Ronn Jermaine Bell Sr. has been identified as the suspect arrested in the murder of Sadie Roberts-Joseph, an advocate for peace and unity in her Baton Rouge community, police announced at a July 16 press conference, four days after she was found dead in the trunk of her own car.
The 38-year-old Bell was a tenant in one of Roberts-Joseph’s rental properties and was behind on his rent, Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul. Bell is a registered sex offender in Louisiana, according to online records. He is being held at the East Baton Rouge Parish Jail on charges of being a fugitive from justice and for failure to meet the requirements of his sex offender registration, jail records show. Bell will be charged with first-degree murder in the homicide of Roberts-Joseph.
Bell was convicted of sexual battery May 23, 2007 in Louisiana, according to his sex offender registration.
A Louisiana coroner ruled her cause of death a homicide due to traumatic asphyxia including suffocation. Police said they do not believe it was a hate crime or that the killing was motivated by Roberts-Joseph’s activism and other community efforts.
The body of Roberts-Joseph, who was affectionately known in the community as Ms. Sadie, was found in the trunk of a car about 3 1/2 miles from her home Friday afternoon, July 12. Police discovered the remains in the car in in the 2300 block of North 20th Street, which is located off I-110 near Choctaw, at 3:35 p.m. Friday, according to WAFB. She was 75.
Her sister, Beatrice Johnson, told The Advocate she saw her sister that day when she stopped by to use her oven. She never came back to pick up the cornbread she’d made.
Sadie Roberts-Joseph was a pillar of Baton Rouge. She founded the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum, saying that unity comes by examining historical injustices.
The announcement of the arrest came just a few hours before a scheduled candlelight vigil for Roberts-Joseph. The community will gather at 6 p.m. to remember her “beautiful life” at the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum, the museum she founded in Baton Rouge.
“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” she told The Advocate in 2016. “We have to be educated about our history and other people’s history. Across racial lines, the community can help to build a better Baton Rouge, a better state and a better nation.”
Police said they were mourning the loss of the beloved community leader, along with the community she served. She teamed up with police through the organization she co-founded, Community Against Drugs and Violence (CADAV).
“Ms. Sadie was a tireless advocate of peace in the community,” police wrote on Facebook. “We had opportunities to work with her on so many levels. From assisting with her bicycle give away at the African American Museum to working with the organization she started called CADAV. (Community Against Drugs and Violence) Ms. Sadie is a treasure to our community, she will be missed by BRPD and her loss will be felt in the community she served.”
A member of CADAV, Patricia Haynes Smith, questioned on Facebook why someone would ever want to hurt the woman.
“Who would want to hurt Sadie? She had given her life to proving children and adults alike the opportunity to know and live Black History. I’m completely baffled that someone would take her life. I pray for her family and that whoever did her harm will be found and punished,” she wrote.
“May God take care of you my friend,” she added.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Sadie Roberts-Joseph’s Body Was Discovered in the Trunk of a Car
The body of 75-year-old community activist Sadie Roberts-Joseph was found in the trunk of a car about 3 1/2 miles from her home in the quiet neighborhood of Scotlandville. Her body was found near Choctaw at 3:35 p.m. Friday off of Interstate 110 in the 2300 block of North 20th Street, WAFB reported.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said they received an anonymous 911 call about a vehicle with a body in the trunk. “Our patrol officer arrived and located a vehicle parked in the rear of a vacant house,” Paul said, and he found a body in the vehicle. “The scene was immediately secured by our detectives and our homicide unit was dispatched to the scene to take over the investigation. The location where the vehicle was found was approximately 3 to 3 1/2 miles from Ms. Sadie’s residence. The persons who made the 911 call were anonymous. They were concerned citizens and we do not believe they had anything to do from the homicide. And they have been cleared as suspects in our investigation.”
Paul said, “We immediately began our investigation into Ms. Sadie’s death. Our detectives immediately began following up on leads, interviewing witnesses and searching for evidence during the midst of a hurricane. There was no information which leads us to believe this was a hate crime. There’s no information which leads us to believe this incident was motivated by Ms. Sadie’s activism or her community efforts.”
Paul said there was a 1 1/2 hour time frame that investigators focused on, the period between when she was last seen alive and the time when she was discovered. “Thanks to the help of our Baton Rouge communiuty, and the work of our Baton Rouge detectives and the dedicated service of the men and women of the Louisiana State Police crime lab, through all those investigative efforts we were able to identify a suspect.”
Beatrice Johnson, Sadie Roberts-Joseph’s sister, told The Advocate her sister stopped by her house, two doors down, before she disappeared.
Johnson said Sadie Roberts-Joseph had mixed up cornbread batter. Her oven went out, so she stopped by to use her sister’s oven.
“She would come by here every day,” Johnson said. “Friday, she came by (because) she had mixed some cornbread, but her oven went out, and she brought it here to put in the oven. The bread is still there. She never came back to get it.”
Community leaders wrote tributes to Sadie Roberts-Joseph on Facebook.
“I just can’t stop crying after hearing of the horrific way Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph’s life ended,” Councilwoman Chauna Banks said in a Facebook post.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said after Bell’s arrest, “I’m heartbroken that our community has lost such a kind and selfless soul in such a violent and tragic manner. I’ve known and loved Ms. Sadie for years and admire and respect her dedication to education and our community. I’m grateful for the swift action of the Baton Rouge Police Department and the Louisiana State Police in finding her alleged killer and putting him behind bars.”
He added, they “will continue to pray as justice as served her friends and family move forward in healing. She leaves behind a strong legacy of character and faith. Hate tried to silence Mrs. Sadie, but her voice will continue to ring strong for peace and love through the countless people she touched.””
2. Bell Was Convicted of Sexual Battery of a 9-Year-Old Girl in 2007 & Served 7 Years in Prison
Ronn Jermaine Bell was convicted of sexual battery in 2007. He served seven years in prison. East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore said Bell was accused of aggravated rape of a 9-year-old girl. Bell was arrested in 2005 and pleaded guilty two years later.
Moore said a jury had been selected and seated to hear the trial on the aggravated rape charge, but “at that time it was thought to be best that this person plead guilty to sexual battery, which he did.” Moore said the family of the victim was involved in the plea agreement decision. Moore said Bell was sentenced to seven years in prison and served his entire sentence. The original charge would have resulted in a mandatory life sentence if he was found guilty.
According to The Advocate newspaper archives, “Prosecutors said the crime had occurred about 2 1/2 years before Bell’s trial. The girl had told police she didn’t tell anyone immediately because she didn’t think anyone would believe her. She said she changed her mind after ‘hearing other children talk about how it was wrong for people to do those types of things.'”
“He is no longer under probation parole supervision, however since he is a sex offender, he’s under indefinite supervision and he must abide by all the regulations and rules and statutes that are in place to register and pay a certain amount of fees, which apparently he did not do, or it is alleged he did not do, and that was the warrant he was picked up for in this case,” Moore said.
Bell was booked into the East Baton Rouge Parish jail on July 16 on charges connected to violating the conditions of his lifetime sex offender registration, according to online records.
He does not appear to have any other prior criminal convictions in Louisiana.
3. Police Say Bell Was Behind Several Months in Rent & Owed Sadie Roberts-Joseph About $1,200
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said at a press conference that Ronn Bell lived at a rental property owned by Sadie Roberts-Joseph in the city. He owed her about $1,200.
“We believe based on our investigations at this time that Ronn Bell was a tenant in one of her rent houses,’ Paul said. “We believe that he was behind several months on his rent. We believe around $1,200 was owed for rent. We still don’t have a complete solid motive at this time and the motive is still under investigation. This is still an ongoing investigation.
Police have released few details about what led to Roberts-Joseph’s death. Paul said they do not want to compromise the investigation and said they could not answer a lot of questions because of that.
“We ask you to keep the family of Ms. Sadie in your prayers,” Paul said.
4. Police, Prosecutors & Family Thanked the Community for Coming Together After Roberts-Joseph’s Death
Sadie Roberts-Joseph’s brother, Joseph Armstrong, said through tears he is grateful for the people who stepped forward to give information about his sister’s death.
“I thank you for that,” he said to WAFB. “Wherever you are, thank god for you.”
Authorities thanked the community for “stepping up” and providing information that helped them solve the case and arrest Ronn Bell.
“I want to thank the city of Baton Rouge for the help,” Police Chief Murphy Paul said. “We received so many phone calls from the community when they learned it was Ms. Sadie,” along with text messages and emails. “Thank you Baton Rouge, thank you for caring. This community came together.”
He also thanked the family for their assistance and the media for pushing the public to cooperate and for covering the case, helping them “expediate” the investigation. “We say we can’t do this without the community and this is an example of when a community steps up and does their part, we can put these bad actors away.”
Paul added, “We have some of the best homicide detectives in this country. Thank you for your hard work and commitment even in the midst of a storm.”
Baton Rouge Police said they were mourning the loss of Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who was a teammate for the police in her advocacy to end violence. They called her a “tireless advocate” on Facebook and called for information.
“The Baton Rouge Police Department joins the community in mourning the loss of Ms. Sadie Roberts-Joseph,” they wrote. “Ms. Sadie was a tireless advocate of peace in the community.”
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome wrote on Instagram she was shocked by the loss of Sadie Roberts-Joseph.
“She loved this city and its people. Her commitment to the cultural and educational fabric of our community is beyond description. The development of The Odell S. Williams African American Museum is a testament of her visionary and pioneering leadership,” she wrote.
She added in her post a cash reward could be given to those who share information leading to an arrest.
5. Community Members Asked Why Anyone Would Hurt Sadie Roberts-Joseph
A heartbroken community asked why anyone would hurt Sadie Roberts-Joseph, who was known in her community as a gentle activist who worked for peace and unity. Roberts-Joseph called for an end to violence in Baton Rouge.
“Who would want to hurt Sadie? She had given her life to proving children and adults alike the opportunity to know and live Black History. I’m completely baffled that someone would take her life. I pray for her family and that whoever did her harm will be found and punished,” Patricia Haynes Smith wrote on Facebook. “May God take care of you my friend.”
Sadie Roberts-Joseph was an advocate for peace and unity in her community. She co-founded Community Against Drugs and Violence (CAVAD) to help reduce crime in Baton Rouge, and teamed up with Baton Rouge police for her efforts.
Community leaders called for information and friends called for swift justice in the death of the gentle activist.