Louisiana civil rights icon Sadie Roberts-Joseph, a 75-year-old woman who founded an African American history museum in Baton Rouge, was discovered dead in the trunk of a car the afternoon of Fri., July 12. A suspect was arrested and charged on July 16.
East Baton Rouge Coroner Beau Clark released preliminary autopsy results July 15 that show Roberts-Joseph was suffocated to death.
He said Roberts-Joseph died from "traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation." The local newspaper The Advocate reports this means her airways were physically blocked, cutting off her oxygen supply.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul says detectives have arrested Ronn Jermaine Bell in connection with the homicide. He now faces a first-degree murder charge.
Investigators learned Bell was a tenant in one of Roberts-Johnson’s rental homes. They believe he was behind several months on his rent and that he owed abut $1,200. According to the arrest report, Bell admitted to being behind on rent payments and said he and Roberts-Joseph has agreed he could stay at the home he was renting as long as he paid some money to her. He also reportedly admitted to being in the same area where the victim’s car was found at the time the vehicle was abandoned, which was confirmed with video surveillance, the report notes.
Evidence processed by the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab confirmed Bell’s DNA was found on Roberts-Joseph’s remains, the report says.
He was already in jail for failing to register as a sex offender. Bell is a registered sex offender and was convicted in a 2004 case involving the rape of an 8-year-old girl. Bell pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexual battery under best interest of the victim and her family. He served the entire sentence, so he was not under probation, but still has to follow certain guidelines as a sex offender. He was released from prison April 12, 2013.
The Advocate reported Roberts-Joseph was the founder and curator of the Baton Rouge African American Museum, which she started in 2001. The museum sits on the campus of New St. Luke Baptist Church, where Roberts-Joseph's brother is pastor.
"Ms. Sadie was a tireless advocate of peace," the Baton Rouge Police Department posted on its Facebook page, adding: "Our detectives are working diligently to bring the person or persons responsible for this heinous act to justice."
Roberts-Joseph also organized an annual Juneteenth festival at the museum, marking the date June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers delivered belated news to Texas that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all Southern slaves free. The document had been finalized more than two years earlier.
The museum features African art, exhibits on growing cotton and black inventors as well as a 1953 bus from the period of civil rights boycotts in Baton Rouge. It also has prominent exhibits on President Barack Obama, whose presidency Roberts-Joseph cited as an inspiration to children.
"We have to be educated about our history and other people's history," Roberts-Joseph told the newspaper in 2016. "Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation."
Beatrice Johnson, one of Roberts-Joseph's 11 siblings, lives two doors down from her sister's home on a quiet street in Baton Rouge. She said Roberts-Joseph would come by every day. Johnson said her sister came over earlier on the day she died because "she had mixed some cornbread, but her oven went out, and she brought it here to put in the oven."
Gesturing toward her kitchen, Johnson said: "The bread is still there. She never came back to get it."