Building a case primarily on interviews with federal prisoners and decades-old DNA evidence, sheriff’s deputies have arrested a Baton Rouge man in a 1992 killing in which the 44-year-old victim was tied up and beaten to death inside his Glen Oaks neighborhood home, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Woodrow Harrell, now 65 and recently released from federal prison, was arrested Tuesday night on counts of first-degree murder and aggravated burglary in the killing of Leonard Noriega. Noriega, 44, was found dead inside his Skylark Avenue home on Dec. 9, 1992, beaten to death with a blunt object and bound with electrical cord and white cloth, according to an East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office report.
Harrell was recently released — although it wasn’t immediately clear exactly when — from federal prison after serving at least the majority of a 136-month sentence following a 2004 drug conviction in the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.
According to Sheriff’s Office reports, Harrell told a deputy while he was in prison that he was at Noriega’s home at the time of the beating, but that he didn’t take part in the killing.
But Harrell did shed some light on what might have led to Noriega’s death.
More than a year before Noriega was killed, Harrell was allegedly robbed at gunpoint of $40,000 cash and a Rolex watch worth tens of thousands of dollars, according to the report.
Harrell racked up the bounty as a marijuana dealer, he told deputies, and he soon heard “on the street” that Noriega was behind the heist, the report says.
Seeking justice in his own manner, Harrell asked a friend to rob Noriega so he could recoup his losses, he told the deputy while in prison. In response, his friend said he knew someone “perfect for the job,” the report says.
Harrell asked the man to rob Noriega without harming him, the report says.
But something went awry during the robbery.
Harrell told the deputy he didn’t take part “in the beating and torture that resulted in Noriega’s death,” the report says, but he did say he was there when it happened. He also said another man “pistol whipped” Noriega before tying him up, and it wasn’t until Harrell returned to the home several days later that he found Noriega dead inside the home, the report says.
The deputy wrote in a sworn affidavit that Harrell reported his involvement in the killing “because it had been on his mind and bothering him for 21 years,” the report says.
The report also says Harrell hoped to earn immunity from prosecution and possibly immunity from his federal parole for telling the deputy his story. At least one other prisoner had been told the same story by Harrell in prison, according to the report.
At some point during their conversation, the deputy told Harrell to stop talking until he had an attorney. It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the Sheriff’s Office is looking for any of the other men allegedly involved in Noriega’s death.
But at least one Baton Rouge man once implicated in the crime is seeking to clear his name publicly after prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against him.
Edward J. Belin, 54, was arrested in February 2013 on a count of principal to first-degree murder in Noriega’s death. Belin’s fingerprints were found on an air conditioning vent that had apparently been pulled out during the ransacking of Noriega’s home at the time of the killing.
Belin spent six months in jail before posting $100,000 bail, and it wasn’t until later that the District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute him.
While he was never charged with a crime — a person can be arrested, jailed and ultimately released in Louisiana without ever being charged by prosecutors — Belin said Wednesday the whole ordeal tarnished his reputation beyond repair.
“When you talk about a raw deal, that’s what I got,” said Belin, an assistant pastor at Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Springfield. “I just want some closure and to let the public know it was not me.”
Belin said he was in Atlanta in 1992 when Noriega was killed. He also said he had never heard of Noriega until he was arrested, and when told Wednesday about Harrell’s arrest, Belin said he had never heard of him either.
Belin said he must have painted the house before he moved to Atlanta in 1990, although he couldn’t recall painting Noriega’s home specifically. He painted many houses, he said.
“That’s the only way that my fingerprints could be in the house,” Belin said.
He said it’s been difficult to earn back his credibility as a contractor. Belin said he couldn’t find work for an entire year after his arrest.
Belin also said the cost of bail, which he hasn’t been able to recover, plus attorney’s fees and other expenses basically left him broke after he was essentially cleared by authorities.
“People see stuff on the news and they keep it in the back of their minds,” Belin said. “It’s just hard to explain stuff like that.”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.