Southern University’s student union was quieter than normal Monday, a day after two female students were gunned down outside an off-campus party in Baton Rouge.
Students were slowly coming to grips with the deaths of Annette January and Lashuntae “Tae” Benton, innocents in a shooting that also sent a young man to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
“A lot of people don’t want to go to class today,” said Demetrius Carter, a football team captain and the 22-year-old president of the school’s student athletic advisory committee. “It’s bad. … I’ve been up since 2 o’clock this morning taking calls trying to get people to calm down, listening to them, consoling and trying to figure out what actually happened.”
He gestured to a corner of the Smith-Brown Memorial Student Union where a young woman was sobbing into the arms of a classmate.
“There’s a lot of that going on,” he said. “In the field house, there were so many people crying, I had to get up out of there, trying to hold myself together.”
Autopsies on the two 19-year-olds revealed that Benton was shot in the head and the left arm and January suffered a bullet wound to the chest, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark said Monday.
But a ballistics test that might indicate who shot the women won’t be released until later this week or next week, said Sgt. Don Coppola, Baton Rouge police spokesman.
While a former Southern University football player was arrested in connection with the incident, he hasn’t been directly blamed for either of the deaths as police continue to investigate.
Individual counseling sessions for students were underway all day Monday, and a private group counseling session for student-athletes took place in the afternoon, according to a university news release.
“Each of these young ladies embodied the values and spirit of Southern University. We ask that the Jaguar Nation and Baton Rouge community join us in lifting the Benton and January families in our prayers during this difficult time,” Roman Banks, interim athletic director, said in the statement.
A memorial will take place Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the student union courtyard, the release says.
Ray L. Belton, Southern University system president, didn’t immediately respond to an interview request, but said in the statement, “words alone cannot fully describe the extent to which we are saddened.”
Dawn January, Annette January’s mother, traveled to Baton Rouge on Sunday from the family’s hometown of Gary, Indiana. She said her daughter, a track and field athlete, had been an honor roll student in high school and wanted to become one of the best hurdlers.
“She touched a lot of lives. I was on campus today with the track team. Seeing them and the love they had for it, it did my heart good to know that she really had an impact in her life,” Dawn January said of her slain daughter, who had been studying management.
Meantime, Benton’s mother, reached by phone Monday in Lake Charles, said she’d been trying to avoid watching the news and was unaware an arrest had been made.
“I’m pleased (with the arrest) because I feel like whoever did this needs to go to jail,” Theresa Tillman said.
Her daughter, Benton, served as a volunteer student athletic trainer studying therapeutic recreation and leisure. “(The killer) took two innocent lives,” Tillman said. “Two kids that just wanted to get their education. They weren’t doing any harm, just doing what college kids do.”
Carter, the football player, said Benton had an effusive personality and helped him recover from an Achilles tendon injury recently, promising him that “light always follows darkness.”
The women, both of whom lived on Southern University’s campus, were shot and killed early Sunday outside an apartment complex popular with college students called The Cottages on Ben Hur Road, south of LSU, Baton Rouge Police said.
Banks, the interim athletic director, said January and Benton appeared to have been at a gathering with track and field athletes at the time of the shooting. He said all of Southern’s athletes who were witnesses to the incident were commended by police for their cooperation.
While no one has been specifically accused in the deaths, police on Sunday arrested Ernest Bernard Felton, 22, on counts of attempted second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon. Felton, of Miami, was a Southern University football player only during the 2012 season, said Christopher K. Jones, assistant athletics director for media relations. Felton left the team after a new coach was hired who didn’t keep Felton as a player, Jones said.
Another man, 24-year-old Brandon Henderson, is accused of exchanging gunfire with Felton and suffered bullet wounds to his leg and torso, according to a Baton Rouge police report.
Southern University spokesman Henry Tillman said he has been unable to verify whether Henderson was ever a student at the institution, but several current students, including Carter, said they don’t believe Henderson attended their school.
Henderson was still in the hospital as of Monday afternoon, said Coppola, who said he couldn’t disclose whether Henderson has been questioned by authorities or is expected to be arrested in the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.
Carter, who played football with Felton in 2012, said he has known Felton’s good side and believed it’s possible Felton acted in self-defense.
But a witness told BRPD officers, according to the police report, that Felton started the altercation by brandishing a weapon and firing it outside the house party. Felton is being held in Parish Prison on $90,000 bail, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III said.
Felton was only on the Southern football team one season because he struggled to keep up his grades, Carter recalled. Banks said he was unable to verify the exact circumstances around Felton’s departure.
Multiple efforts to reach Felton’s and Henderson’s family members were unsuccessful Monday.
A ballistics test is expected to determine by next week which man’s bullets struck the women, Coppola said. State Police spokesman Lt. J.B. Slaton, whose agency runs the crime lab conducting the exam, said in general there is no set timeline for how long a ballistics test will take.
Rodarrick Jones, 25, a Southern University senior and the president of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, said the shooting has made him feel more cautious about parties.
“You never think anything would get that extreme, at a house party,” Jones said. “We are in college. We’re here to get our scholarship, to get our education.”
Another student, 19-year-old Jiasia Steib, said house parties like the one in question, known as a “kickback,” are primarily indoors. Because they are small gatherings, there usually isn’t much effort made at security.
Carter said at big parties, certain students volunteer to act as informal security guards at the door by keeping an eye on who is coming in. But he acknowledged as a student, he shouldn’t have to feel unsafe in his recreational environment.
“I’m from Chicago. I came to college to bring myself out of a negative situation,” he said.
Carter said incidents like the shooting bring into focus some of the challenges he and his classmates already face at a school that has experienced steep state funding cuts, pointing to what he described as the dilapidated buildings on campus.
“It almost feels as if we’re fighting a war just to get what we need,” he said.
The Southern University System Foundation is establishing a memorial fund to support the women’s families, a statement says.
Rather than Baton Rouge, the funerals may take place in the women’s hometowns.
So far, Benton’s family hasn’t planned a funeral, instead holding an impromptu candlelight memorial for the teenager.
“We’re holding up as best we can under the circumstances,” Tillman said . “It’s just horrible. I’m waiting to get my child’s body back.”