Youngest of trio pleads to killing Belleville grandmother after bingo

News-DemocratSeptember 3, 2013 

Bingo regular Yoko Cullen was on a lucky streak on May 18, 2011, winning three games that night at the Collinsville Fireman's Hall.

Police said Cullen's luck ended after she met fellow bingo hall regulars LaTosha Cunningham, 39, DaQuan D. Barnes, 21, and his uncle, DeMarcus Barnes, 30, all of Belleville.

DaQuan Barnes pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder in the killing of Cullen, who was burned alive in the trunk of her car during the robbery of the 85-year-old Belleville grandmother's bingo winnings.

As part of the plea agreement, St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly agreed to argue for a 60-year prison sentence. Barnes could have faced natural life in prison because of the age of his victim.

Brian Flynn, DaQuan Barnes' lawyer, could still ask for the minimum -- 20 years. DaQuan Barnes will be sentenced on Oct. 30.

"Obviously, any scenario where a defendant pleads guilty and the people can seek what would normally be the maximum sentence for murder is a good thing," Kelly said after the plea.

The night of her murder, Cullen parted from two of her friends and walked to her car in the parking lot of the Collinsville Fireman's Hall at 9510 Collinsville Road, where she played bingo that Wednesday night.

Barnes, his uncle, DeMarcus Barnes, and Cunningham followed Cullen's 2008 Mazda from the parking lot in Cunningham's 2006 Dodge Charger and eventually stopped Cullen's car and carjacked her, Kelly said during the plea. The three forced Cullen into the trunk of her own car.

Later in statement to police, DaQuan Barnes said he heard Cullen's voice from the trunk as he drove her car to a remote location in East St. Louis.

"Can I talk to you?" the woman asked.

Once they stopped, the Barneses and Cunningham attacked Cullen with tire irons, according to DaQuan Barnes' statement, in an attempt to get the pin number to Cullen's ATM card.

"Can I call my daughter?" the woman asked her attackers.

The three locked Cullen in her trunk, then drove in Cunningham's car to an East St. Louis gas station where they bought the fuel they would use to set Cullen's car on fire. The car was towed the next day. Cullen's remains were then found in the trunk.

A pathologist found Cullen was alive when the car was set on fire. She died from massive burns, soot in her lungs. Her body identified by DNA.

In his statement to police, Barnes told police that his share from the robbery was $130.

Cullen's family filled the front row of the gallery. Some cried as the details of Yoko Cullen's murder were recounted during the plea by Kelly.

"We have been involved from the beginning, attending every court hearing. Some of this information was new to us, and it was pretty rough," said Tanya Brown, Cullen's oldest grandchild. "It was bittersweet. We are happy to take a step forward, and our family vows to keep fighting."

As part of the plea, DaQuan Barnes also had to swear that the statement he gave to police was truthful and voluntary. While under oath during Tuesday afternoon's hearing, Barnes identified photographs of Cunningham and DeMarcus Barnes. He also swore that the three planned the robbery, struck Cullen, then got gasoline and set Cullen's car ablaze.

Also, DaQuan Barnes agreed not to make an issue on appeal the involvement in the case of former Circuit Judge Mike Cook, who is now facing federal heroin possession charges.

Cook presided over DaQuan Barnes fitness hearing and ruled against DaQuan's motion to suppress his statements to police at trial.

DaQuan Barnes also agreed not raise the issue on appeal that former East St. Louis Detective Orlando Ward, who is now facing federal drug charges, was involved in the case.

Ward was the lead detective from East St. Louis on the Major Case Squad that investigated Cullen's murder.

This is the first time in a murder case Cook and Ward have been barred from a future appeal, Kelly said.

DaQuan Barnes is the first to enter a plea in the case.

DeMarcus Barnes was found mentally unfit to stand trial. The next hearing on his mental fitness is Dec. 12. Cunningham's case is still pending. Her next court date is Nov. 19.

In 1993, a jury convicted Cunningham of shooting a woman, then 61-years old, in the chest after robbing her of $205. The victim, a retired Landshire employee, was giving Cunningham a ride when she testified Cunningham demanded her purse then shot her. Cunningham claimed that it was a case of mistaken identity. The victim picked her out of a lineup twice.

During her first court appearance in this case, Cunningham collapsed and vomited into a trash can before the judge's bench. She left the courthouse in a wheelchair.

DeMarcus Barnes is in the custody of the Department of Human Services receiving mental health treatment. Cunningham and DaQuan Barnes are being held in the St. Clair County Jail in lieu of $3 million bail.

At the time of Cullen's murder, DaQuan Barnes was free on bond on an unlawful possession of a stolen vehicle charge and an aggravated unlawful weapons charge. Those cases are still pending. If he is convicted, he must serve those sentences after he has completed his sentence for Cullen's murder.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.