Theresa Tillman’s 19-year-old daughter, Lashuntae Benton, has remained a constant presence in her thoughts since the Southern University sophomore was fatally shot outside an off-campus party in April.
“Every day, all day, every second,” Tillman said Thursday morning from the steps of the state Capitol, where a group of friends and relatives gathered to call for justice. “My life is upside-down completely.”
Benton, a Lake Charles native who was studying sports medicine at Southern, was gunned down along with another Southern student, 19-year-old Annette January, of Gary, Indiana, as they stood outside a party at The Cottages apartment complex near LSU in the early morning hours of April 10 — innocent bystanders, police say, to a shootout involving others.
In chants on the Capitol steps Thursday, Tillman and more than a dozen friends and family counted down the days since Tillman’s daughter was slain: “Forty-five days, 19 hours and 45 minutes.”
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Although a part-time Southern student and former football player, 22-year-old Ernest Felton, was arrested by police for allegedly trading gunfire with at least one other man outside the party, no one has been arrested directly in the slaying of the two teenagers. A second shooter, 24-year-old Brandon Henderson, was wounded in the exchange of shots.
Baton Rouge police are still actively investigating the shooting and processing evidence, said department spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola Jr., and are hoping more witnesses come forward with information that might point to who is responsible.
But when an arrest might come — or what counts the shooters might face — remains unclear.
The wait has been difficult and frustrating, but Tillman said she remains confident she’ll see justice in her daughter’s death.
“As a mother, you want answers,” Tillman said, “but you also know it takes time.”
Police initially said the results of ballistics tests should make clear which of the shooters fired the rounds that killed the two young women. Although the testing has been completed, police haven’t identified — at least not publicly — who’s responsible for the deaths.
“That’s still part of this ongoing investigation,” Coppola said. “We don’t want to be premature in making an arrest. The ultimate goal is to get a conviction.”
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said detectives are continuing to interview witnesses and look at additional pieces of evidence — cellphone records, searching for video — that might help develop a solid case.
“I know they’re aggressively working it,” Moore said. “It is a complicated case — because of the scene, because there were a massive number of people out there.”
Although a number of witnesses have spoken to both the police and the media, Coppola said, investigators remain convinced other witnesses haven’t stepped forward, and some who’ve already spoken with police may have more to say.
“We feel that there are people out there that have information that we would like to come forward,” Coppola said.
In an arrest warrant for Felton on counts of attempted second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon — both for firing at Henderson — police allege Felton initiated the confrontation by brandishing a handgun and was the aggressor in the confrontation.
But at least four witnesses who spoke with The Advocate gave another account: That Felton fired only to protect his friends after a man in a car pulled up in front of the party and opened fire on those outside.
What’s certain is that when the firing ceased, both Benton and January, a freshman track runner who was studying business administration, had been shot. Benton was pronounced dead at the scene. January was taken to the hospital where she died shortly afterward.
Felton was initially released on $90,000 bail but was quickly returned to Parish Prison after a judge ruled he violated the terms of his bail by leaving the state without permission.
Benton’s younger brother, 13-year-old Jakaidyn Tillman, came along with his mother Thursday from Lake Charles to stand together on the steps of the Capitol.
“She was funny, smart,” Jakaidyn said. After a family friend interrupted to add “beautiful” to the description of his sister, Jakaidyn smiled.
“That too,” he said.
Tillman and Annette January’s mother, Dawn January, met for the first time at Southern University’s graduation earlier this month, as the university conferred degrees on the two slain students.
Her daughter had plans to take classes over the summer, Tillman said, and was looking forward to building a career as an athletic trainer or nurse.
“All those dreams left with her,” Tillman said.
“Two years ago, I was excited to see her graduate high school. In two more years, I was going to be excited to watch her graduate from Southern.”
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.