As New Orleans airport attacker dies, his motive remains a mystery

Neighbor recalls man who swung machete at New Orleans airport as religious, friendly

He never said a word. Carol Richel, a TSA worker at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, shared the detail as she recounted how a man suddenly produced a machete and chased her down Concourse B, swinging the blade wildly.

He stopped only when a lieutenant with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office opened fire, striking him three times.

"Officer Sylve is my hero," Richel said Saturday, referring to Lt. Heather Sylve. "She saved my life ... and saved probably a lot of others."

What drove Richard White's rampage is not known. The 63-year-old Army veteran died of his wounds Saturday afternoon, the day after he unleashed minutes of terror and confusion that led to one bizarre discovery after another. All this from a man a onetime neighbor described as sociable, religious and never violent.

"Him and his wife were such darling people," said the neighbor, Donna Jackson.

Jackson, 55, a retired school board worker, sat outside her house Saturday looking at White's former home across the street, a single-story brick tract residence with a postage-stamp lawn about 2 miles from the airport.

She called him "Mr. Richard." He and his wife moved out more than a year ago when their landlord sold the house, she said, but she ran into him this month at Wal-Mart and he was as friendly as ever.

"He said, 'Look at my girl Donna!' and asked about my brother," she said.

Just before 8 p.m. Friday, authorities said, White walked into the airport's security checkpoint and pulled out a can of wasp spray, spraying Transportation Security Administration agents and passengers waiting in line.

Then he pulled the machete from his waistband and went for another TSA agent, who blocked the weapon with a piece of luggage.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand said White next ran after Richel — swinging the weapon "very hard," she said — until he was felled by shots from Sylve, who struck him in the left side of his chest, left facial area and left thigh.

In a televised news conference, Normand praised Sylve's leadership, adding that officers never want to use their guns.

"In the face of a fairly large man … running toward you … right on the agent's tail," Normand said, "she did an incredible job, she stood her ground, she exhibited deliberate leadership."

White was "unresponsive" when rushed to a hospital, Normand said.

But the disorder didn't end after White was subdued. Richel was wounded too and had initially thought she had been sliced by the machete. It turned out she had been hit by one of Sylve's rounds. The bullet passed through her right arm.

After reviewing surveillance video, authorities discovered White had brought a bag with him and dropped it during the attack.

The smell of gasoline floated through the air. Officers immediately moved passengers across the terminal and cordoned off the area.

"Almost simultaneously, we found his car parked on an upper ramp," Normand said.

Searching White's car, a bomb squad found smoke bombs in the trunk, as well as three tanks holding acetylene, oxygen and Freon.

Back inside the airport, investigators noticed liquid leaking out of the bag. White had packed it with six Molotov cocktails — half-pint Mason jars with cloth wicks soaked in gasoline — and a barbecue lighter. The bag also contained a letter opener.

Normand said it was unclear what White intended to do with the materials in the bag and in the trunk of his car, or what motivated the attack. White had "little or no criminal history" and had worked as a taxi driver, he said.

Jackson, the former neighbor, said White and his wife, Elaine, regularly attended services at a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall. They were friendlier than Jehovah's Witnesses she had grown up with, some of whom forbid their children to socialize with nonbelievers, Jackson said.

White's family, who Normand said is cooperating with authorities, told officials he had a history of mental health problems. In accordance with his faith, physicians at the hospital refrained from performing some medical procedures, Normand said.

To Jackson, White was the man who would make sure to ask about her brother, a fellow veteran he used to sit and share military stories with on her porch, she said. He would always ask her about the medications she took for diabetes, and urge her to try herbal remedies instead.

He seemed normal, Jackson said.

"I didn't have any inkling," she said.

Jackson called her brother, the former Marine who would chat with White, to tell him about the attack.

"He was very shocked to hear he had gone off the deep end like that," Jackson said. "He said, 'You know, we can get flashbacks.'"

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

Twitter: @ParviniParlance

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

Parvini reported from Los Angeles and Hennessy-Fiske from New Orleans.

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