Police arrested a Baton Rouge man Thursday in the deaths of two female Southern University students killed during a gunfight outside an apartment complex in April even though ballistics tests show it wasn’t bullets from his gun that killed the women.
The other man arrested in connection to the gunfight has not been accused of killing the two women.
Brandon Christopher Henderson was booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on Thursday on two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of Lashuntae Benton and Annette January, both 19 years old, outside a student apartment complex on April 10.
Police arrested Henderson, 25, after he revealed to investigators Thursday morning that he fired the first shots — into the air — in a “drive-by shooting,” a report says.
Another man, 22-year-old Ernest Bernard Felton, was arrested hours after the shootings and remains in Parish Prison on counts of attempted second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon, both in firing his gun at Henderson, not at Benton or January.
There’s “a strong possibility” that Felton’s counts will be upgraded to second-degree murder as well, said Baton Rouge police Cpl. L’Jean McKneely.
“In one way, form or fashion, everyone that was involved contributed to the death of these young ladies,” McKneely said last month, referring to the gunmen.
Benton and January were gunned down as innocent bystanders in the attack in a parking lot at The Cottages, 777 Ben Hur Road, an apartment complex popular with LSU and Southern University students. The women were among other young people who had been at a party there during that early morning in April.
Authorities alleged in a report in April that Felton, who was standing near the parking lot, “initiated this shooting by brandishing and firing a handgun.”
But McKneely said Thursday that Henderson “admitted to firing the first shots that initiated the exchange of gunfire that ended the life of Benton and January.”
Four witnesses told The Advocate a similar story in April, including that Felton was not the initial shooter. The witnesses, some of whom were friendly with Felton, said he’d fired to defend himself and others.
Felton, who had been enrolled as a part-time student at Southern and had played on its football team, was placed on emergency suspension from the school April 11, said Henry Tillman, a spokesman for the institution.
Henderson had attended Southern from fall 2009 to spring 2014 but did not graduate, Tillman said.
Attempts to reach Henderson’s family Thursday at his residence and by using a phone number associated with him were unsuccessful.
Henderson told police his brother had been involved in a fistfight with a group of people sometime before 2:17 a.m. that day outside the apartment complex, according to a Baton Rouge police report. Henderson drove to that address to meet up with his brother, later driving up to the group with his brother inside the vehicle, the report says.
Henderson originally told police he was struck by gunfire and responded by discharging his Kel-Tech 9 mm handgun multiple times into the air through the driver’s-side window, according to the report. His then-fiancée later provided authorities with the box the handgun came in, the report says. The box purportedly confirmed Henderson’s ownership of the weapon.
Autopsies on Benton and January showed the women were struck by bullets with polygonal rifling, which do not match the projectiles that came from Henderson’s Kel-Tech 9 mm handgun, the report says.
A bullet recovered from Henderson’s torso also was shown to have polygonal rifling, indicating that the same type of firearm that shot him also shot the women, the report says.
Henderson was treated at a hospital immediately after the shooting for gunshot wounds to his leg and torso, the report says.
Ballistics analysis of shell casings from the scene revealed the shots that were fired from outside Henderson’s car were consistent with a firearm that would produce polygonal rifling on its bullets, according to the document.
“Therefore, it is not believed that (Henderson) fired the shots that killed the two female victims,” the report says.
In a new interview with detectives Thursday morning, Henderson admitted he started the shooting, according to the document.
When police arrested Felton, they wrote in a report that witnesses described gunfire between him and a person in a white sedan. One witness said Felton was the only person outside of the car who had been firing a gun, the report says.
While police have examined bullets and shell casings found at the scene, it’s unclear if they have ever recovered the guns used in the incident. McKneely said he would not comment on whether the firearms have been retrieved.
McKneely said it’s possible Henderson’s brother also could face charges in the shooting.
Benton’s mother, Theresa Tillman, said Thursday she’s feeling more confident now that Henderson has been arrested.
“I do feel relief,” said Tillman, who traveled last week from her hometown of Lake Charles to the State Capitol to march in honor of the slain women.
Efforts to speak with January’s mother Thursday were unsuccessful. A lawyer for Felton didn’t respond to a call.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he didn’t know about the arrest or about all of the details in the police investigation, but he plans to meet with detectives to prepare the case for a grand jury.
“This is a very tragic case with two completely innocent and beautiful victims losing their lives. Their deaths were completely preventable had individuals simply acted with restraint and used decent, good judgment,” he said. “Before any (grand jury) presentation, I will meet with the families of these young ladies. They have suffered greatly and have been very concerned about making sure that justice is served for their children.”
Henderson, 1221 Bob Pettit Blvd., “intentionally placed countless others in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery by firing a handgun from his vehicle near a crowd of people,” the report associated with his arrest says.
The second-degree murder statute says the crime can occur “when the offender is engaged in the perpetration or the attempted perpetration of assault by drive-by shooting, ‘even though he has no intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm.’ ”
January, a track and field athlete, was a freshman management major from Gary, Indiana. The second youngest of five children, January was known for her cheer and her adventurousness, having taken advantage of opportunities like a two-week trip to China in the eighth grade, said her mother, Dawn January, last month.
“She did things she wanted to do. She lived a wonderful life,” her mother said.
Benton, the middle of three children, was a sophomore studying therapeutic recreation and leisure. She’d worked as a volunteer student athletic trainer at Southern .
The women’s families accepted posthumous degrees granted to the students by the university last month.
“I want my daughter’s name and her legacy to live on,” Tillman said. “She was a beautiful soul.”
Advocate staff writer Bryn Stole contributed to this report. Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.