Man gets 60-year sentence for killing 85-year-old Belleville woman

News-DemocratNovember 1, 2013 

The nature of the crime was heinous. It was cruel. It was evil.

So said St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse before she sentenced Daquan Barnes to 60 years in prison for burning a Belleville great-grandmother to death in the trunk of her car.

"For too long those who offend have intimidated the vulnerable of our community," Cruse said. "It is the time for those who offend to be intimidated."

Barnes, 21, pleaded guilty last month to murdering 85-year-old Yoko Cullen. In exchange for his plea of guilty, prosecutors agreed not to seek the enhanced penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. He must serve the entire sentence.

Cullen was followed from bingo at the Collinsville Fireman's Hall on May 18, 2011, by LaTosha Cunningham, 39, Barnes and his uncle, DeMarcus Barnes. The trio stopped Cullen's 2008 Mazda, then forced her into her trunk.

As Daquan Barnes drove the Mazda, Cullen asked from the trunk if she could talk to him. When the car stopped in a remote location in East St. Louis, the three attacked Cullen with tire irons in an attempt to get the pin number to Cullen's credit card.

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

They returned Cullen to her trunk, police said, then drove in Cunningham's car to an East St. Louis gas station directly across the street from the police department and bought the gas they would use to light Cullen's car on fire.

Cullen's remains were found in the trunk of the car after it was towed from the scene. A pathologist found Cullen was alive when the car was set on fire. She died from massive burns and smoke inhalation. Her body was identified using DNA.

"The opportunity to have an open casket was taken from us by Daquan Barnes, due to the heinous nature of his crime," said Tanya Brown, Cullen's oldest grandchild, as she read from a victim impact statement during the sentencing.

"Choices like 'Do we go with the casket (Cullen) already picked out and paid for? Or do we go with an urn because of what little of her remains Daquan left for us.'"

Cunningham, Barnes' co-defendant, pleaded guilty in October. She is scheduled for sentencing on Nov. 25. DeMarcus Barnes, 30, was found mentally unfit to stand trial. The next hearing on his mental fitness is Dec. 12.

During Daquan Barnes' sentencing hearing, Brown told Cruse about Cullen's early life in Japan. Her father ran a barber shop out of the family's home, but he died when she was 12. Cullen went to work to help support her mother and five younger brothers, Brown said.

During World War II, Cullen hid underground during bombing raids. As a teenager, she sneaked food to prisoners of war kept at a camp near her home.

She later met and married Frank Cullen, an American soldier, and moved to America. The couple had five children.

"I remember when my sisters and I were younger, we looked to our grandma as our 'safe place.'" Brown said.

Brown looked at Cruse when she said: "This is Yoko Cullen's day in court. We will continue fighting for her, and for the punishment Daquan Barnes deserves for so brutally taking her life."

Charlotte Pawnell, Barnes' sister, testified for her brother.

Pawnell told the judge that Barnes followed her "like a shadow." She said Barnes grew up without a father, but he knew love.

"I will always be there for my brother. He's not the type of person to sit around and plan the murder of an elderly person," Pawnell said.

Brian Flynn and Patrick Sullivan, Barnes' attorneys, told the judge that then-18-year-old Barnes suffered from a drug addiction and mental illness. Flynn told the judge that Barnes, the father of two, was the first to take responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty to the charges.

"The other two defendants led him to evil. He's taking the lead in the rehabilitation," Flynn said.

Flynn asked for a 25-year prison sentence.

But State's Attorney Brendan Kelly countered the heinous nature of the crime mandated a maximum sentence.

"This victim survived the bombing of Japan, but she could not survive a single encounter with this defendant on the way home from a bingo game," Kelly said. "... You don't rehabilitate. You incarcerate."

Barnes was free on bond on two other felony cases when he murdered Cullen, Kelly said. Those cases are still pending. Kelly asked for a 60-year prison sentence on the murder charge.

Cruse agreed.

After she imposed the 60-year sentence, Barnes' family rose from their seats in the front of the gallery and walked out of the courtroom, giving words of encouragement to Barnes as they walked past.

Cullen's family, some of them weeping, remained in their seats.

Daquan Barnes will not be eligible for release until he is 78 years old.