Two 19-year-old Southern University students were killed early Sunday after they were caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between a former Southern football player and another man during a party at an upscale apartment complex near LSU.
Southern University freshman track and field athlete Annette January, of Gary, Indiana, and sophomore student athletic trainer Lashuntae Benton, of Lake Charles, were killed during the exchange of gunfire, said Sgt. Don Coppola Jr., a police spokesman. He said the two women were innocent bystanders.
Ernest Bernard Felton, 22, who played one season of football in 2012 at Southern as a defensive back, was arrested by Baton Rouge police Sunday evening and booked into Parish Prison on counts of attempted second-degree murder and illegal use of a weapon.
Felton, who was at the party in The Cottages apartment complex in the 700 block of Ben Hur Road near LSU’s campus, exchanged gunfire with 24-year-old Brandon Henderson, who pulled up in a Chevrolet Cobalt shortly after 2 a.m., according to a Baton Rouge police report. Baton Rouge police did not identify Henderson, but their affidavit of probable cause did.
Henderson was wounded in the shooting and remains hospitalized, according to the report.
The report says Henderson was shot in the leg and torso and drove his car, which was riddled with multiple bullet holes, to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
Coppola said detectives believe a previous argument between the two men led to the shootout. Police are awaiting the results of ballistics tests to determine which of the shooters is responsible for killing January and Benton, Coppola said.
A witness told police that Felton, of 3865 Day Ave., Miami, Florida, initiated the confrontation by brandishing a handgun and firing the weapon outside a house party in the apartment complex, the report says.
The witness said no one else at the party had a weapon, according to the report.
Benton was pronounced dead at the scene. January was taken to the hospital where she died shortly afterward, Coppola said.
“The university asks for prayers and support for the families at this difficult time,” Southern University System President Roy Belton said in a statement identifying the two students.
Theresa Tillman, Benton’s mother who lives in Lake Charles, said her daughter lived in a dormitory on Southern’s campus and was apparently at the apartment complex with friends at the time of the shooting.
January also lived on campus, according to The Associated Press.
“My baby was a good girl,” Tillman said Sunday evening. “She was bubbly, silly, funny, loving — always trying to put a smile on your face. She never met a stranger.”
Tillman said her daughter was studying sports medicine at Southern and hoped to build a career in athletic training after playing softball, volleyball and running track in high school in Lake Charles
She last spoke with her daughter on Friday. Tillman said she seemed to be studying hard but still enjoying herself in Baton Rouge.
“I’m very devastated,” she said.
Those who knew January also described her as cheerful, outgoing and a hard worker.
“Both of them were very pleasant young ladies, always seemed to have smiles on their faces and would brighten up my day,” said Southern Athletic Director Roman Banks, “That makes it even tougher.”
Jerae Protho-Guider, January’s track coach at Bowman Academy High School in Gary, recalled spotting January sprinting after someone down the school hallway as a high school freshman and being struck by her athleticism.
That began a close relationship with January, a standout in the classroom and on the track at the Indiana school. Protho-Guider said January graduated among the top-10 graduates in her class, captained the track team and qualified twice for the Indiana state track meet finals.
“Annette was just a very, very smart, caring person. She was very well-known and well-liked,” Protho-Guider said. “She had a lot of her peers looking up to her, a great role model. She always was smiling. Every time you saw Annette she was in good spirits, always made my day better.”
Protho-Guider said January’s immediate family is traveling to Louisiana but former teammates, classmates and friends were gathering Sunday at January’s relatives’ homes in Indiana to offer each other support and comfort.
In a personal statement written for a sports recruiting service while in high school, January spoke about her passion for track, leadership roles at the school and plans to study criminal psychology and business administration.
“I manage to stay a top student and volunteer my time in the community as much as I can,” she wrote. “I am determined to overcome any obstacle that will keep me from furthering my education.”
Flags on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus were lowered to half staff in memory of January and Benton. Fans and players at Southern’s home baseball game Sunday against Grambling observed a moment of silence before the first pitch at 1 p.m.
Southern baseball coach Roger Cador, who broke the news of the shooting to his players before the game, said Benton worked as a trainer for the team earlier this season. Banks said Benton also worked with athletes on a number of other varsity sports teams at the university.
Southern junior Janae Williams, who attended the baseball game and had several classes with Benton, said the slayings were “senseless violence” and touched off an outpouring of support from students for the women’s friends and family Sunday.
“Everybody’s hearts are broken,” Williams said. “Even people who don’t really know them, they’re really heartbroken that this happened in our community and to our students — successful students, a track athlete and a trainer. Everybody is upset, but everybody is giving heartfelt apologies and prayers to the families.”
Felton, who played at Jackson High School in Miami, accepted a football scholarship from Southern and then-head coach Stump Mitchell in 2012. Mitchell was reassigned two games into Felton’s freshman season, during which Felton played in one game and did not record a statistic.
Current coach Dawson Odums, who succeeded Mitchell, and his staff did not retain Felton for the 2013 season.
An assistant manager at The Cottages declined to comment Sunday morning. Officials with American Campus Communities, the Texas-based company that manages The Cottages, didn’t respond to messages Sunday.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Banks said. “These students chose to do the right things, but it seems they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Police are asking anyone with information about the shooting to call the Violent Crimes Unit at (225) 389-4869 or Crime Stoppers at (225) 344-7867.
Advocate sportswriter Les East and freelance writer Mike Gegenheimer contributed to this report.