Baton Rouge, La., police announced on Tuesday they had a suspect in the death of beloved community activist, Sadie Roberts-Joseph. The 75-year-old community leader and founder of the city’s African American Museum was found dead in the trunk of her car last Friday afternoon.
Ronn Jermaine Bell, 37, a tenant who lived in a home Roberts-Joseph owned, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, reports NPR. Officials haven’t shared an exact motive for Roberts-Joseph’s killing, but noted that Bell owed her months of unpaid rent—about $1,200 in total.
Police found Roberts-Joseph’s body shortly before Hurricane Barry landed in Southeast Louisiana. The East Baton Rouge coroner ruled her death a homicide by “traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation,” ABC News writes, citing the autopsy report.
An arrest warrant affidavit noted that Bell’s DNA was found on Roberts-Joseph’s body, and surveillance video showed Bell “in the same exact area the victim’s vehicle was abandoned at the same exact time the vehicle was abandoned”—despite him denying he had seen Roberts-Joseph on the day she died, reports ABC.
Bell is also a sex offender with an outstanding warrant related to violations of his parole; he pleaded guilty to sexual assault against a 9-year-old girl in 2007, serving a seven-year sentence for the crime.
Addressing earlier concerns that Roberts-Joseph, who had recently organized a Juneteenth event in the city, may have been killed for her activism on behalf of the black community, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said authorities had no reason to believe her death was a hate crime.
“There’s no information that leads us to believe that this incident was motivated by Ms. Sadie’s activism or community efforts,” Paul said, according to NPR.
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome spoke warmly of Roberts-Joseph on Tuesday, calling her “one of the standout matriarchs of Baton Rouge.”
“She was a part of the fabric of Baton Rouge and that is why you see so many people concerned about her death,” the mayor said. “We will make her legacy a priority...because of what she gave to so many here.”