Ignatius Hills didn't feel like a hero when cheering supporters greeted him and six other New Orleans police officers outside the jail where they were booked in January 2007 on charges stemming from deadly shootings on a bridge following Hurricane Katrina.
Hills, now a key witness in the Justice Department's case against five other current or former officers charged in the Danziger Bridge shootings, testified Thursday that he had fired two shots at the back on a fleeing teenager because he was scared. He also said he subsequently participated in a cover-up to clear him and other officers of wrongdoing.
Federal prosecutor Theodore Carter showed Hills a photograph of him walking past a sign that said, "Heroes," as he and others of the so-called Danziger Seven surrendered in 2007 to face state charges of murder and attempted murder.
"Were you a hero?" Carter asked.
"No," Hills said. "There wasn't anything heroic about what transpired on the bridge that day."
Prosecutors say police shot six unarmed people, killing two, and then embarked on a cover-up that included a plot to plant a gun, fabricate witnesses and falsify reports to make the shootings appear justified.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 2005, less than a week after Katrina's landfall, Hills and other officers piled into a rental truck and drove to the bridge in response to an officer's distress call.
"It was pretty much intense," he said. "There wasn't much, if any, talking."
Hills said he was in the back of the moving truck when he heard a barrage of high-powered gunfire. When the truck stopped, Hills saw a teenage boy run past the truck, away from the gunfire on the bridge.
From the back of the truck, Hills said, he fired two shots at the boy's back "out of fear," but missed his target.
"Did this individual do anything to threaten you?" Carter asked.
"No," Hills said, adding that he knows he wasn't justified to shoot at someone simply because he was afraid.
Hills said he waited until the gunfire died down before he got out. He saw five gunshot victims on the ground behind a concrete barrier. One of them, 17-year-old James Brisssette, was dead. Another victim, Susan Bartholomew, had a shattered arm amid the pooling blood.
"It was a pretty horrific scene," he said.
Hills said Sgt. Kenneth Bowen, one of the officers on trial, overheard him asking whether any guns were found on the victims. Bowen said he kicked the guns off the bridge, Hills testified.
"Did you believe him?" Carter asked.
"Absolutely not," Hills said.
On the west side of the bridge, police fatally shot 40-year-old Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man, in the back as he and his brother, Lance Madison, ran from the gunfire on the other side.
Lance Madison was arrested that day on eight counts of attempted murder of police officers, then released three weeks later without being indicted. Prosecutors say neither of the Madison brothers was armed.
"To arrest Lance Madison was very suspicious," Hills told the court.
Hills said he later attended a meeting with Sgt. Arthur Kaufman, who was assigned to investigate the shootings, and other officers who fired on the bridge. Kaufman told them to "basically get your stories straight" before they gave taped interviews with police investigators, Hills said.
Hills said he lied in his taped statement when he claimed to see the teenage boy reach toward a shiny object in his waistband before he shot at him. Under cross-examination, however, Hills said Kaufman never told him what to say during his interview.
Eric Hessler, a lawyer for one of the officers on trial, asked Hills if he felt any pressure to change his story once he began cooperating with the Justice Department to give prosecutors more fodder to use against other officers.
"Not at all," Hills said. "It's real easy to tell the truth."
The state charges against Hills and other Danziger Seven members were dismissed in 2008. The Justice Department's civil rights division later opened an investigation that has resulted in charges against 11 current or former officers.
Bowen, Sgt. Robert Gisevius, Officer Anthony Villavaso and former officer Robert Faulcon are charged in the shootings. Kaufman is charged in the alleged cover-up.
Hills is one of five former officers who have pleaded guilty to participating in a cover-up. He faces up to eight years in prison when he's sentenced.