New Orleans man shot to death ahead of arraignment on staged car accident charges, lawyer says

The New Orleans Advocate, September 24, 2020

By Ramon Antonio Vargas

Cornelius Garrison grew increasingly concerned for his safety as federal authorities zeroed in on him for allegedly having a hand in a sprawling scam involving staged car accidents, according to his attorney.

Four days after the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans filed charges accusing Garrison of staging over 50 wrecks in exchange for $150,000, he was shot to death Tuesday inside an apartment in the St. Bernard neighborhood of Gentilly, his lawyer, federal public defender Claude Kelly, said late Wednesday.

“I’ve represented him for months — I got to know him well, and I was devastated to hear it,” Kelly said. “All he talked about were his kids — his son the basketball player, and he had a young daughter. It’s tragic.”

Kelly said he was suspicious about the timing of Garrison’s death, but he stopped short of pinning his death on news of the indictment, saying a joint investigation by the New Orleans Police Department and the FBI was in its nascent phases.

“I hope the NOPD and the FBI find whoever did this,” Kelly said. “I understand it’s a top priority with law enforcement, and I’m glad to hear it.”

Garrison, 54, was among nine people charged Friday in an expanding probe into a purported scheme involving staged traffic accidents that cost drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance payments.

The indictment, which brought the total number of defendants in the case to 28, alleged that Garrison alone was responsible for more than 50 staged wrecks. He would be the driver, other defendants were passengers, and they would intentionally cause accidents with big trucks who were changing lanes.

Garrison is described as a “slammer” who would then abandon the car, and one of his passengers would pretend to be the driver, call 911 and report the crash. The aim was to get money from the big trucks’ commercial carriers and insurance companies.

The indictment highlighted one collision in October 2015 where Garrison drove a Dodge Avenger belonging to another defendant into a bus. That wreck resulted in a $677,500 settlement, and Garrison took a cut of more than $80,000, the indictment alleges.

A second accident mentioned occurred in September 2017, when Garrison crashed a Toyota RAV4 into a tractor-trailer. The wreck resulted in a $30,000 settlement.

Garrison’s arraignment had been set for Oct. 5. About 8:40 p.m. Tuesday in the 1500 block of Foy Street, police investigating gunfire in the area found Garrison shot to death inside an apartment.

Kelly declined to say whether Garrison intended to stand trial or eventually plead guilty and cooperate with authorities as they built their case against other defendants.

He faced one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and six counts of mail fraud. If convicted, he could have faced a maximum of five years on the first count and up to 20 years on the remaining six counts.

But Kelly said Garrison was worried about his safety throughout the time he was a target of the investigation, something a relatively wide circle of people knew about.

“I enjoyed talking to and meeting with him — he was a client who was easy to deal with, which isn’t always the case,” Kelly said. “Everybody was pretty shaken.”

Authorities haven’t publicly named any suspects in Garrison’s case or discussed details about a possible motive.

Garrison was the second defendant under investigation by federal authorities in New Orleans to be murdered in the city in the last month.

Romero Butler, 33, who was facing federal charges that he allegedly formed part of an identity theft ring, was fatally shot outside of an apartment building in the 200 block of Baronne Street in the Central Business District on Aug. 22.

Police haven’t publicly named any suspects or discussed a possible motive in that slaying either.

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