By Sam Levin
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By Dennis Brown
On a Friday afternoon in March, Rochelle Johnson waited in a courtroom for a jury to reach its verdict. For most of the week, she had avoided listening to testimony about her younger sister's murder -- the grim details of how 33-year-old LaTanya Mickles-Hamlin, an assistant principal at East St. Louis High School, was fatally shot in her gray Lexus, not far from her Lafayette Square home.
"Every day I would go," Johnson says, "but I would sit outside the courtroom. I was there in the beginning, but the rest of it was just too hard for me. It was too hard."
But she made sure to watch the end of the case against William Jefferson, accused of firing four shots into LaTanya's 1998 Lexus SC300 during a failed carjacking attempt on April 30, 2000, including one that pierced her heart. After less than three hours of deliberation, the verdict was in. But as the words rang out, Johnson couldn't believe what she heard: "Not guilty."
"I was shocked," Johnson says. "My first reaction was, 'No one gets to pay for this. She died, and no one gets to pay for this crime.' The whole family was in total shock."
For those who knew and loved LaTanya and hoped the trial would bring finality to her tragic case, the verdict instead brought new questions and anguish. After spending nearly a year in jail, LaTanya's alleged killer was set free while, at the same time, the jury sent a message that his co-defendant -- who plea-bargained in exchange for his testimony -- was not to be believed. An already puzzling murder case was made only murkier.
LaTanya was born and raised in East St. Louis, the daughter of 33-year veteran elementary-school teacher Ella Mickles, and she longed to follow in her mother's footsteps. She graduated from East St. Louis High School in 1984 and attended Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees. She had recently applied to the doctoral program at St. Louis University. Her sister remembers LaTanya's single-minded determination, even as a young child, to become a teacher: "That's all she ever wanted to be, ever since she was a little girl -- 'I want to be a teacher. I want to be a teacher.' She loved children so much."
She taught for years at an elementary school in Cahokia before her career took her to Rock Island, Ill., and, later, Naperville, Ill., where she was an assistant principal. Johnson says LaTanya valued the experience but longed to come home. "The children there were basically well-to-do," Johnson says, "and she really couldn't reach them the way she wanted to reach the poor, disadvantaged children of East St. Louis. She always said they needed her more than the children in Naperville did, so the knowledge that she acquired in Naperville, she took all that back to East St. Louis."
LaTanya had been back in St. Louis less than a year when she died, working as assistant principal at her alma mater, East St. Louis High. She married Gary Hamlin, whom she'd known for several years as an acquaintance before their relationship turned serious, in August 1999. And though her mother and father had died in the years preceding her return, LaTanya was thrilled to be living near relatives, including her sister and niece, and was excited about her new job. "She was ecstatic," her sister says. "She loved it, she absolutely loved it, because she was home. It was all she talked about." LaTanya lived five minutes from her sister, and every morning she took her niece, Jasmine, to school, because her sister's job started early. The night she died, she had just dropped Jasmine at her sister's and was headed home.
Johnson remembers the moment police delivered the bad news: "I thought it was random; that's the first thing that went through my mind. I thought it was odd for the area I lived in and odd for a Sunday night. Then when he said someone tried to rob her in an attempted carjacking, my first thought was: 'Really?' It struck me very odd. That sort of thing just didn't happen in that neighborhood. I thought it was odd to happen on a Sunday night in my neighborhood. But I accepted what they said."
From the start, St. Louis police said they suspected LaTanya's murder was the result of a failed attempt at carjacking while she was paused at a stop sign at the corner of Hickory Street and Missouri Avenue around 9:30 p.m. About three weeks after LaTanya's murder, police announced that they'd charged two men in connection with the crime: William Jefferson and Damian Cotton, both 18 and both from East St. Louis.
St. Louis police arrested the two after receiving an anonymous call from someone claiming to know who was responsible for LaTanya's death. The caller said four men from East St. Louis were involved, along with a fifth who had planned to go along but backed out at the last minute. That call led police to Dante Cole, who told them he knew about the murder but said he had not gone along. He said a friend, Jared Mason, told him he had driven three others to St. Louis and, while Mason and another man, John Johnson, stayed in Mason's car, two others went to steal LaTanya's Lexus. He said he learned secondhand that when LaTanya refused to get out of the car, she was shot.
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