Four young men at the scene of the Sunday killing of two female Southern University students said Tuesday the episode started after members of the school’s male track and field team got into a fight with a man, later escalating into at least two men firing shots in a parking lot filled with people.
Two of the young men said they saw the initial shots coming from a car, not from the man arrested Sunday by police in the incident.
The witnesses — three said they are Southern University students and the fourth said he is a former Southern student — told The Advocate in separate interviews Tuesday the shooting sprang from an altercation that was near but had little to do with an off-campus house party that was already dying down about 2 a.m. when the shooting occurred.
The accounts by Marquis Watkins, 22, Trenton Nzekwesi, 25, Lawrence Curette, 23, and Darius Williams, who is a junior at Southern University but who didn’t give his age, give voice to an alternate narrative — embodied in part by a song by Nzekwesi published online that questions the arrest of 22-year-old Ernest Bernard Felton — to how police have described the shooting.
At least a couple of the witnesses are friendly with Felton, who’s not accused in the killings but was booked on a count of attempted second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon in injuring a man in a white car at the scene.
Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola declined to comment on the witnesses’ accounts, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Southern University spokesman Henry Tillman and the school’s interim athletic director, Roman Banks, both declined to talk about the claims, saying they deferred to law enforcement.
In a report issued Sunday based on an initial investigation, a Baton Rouge police officer cited one witness saying that Felton “initiated this shooting by brandishing and firing a handgun.” The report names another man, Brandon Henderson, 24, as being in the white car at the scene, but he has not been accused in the incident. He remained in the hospital for treatment of gunshot wounds as of late Tuesday, said Coppola, who could not say whether Henderson is expected to face charges.
A ballistics test, which should identify who shot and killed 19-year-olds Lashuntae “Tae” Benton and Annette January, may be ready by next week, Coppola said.
Watkins, a Southern University junior studying mass communications, said he was celebrating his birthday with a group of some 30 friends at his ground-floor apartment late Saturday into early Sunday morning when some members of the school’s male track and field team came running up to him and his friends on his porch, bragging about a man they’d beaten up near the parking lot.
The players, Watkins said, were boasting about “jumping” a man who failed to pay them after losing a race nearby. Not long after, Watkins said, he heard a round of shots.
“I don’t know why, but we walked towards that area (where the shots were coming from),” he said, referring to the parking lot. “We saw everyone just scattered everywhere. And then there were more shots, and more shots after that.”
Watkins’ birthday party, which took place at The Cottages, an apartment complex on Ben Hur Road that’s popular with both LSU and Southern University students, was dwindling by 1:30 a.m. and had nothing to do with the male track athletes, who weren’t invited to the gathering, Watkins said.
The slain students had both been at Watkins’ party, as was his friend Felton, who was with him all night and didn’t start any type of fight, Watkins said.
Watkins said Benton, who was playing with his dog at the party that evening, wasn’t present for the first set of shots but was part of the group that ran out to see what happened and fell victim to a second spray of gunfire.
That’s in line with how Nzekwesi remembers the night, with the small “Cottages kickback” being interrupted by track athletes bragging about a fight in or near the parking lot. Nzekwesi said he felt an increasingly tense mood from outside, which he could pinpoint from growing up in a bad neighborhood.
“I said, ‘Man, it’s about to be a shooting.’ I could tell. I saw a car had pulled up and somebody yelled out of the car, ‘Y’all better duck when we spin back,’ ” Nzekwesi said.
Not long afterward, he said, shots rang out and people started running.
“The people in the car started shooting first,” he said. “They shot out the sun roof and then they shot out the window. … I was seeing the gunfire coming from the car.”
No one appeared to be hit at first, but people were scrambling for several moments, some of them still in the shooting area, he said.
“I heard three more shots. A pow, pow, pow,” Nzekwesi said. “I saw Tae hit the ground.”
Another witness, Curette, a senior at Southern University, also said he saw a man in a car warn people in the parking lot. The man said, “Y’all better duck when I come back around,” Curette recalled.
“He left and he came back. I was taking cover. Then he started shooting,” Curette said.
None of the witnesses specifically named Henderson as the man who fired any shots, including the initial ones. Watkins, for his part, said he has no idea who Henderson is outside of his name being linked to the incident in news reports.
Nzekwesi and Watkins both said they were friendly with Felton and never knew him to be a “gangster” or pick fights. The men said they did not specifically see who fired at the white car or if it was Felton, but both said if Felton fired shots, they believed he did so to protect others.
“If he wouldn’t have shot those shots, a lot more people would have been dead, honestly,” said Watkins.
The police report says Henderson, who was shot in the leg and torso, showed up at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in a white Chevrolet Cobalt.
The last witness, Williams, said he heard multiple shots but didn’t see who fired them. However, he confirmed the shooting came after a commotion involving the track team and that it happened away from the birthday gathering, which he called a “chill kickback party.”
Tillman, the Southern University spokesman, said he could not confirm late Tuesday if any of the four witnesses are current or former students of the institution. Nzekwesi said he once attended Southern but is now a student at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Felton, who spent one season on the Southern football team in 2012, is enrolled as a part-time student at the university, Tillman said.
Nzekwesi and Watkins said that immediately after the event, they were afraid to talk to police because of their past brushes with the law. Watkins also said he was spooked because he thought the existence of his party meant he’d be blamed for the incident. But Watkins said he later spoke to authorities.
After seeing what he called false reports in the news, he said, “it makes you angry and makes you wanna tell what really happened.”
Felton remains jailed in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in lieu of $90,000 bail, according to jail records.
Efforts to reach his family, or Henderson, have been unfruitful.
Nzekwesi and Watkins said they’re traumatized by the killings of the two women, who they and police said were innocent bystanders.
Watkins will always remember his friend Benton, who died not far from his doorstep.
“This is day three of me not sleeping,” Nzekwesi said.