60 years for Belleville woman who burned great-grandmother alive

News-DemocratDecember 10, 2013 

Her court case ended the way it began: with her on the floor.

It was moments after the judge gave LaTosha "Net" Cunningham a 60-year prison sentence for the murder of a Belleville great-grandmother, who was burned to death in the trunk of her car after being robbed of her bingo winnings, that Cunningham fainted and fell to the floor.

It was down the hall from another courtroom where she collapsed 31 months earlier, when she found out she was being charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of 85-year-old Yoko Cullen.

"The remainder of your days will be partially spent ... thinking about those last seconds, moments and minutes of the life you took," said St. Clair County Circuit Judge Bob Haida, who sentenced Cunningham on Tuesday. "I wouldn't want to be you and there is no sentence I can give you that is worse than that."

Robert Bass, Cunningham's lawyer, asked Haida for a 26-year prison sentence. Bass told Haida that Cunningham was a devoted mother, despite an abusive childhood punctuated with poverty. Rehabilitation was possible for Cunningham, Bass said, offering Bible study certificates from classes taken at the St. Clair County Jail.

But Haida rejected Bass' argument.

"I've been trying to identify something in mitigation but I don't see anything that is truly mitigative," Haida said. "... We will be safer for every day that you are not free."

State's Attorney Brendan Kelly asked for the maximum, 60 years.

"She is beyond rehabilitation," said Kelly, who added that Cunningham's moral compass was "fundamentally flawed."

The night of May 18, 2011, Yoko 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.

DaQuan Barnes and 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, prosecutors have said. The three forced Cullen into the trunk of her own car.

Later in a 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?" she 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 and soot in her lungs. Her body was identified by DNA.

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

DaQuan Barnes, 21, was sentenced to 60 years last month. DeMarcus Barnes, 30, was found mentally unfit to stand trial. A judge will review his mental status on Thursday.

Surveillance photos from an ATM show Cunningham and DeMarcus Barnes trying to use Cullen's credit card, according to testimony from Cunningham's guilty plea. Officers found Cullen's credit cards were used on May 19 and 20, 2011. Police also learned that the bank received calls concerning Cullen's credit card from the cellphones of DeMarcus Barnes and Cunningham.

And this wasn't the first time Cunningham stood accused of assaulting and robbing an older woman.

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 Cunningham demanded her purse and then shot her, according to court testimony. Cunningham received an 18-year prison sentence for that crime. Her victim survived.

"This demonstrates her willingness to choose extreme violence to get a quick buck," Kelly said.

In the 2011 crime, it was Cunningham who drove, then stopped Cullen. Cunningham's tire irons were used to beat Cullen. Cunningham got the gas. Cunningham returned DaQuan and DeMarcus Barnes to Cullen's car, where Cullen was locked alive in her trunk.

"She literally drove this dark and evil crime," Kelly said.

It's those last moments that haunt Cullen's family.

"Questions that eat away at us like 'How scared was she? What was she doing, thinking, saying? How long did she have to suffer?'" said Tanja Brown, Cullen's granddaughter. "This is truly not a way to live. LaTosha isn't new to our judicial system. She has shown, time and time again, that our communities are not safe with her on the streets."

Brown read that from her victim impact statement during the hearing.

She also detailed Cullen's life in Japan in the waning years of World War II. She said her grandmother helped support her five younger brothers after her father's untimely death, then came to America after marrying Frank Cullen. The couple raised four daughters. Cullen then helped raise three grandchildren after one of her daughters divorced.

Brown told Haida that she saw her grandmother as her "safe place," even after she was an adult.

"Yoko (Cullen) instilled a strength in our family that you just can't break. It was her strength that guided us through each and every court hearing. Even when our family felt so lost and weak through continuances, court hearing changes and seeing these monsters' faces over and over again," Brown said. "Yoko's strength carries us. And it's the very same reason that we're able to stand strong in this courtroom 2 1/2 years after her murder."

Brown thanked the Belleville police and the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis, who investigated Cullen's murder, and the State's Attorney's Office, who prosecuted the case. As she stood to leave the witness stand, the words on Brown's T-shirt could be read. "Karma never forgets."

Cunningham won't be eligible for parole until she is 97.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.