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Tenant Who Was Behind on Rent Allegedly Killed La. Civil Rights Leader

Christine Pelisek

A convicted sex offender has been arrested in last Friday’s slaying of Sadie Roberts-Joseph, the 75-year-old founder of an African American history museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Ronn Jermaine Bell Sr., 38, was charged with first-degree murder less than a week after the body of the well-known community and civil rights activist was discovered in the trunk of her car, which was parked at the rear of a gated property more than three miles from her home.

Preliminary autopsy results Monday determined that Roberts-Joseph died from “traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation,” according to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office.

Bell was a tenant in one of Roberts-Joseph’s rental homes.

“We believe he was behind several months on his rent,” Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said Tuesday at a press conference announcing the arrest. “We believe around $1,200 was owed for rent. We still don’t have a complete solid motive at this time.”

Ronn Jermaine Bell Sr. | East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office

Paul said there was no indication that Roberts-Joseph’s death was the result of a hate crime, or motivated by her activism or community efforts.

RELATED: Louisiana Civil Rights Activist Is Found Murdered in Trunk of Her Car

Bell was arrested in 2004 on charges of aggravated rape of an eight-year-old girl, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore, III said. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to the lesser charge of sexual battery and served seven years in prison.

Roberts-Joseph founded the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African-American History Museum — now known as the Baton Rouge African-American History Museum — in 2001.

Sadie Roberts-Joseph | Arthur D. Lauck/The Advocate via AP

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She also was the founder of the non-profit Community Against Drugs and Violence and an annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival.

“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 at the press conference. “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,” Gautreaux added.

“All my mother ever wanted was for this community to come together and it is ironic that that happened in death,” Roberts-Joseph’s daughter Angela said at the press conference. “What she wanted to happen in life came to fruition in death. However, we will see to it that her legacy continues.”