A tenant behind on rent to revered activist and Baton Rouge icon Sadie Roberts-Joseph has been arrested for her murder, authorities announced Tuesday.
Ronn Jermaine Bell, who lived in one of the Louisiana activist’s rental homes and owed nearly $1,200 in unpaid rent, now faces a first-degree murder charge in the killing. An investigation unfolded after Roberts-Joseph, who founded the city’s African-American history museum, was discovered dead in the trunk of a car July 12.
The vehicle was located just three miles and half miles from her home, and police responded after receiving anonymous calls about about a body in a car, WAFB reported.
A coroner confirmed Roberts-Joseph’s death was the result of “traumatic asphyxia” and suffocation. Police ruled her death a homicide.
According to an arrest report, Bell, 38, admitted to being in the area around the time the victim’s car was abandoned, which video surveillance confirmed. Bell’s DNA was also found on Roberts-Joseph’s remains, investigators said.
“There’s no information which leads us to believe this is a hate crime,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said. “There’s no information which leads us to believe that this incident was motivated by Ms. Sadie’s activism or her community efforts.”
An arrest affidavit states that Bell tried contacting Roberts-Joseph on the day of her murder “in regards to the back payments.” He admitted to being behind on rent, but said he and the activist worked out an agreement allowing him to stay as long as he paid her a portion of the money.
The suspect, a registered sex offender, previously spent seven years in jail after pleading guilty to sexual battery of an 9-year-old girl in 2007. He was already behind bars for failing to register as a sex offender when he was arrested for the activist’s death Tuesday, according to WAFB.
“I’m heartbroken that our community has lost such a kind and selfless soul in such a violent, tragic manner,” East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said in a statement. “I have known and loved Mrs. Sadie Roberts-Joseph for years and admire and respect her dedication to education and community.”
“I’m grateful for the swift action of the Baton Rouge Police Department and Louisiana State Police in finding her alleged killer and putting him behind bars,” he added. “I will continue to pray that justice is served as her friends and family move forward in healing.”
Investigators said they’re still searching for a motive in the case.
Roberts-Joseph cemented herself an an icon through her work in the Baton Rouge community. She founded the Odell S. Williams Now & Then Museum of African American History in 2001 and hosted the city’s annual Juneteenth festival, celebrating the day (June 19, 1865) Blacks in Texas learned slavery had been abolished.
In the wake of her death, locals are left wondering who will maintain the museum the activist worked so hard to preserve. In a Facebook post, state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle said a memorial fund has been launched to help with the museum’s upkeep.
“There’s no amount to large or small; so as we send thoughts and prayers, let’s join together and support her vision,” Marcelle wrote, adding that donations can be made at any Hancock Whitney Bank.”
Funeral arrangements for the late activist are underway.
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