Flowers were left outside the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American History Museum, whose founder, Sadie Roberts-Joseph, 75, was found dead in the trunk of a car Friday. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A man has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Sadie Roberts-Joseph, the Baton Rouge activist whose body was found in a car trunk last week, city police announced Tuesday.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said the suspect⁠ — Ronn Jermaine Bell ⁠ — was several months behind on his rent payments to Roberts-Joseph, a community leader who founded the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American History Museum in 2001 and pushed to elevate Juneteenth to a state and national holiday honoring the freeing of slaves.

Her death has prompted an outpouring of grief in Baton Rouge and beyond.


Law enforcement officials including Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, at lectern, announce the arrest of Ronn Jermaine Bell on Tuesday. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate/AP)

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

The suspect’s motives were still under investigation, Paul said Tuesday. Police do not believe the killing was a hate crime or motivated by 75-year-old Roberts-Joseph’s activism. Roberts-Joseph died of traumatic asphyxiation, including suffocation, according to an autopsy conducted Monday by the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office. The office ruled the death a homicide.

The final autopsy report could take 90 days.

Roberts-Joseph was discovered dead Friday afternoon three miles from her home after police received anonymous tips, according to authorities. Police said they do not think the tipsters were involved in the killing.

Officers’ efforts to solve the crime were complicated by Tropical Storm Barry hitting Louisiana, Paul said Tuesday. But information from the community that knew Roberts-Joseph as “Miss Sadie” helped the investigation, he said.


Sadie Roberts-Joseph in April 2004. (Arthur D. Lauck/The Advocate/AP)

Local groups and officials have praised Roberts-Joseph’s legacy.

“My heart is empty,” Louisiana state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a friend of Roberts-Joseph, wrote on Facebook after learning about the killing.

“We lost a Cultural Legend Yesterday!” the Baton Rouge branch of the NAACP said in a Facebook post, calling Roberts-Joseph a “trendsetter and icon” in the city.

Dedicated to historical preservation, Roberts-Joseph volunteered seven days a week at her Baton Rouge museum, which highlighted African art, African American inventions and more. Speaking on Tuesday, Roberts-Joseph’s daughter said that the museum was meant not just to educate people about African American culture but also more broadly to capture the value of diversity: “how multiple sources have come together to make this country the great place that it is.”

Neighbors and family members who spoke to The Washington Post remembered Roberts-Joseph for many roles beyond that of museum founder and curator, though. She worked at community centers, led trash cleanups and founded an organization to fight drugs and violence in her neighborhood.

“She was a total advocate of peace, love and harmony, and she died just the opposite,” Roberts-Joseph’s sister, 68-year-old Beatrice Armstrong-Johnson, said Sunday.


Roberts-Joseph volunteered seven days a week at the museum she founded, which highlighted African art, African American inventions and more. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)