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Ronn Jermaine Bell was about two months behind on rent when his landlady, Baton Rouge civil rights activist Sadie Roberts-Joseph, was found suffocated in the trunk of her car behind an abandoned house last Friday.
Baton Rouge police announced Tuesday that Bell, 38, has been arrested on a count of first-degree murder. The announcement brought some sense of justice to Roberts-Joseph’s friends and relatives after several days of speculation about who could be responsible for ending the life of someone so generous and beloved within the community.
Bell’s criminal record includes a child rape case in the early 2000s. Police said he was already in jail — taken into custody Monday — for violating sex offender registration requirements when he was identified as a suspect in this case.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul mentioned that Bell owed about $1,200 in unpaid rent, but said an official motive hasn’t been determined in the ongoing investigation.
“There’s no information which leads us to believe this is a hate crime,” 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.”
Bell’s DNA was found on Roberts-Joseph’s body, according an affidavit of probable cause that Baton Rouge police filed to support the arrest. Video evidence shows him near where her car was found — about 3 miles from her Scotlandville home, which is down the street from the house Bell was renting from her.
Authorities have not yet determined where she was killed. Paul said police received two anonymous 911 calls that led them to the body on Friday: The first sent them to an address on Adams Avenue, where officers were unable to locate a vehicle, and the second came in about an hour later from someone a few blocks away on North 20th Street. That’s where Roberts-Joseph was later pronounced dead.
Bell told investigators he had been in the location where the car was dumped, but said he was not inside the vehicle and had not seen Roberts-Joseph for several days before she was found dead, according to the affidavit. He also acknowledged during an interview with detectives that he was behind on his rent payments. He said Roberts-Joseph agreed he could remain in the house as long as he paid her something.
Police noted in the affidavit that Roberts-Joseph’s handwritten records suggested “the victim intended to contact the defendant on the day of her murder … in regards to the back payments.”
Another arrest warrant signed Monday shows that Bell was booked into jail for failing to pay the $60 annual registration fee required for registered sex offenders. He was rebooked Tuesday on a count of first-degree murder, police said.
Bell was arrested in 2006 and accused of raping a child in 2004, when she was 9 years old and he was 23. He was charged with aggravated rape but ultimately pleaded guilty to sexual battery and was sentenced to seven years in prison. That’s what made him a registered sex offender.
His guilty plea in that case came just before he was to stand trial on the aggravated rape charge, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Bell’s defense attorney pointed out at the time that the case involved a minor who didn’t report the incident for more than two years after it occurred.
The girl told a teacher in October 2005 that she was raped while visiting a relative about one year earlier and identified Bell as her attacker, according to police reports. She told police she didn’t report the incident earlier because she did not think people would believe her, but then later decided to tell her teacher “after hearing other children talk about how it was wrong for people to do those types of things.”
A legacy of togetherness
Roberts-Joseph, 75, founded the Baton Rouge African American history museum in 2001. She became known as a tireless advocate for the city’s black community and an unwavering voice of peace, acceptance and healing. Local and state leaders have mourned her loss and praised her accomplishments as news of her death spread nationwide.
Police discovered Roberts-Joseph’s body in the trunk of her car in the 2300 block of North 20th Street on Friday afternoon. Roberts-Joseph had been seen earlier in the day by her sister around 11 a.m.
The coroner ruled her death a homicide and said she was suffocated. She died from “traumatic asphyxia,” which could have been the result of strangulation, but the report doesn’t specify exactly how she was killed.
“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 Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph for years and admire and respect her dedication to education and our community. … Hate tried to silence Ms. Sadie, but her voice will continue to ring strong for peace and love through the countless people she touched.”
Roberts-Joseph was known for organizing an annual Juneteenth festival commemorating June 19, 1865, the day Union soldiers in Texas delivered belated news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Through her decades of leadership in the Baton Rouge area, she presented a consistent message of unity aimed at helping communities “heal from the legacy of slavery and move forward.” She encouraged black residents to embrace their heritage, acknowledge past injustices and use their voices to close racial divides and create a brighter future: “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
“We have to be educated about our history and other people’s history,” she told The Advocate in 2016. “Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation.”
Roberts-Joseph’s daughter Angela Machen expressed her appreciation to local law enforcement for their work in making the arrest, saying that during the horrific and unimaginable experience, there was “at least some solace” in knowing that justice would be served.
Her last conversation with her mom was about preparing for Hurricane Barry, which pummeled Louisiana with heavy rain and wind in the hours following Roberts-Joseph’s death. Machen said receiving the tragic news was “a storm for us in the midst of a storm.”
She also said the outpouring of support and condolences she has received provide a fitting tribute to the woman her mother was.
“All my mother ever wanted was for this community to come together,” she told reporters during the Tuesday afternoon news conference. “It’s ironic that … what she wanted in life came to fruition in death. However, we will see to it that her legacy continues. … We look forward to continuing the togetherness that this horrible act has precipitated.”
Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome also promised to pursue unity in Roberts-Joseph’s honor.
“She was one of the standout matriarchs of Baton Rouge. She was part of the fabric of Baton Rouge,” Broome said. “We will make her legacy a priority … because of what she gave to so many here.”
Staff writer Jackie DeRobertis contributed to this report.