A judge on Monday found a 39-year-old woman guilty of the murder of a Belleville grandmother who was burned alive in her car's trunk after being robbed of her bingo winnings.
St. Clair County Circuit Judge Bob Haida found LaTosha "Net" Cunningham, of Belleville, guilty after a stipulated bench trial of killing Yoko Cullen, 85, on May 18, 2011.
Police interviewed Cunningham three days after the killing.
She told them that she was not involved in the murder and did not try to use Cullen's ATM card. Cunningham continued to deny her involvement during a second interview with police.
But during a third interview, Cunningham was told Demarcus and DaQuan Barnes confessed to Cullen's murder, then Cunningham started to talk, according to St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly.
In statements introduced during the bench trial, Cunningham told police:
* She was driving with the Barneses to the Collinsville WalMart parking lot to pick up money, but the person did not show so Cunningham headed back to East St. Louis.
* On the way, Cunningham told police that she saw a car with mechanical difficulties driving on Collinsville Road near the Collinsville Fireman's Hall. The car, with the driver later identified as Cullen, pulled to the side of the road and put on hazard lights, so Cunningham stopped to render aid.
* DaQuan and Demarcus Barnes asked Cunningham for tire jacks so she opened her trunk and they took two tire irons from her trunk and told her to leave. Cunningham said none of Cullen's tires appeared to be flat. Cunningham then got on Interstate 55/70, but was passed by Cullen's Mazda.
* Cunningham called Demarcus Barnes and he told her that they were in the car. Cunningham followed the car to the 100 block of Falling Springs Drive in East St. Louis, then she approached the car and saw DaQuan Barnes lean into the trunk and strike Cullen with the tire iron. She ran back to her car.
* Cunningham then drove the Barneses to the BP Gas Station across the street from East St. Louis City Hall where DaQuan Barnes put gas into a container, then Cunningham drove them back to where Cullen's car was parked.
* Damarcus Barnes told Cunningham they were going to burn the car to destroy the evidence.
Police later showed Cunningham surveillance photos from an ATM showing Cunningham and Demarcus Barnes trying to use Cullen's credit card. Investigators called Cullen's bank and found her credit cards were used on May 19 and 20, 2011. Police also learned that the bank received calls concerning Cullen's credit card from Demarcus Barnes' and Cunningham's cell phones.
Police discovered tire irons from Cunningham's car with Cullen's blood on them, Kelly said. There was also a fingerprint found on one of the tire irons that matched DaQuan Barnes.
Kelly told Haida during the hearing that in Cunningham's statements she tried to minimize her involvement in the crime, but she did nothing to help Cullen after she was abducted and shared in the proceeds of the murder.
"No innocent person would have anything to do with the proceeds of such a diabolical crime," Kelly said.
Search warrants filed in St. Clair County Court during the investigation revealed that Cunningham knew Cullen from frequenting Collinsville bingo and knew Cullen would be at the Collinsville Fireman's Hall for Wednesday night bingo -- so Cunningham, DaQuan D. "Rug" Barnes and Demarcus Barnes waited in the parking lot, stopped Cullen from leaving by flashing their lights and robbed her.
Police said the three forced Cullen into her own trunk and drove it to a remote location near Russell Avenue and Falling Springs Road in East St. Louis -- a place known for dumping stolen cars. Cunningham noticed that Cullen had seen her license plate number, according to Illinois State Police Agent Jamie Brunnworth.
"Latosha wanted to kill Yoko because she had seen her license plate," Brunnworth swore in an affidavit filed with the search warrant application.
DaQuan Barnes, 21, who pleaded guilty to Cullen's murder last month, told police the three then split the money they got from Cullen's purse. They each got $130. During his plea, he had to swear the statement he gave police was truthful. In that statement, DaQuan Barnes said he, Cunningham and his uncle, Demarcus Barnes, planned Cullen's murder, each striking Cullen with tire irons in an attempt to get Cullen to reveal the PIN for her ATM card.
DeMarcus Barnes, 30, was found mentally unfit to stand trial. The next hearing on his mental fitness is Dec. 12.
In 1993, a jury convicted Cunningham of shooting a 61-year-old woman 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.
Cunningham could face 20 to 60 years in prison. Under Illinois law, Cunningham would have to serve 100 percent of her prison sentence because she was convicted of murder.
Cunningham's sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 25.