pierre at the St. Charles Parish jail, where many federal defendants are housed. It’s doubtful prosecutors heeded the request, although U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon in 2014 reduced St. Pierre’s sentence from 17 years to five years, citing his “substantial assistance” in the Nagin case.

‘Bargaining room’

Just what Stewart can hope to gain in return for his cooperation is unclear. His attorney, Sara Johnson, declined to comment on the case, as did Landrieu.

According to Judge Brown, prosecutors have indicated they expect to file what’s known as a “Rule 35” motion, asking for a specific reduction in Stewart’s prison sentence.

Such deals are essential to the federal court system, said Tulane Law School professor Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor.

“They have to do that in order to persuade people to cooperate, which is an important part of breaking up the drug gangs. They have to be able to create an incentive,” Tetlow said. “You have a long way to go to work down off of life. There’s a lot of bargaining room there.”

Rule 35 motions give judges wide latitude to reduce a convict’s sentence at the recommendation of federal prosecutors — or not, Tetlow added.

“They’re very subjective decisions,” she said. “It’s tricky with someone like this, to say the least.”

In such cases, judges can veer below the minimum sentences mandated by federal law, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

“The Rule 35 is like an elevator. The prosecutor puts the elevator in motion to go down. It’s up to the judge to decide what floor. There’s not a darn thing the prosecution or the defendant can do,” he said.

Presumably, federal agents have developed a raft of evidence corroborating Stewart’s admissions, given that a jury may find his testimony hard to swallow, Weinstein said.

“The first question out of a defense attorney’s mouth is going to be, ‘Just how long have you been sentenced for? Oh, four consecutive life sentences?’ ” Weinstein said. “ ‘Oh, and by the way, you’re a convicted (multiple) murderer. Why in the world should a jury believe you?’ ”

Last year, Brown expressed skepticism over Landrieu’s readiness to help Stewart. At a restitution hearing, the judge complained that prosecutors hadn’t pressed for family members of Stewart’s many victims to participate. The judge said she feared Landrieu was trying to muzzle any dissent.

“If you come forward with a Rule 35, I want to make sure that I know everything. You know, all the cooperation. I want to know all these conversations with all these victims,” Brown said, according to a transcript. “They should not feel like the government is so anxious to work out a deal with Mr. Stewart that they can’t come forward.”

Landrieu denied the suggestion, and one such family member did come forward: the mother of Stewart’s last admitted victim before his arrest in Georgia.

Stewart acknowledged ordering the murder of Kendrick Smothers, who survived shots to the face and body in the 1300 block of Congress Street on May 24, 2011. Killed instead was Gregory Keys, an Alfred Lawless High School graduate and once a neighborhood acquaintance of Stewart.

“What could have led you, Gregory Stewart, Rabbit, to shoot my son nine times? That’s overkill. That’s a hate crime,” Crystal Keys said. “Y’all was raised in the same hood forever. … Y’all overkilled my baby. For nothing.”

Stewart responded, telling Crystal Keys over a phone line in the courtroom that he directed others to fire on Smothers but never meant for a bullet to hit Keys.

“I really didn’t, you know, pull the trigger on Smokey,” he said. “If that was my gun and I had it, I’d never killed Smokey.

Stewart blamed a split among 9th Ward friends for a torrent of shootings in the neighborhood. He sided with Offray and Franklin in the dispute.

“I was forced to pick sides when I — when they gave me the money. The money picked my side,” he said. “The beef led to a lot of violence. That beef is why I quit school at 10th grade. I didn’t feel safe at school.

“The first time I killed someone was for retaliation. Our split crew caused a lot of pain and violence in the 9th Ward,” he added. “My involvement in some murders through that time was to prevent murders, more murders of me and my friends.”

Suspicions raised

Stewart’s treatment by the feds has drawn criticism from several defendants in the 39ers case. Three of them pleaded guilty to conspiracy counts in an earlier case in which Stewart also was indicted, only to find themselves indicted again based in part on information he provided.

They have argued in vain that federal prosecutors broke promises contained in their plea agreements and that the new charges amount to double jeopardy.

Arthur “Buddy” Lemann III, an attorney for one of those men, Solomon Doyle, recently sought to have the charges against his client related to a 2011 murder dismissed. Lemann accused federal prosecutors of attempting “to lead us, like Alice, down a rabbit-hole into a wonderland of false accusations, purchased testimony and mumbo-jumbo legal theories.”

William Sothern, an attorney for Evans Lewis, who is accused in three killings with Stewart, recently took aim at federal prosecutors for their reluctance to turn over statements by Stewart and Franklin. Sothern derided “the inconsistent, demanding and brazenly self-serving statements of these two witnesses — one of whom is a mass murderer on a scale that places him without peer even in the violence-saturated city of New Orleans.”

He noted that in Stewart’s phone calls with Wood, the FBI agent confronted him about previous lies. In one call, Stewart also denied involvement in the killings of Lowe and Hampton — crimes he later admitted as part of his plea deal. .

Sothern argued that Stewart’s correspondence with Landrieu “displays unusual chutzpah even for a mass murderer” and revealed his “mercenary motivations.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey rejected arguments by Lewis, Doyle and a third defendant, Jasmine “Real” Perry, that their prosecutions in the 39ers case violate their earlier plea deals.

Zainey on Wednesday pushed back a trial date for the 10 remaining defendants in the 39ers case to September.

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.

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