NATCHITOCHES, La. — A Louisiana woman is accused of asking her girlfriend to kidnap and kill her infant son in July, a crime carried out when the boy was doused with gasoline and burned to death.
Levi Cole Ellerbe died hours after suffering second- and third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body, according to the Alexandria Town Talk.
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The boy’s mother, Hannah Nicole Barker, was in court Friday for a preliminary hearing, at which Lt. Jeremy Swisher, with the Louisiana State Fire Marshal’s Office, laid out the case against Barker. Barker, 23, is charged as a principal to first-degree murder.
Natchitoches police officials said that Barker called 911 around 9:10 p.m. July 17 and reported that two strangers came to her mobile home and began banging on the door. She said she was sprayed with what she believed to be Mace when she opened the door and, after fleeing the home to escape the attackers, circled back to find Levi missing.
Multiple law enforcement agencies began searching for Levi, who was found about an hour later after someone reported a fire in a wooded area, police officials said. The baby was taken to a hospital in critical condition and later died.
Felicia Marie-Nicole Smith, 26, was arrested July 21 on a charge of first-degree murder in Levi’s slaying. Barker was charged two days later.
Levi's obituary described the boy as "the happiest baby, who always had a big smile."
"He spent his time playing with siblings and cousins, especially outdoors, watching PJ Masks and video gaming with Uncle J," the obituary continued. "He was an animal lover and anytime he could get his hands on his dog, (Rex) he loved to pull his ears. Levi was a blessing to our family and everyone who met him."
The reporter who attended Barker’s preliminary hearing said the accused mother cried and gasped as Swisher described the crime scene.
Smith and Barker had a sexual relationship, Swisher testified, though the investigator told the court that Barker said during a police interview that she was using Smith for money and attention, the Town Talk reported. Under cross-examination, Swisher testified that Barker also said Smith was more invested in their relationship than she was and that the women had not spoken for some time before Levi's death.
Smith told investigators, however, that Barker went to IHOP to meet her earlier in the day Levi was slain and asked if she loved her enough to do anything for her, even if it meant going to prison, Swisher testified. Smith claimed that Barker then asked her to kill Levi.
Swisher testified that Smith said she initially refused, but eventually agreed, the Town Talk reported. The alleged killer told police she first tried shooting the boy, but couldn't because the gun she was using jammed.
The gun jammed because someone had loaded a bullet backward, Swisher said.
The fire investigator testified that Barker then told Smith she wanted the baby burned "until he was bones," the newspaper reported.
Dhu Thompson, Barker’s defense lawyer, argued at Friday’s hearing that police had nothing but Smith’s allegations to tie his client to the crime. When cross-examining Swisher about Barker’s lack of emotion at the scene of the alleged kidnapping, the lawyer pointed out that different people react differently to traumatic situations.
Swisher testified, however, that some witnesses interviewed by investigators categorized Barker as a "compulsive liar," the Town Talk reported. He also said that Barker's story changed over time, seemingly to fit the details that investigators were coming up with in the case.
Detectives believed the crime scene at Barker’s trailer was staged, and they found no traces of Mace or any other pepper spray in Barker’s home, Swisher said. She also did not display the pain, redness or swelling of someone who had been sprayed.
Thompson argued that the only person with a motive was Smith, who he said was distraught because Barker had ended their relationship, the Town Talk reported. He said Smith implicated his client to get a better deal for herself.
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