Local News

Woman pleads guilty to murder in Durham cult case

Posted February 18, 2013 10:28 a.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2013 1:24 p.m. EST

— A member of an alleged Durham cult pleaded guilty Monday for her role in the 2010 deaths of a 4-year-old boy, who the group's leader thought was gay, and a woman who had been trying to get out of the religious sect.

LaRhonda Renee Smith was sentenced to 23 to 30 years in prison for charges of second-degree murder, accessory after the fact, first-degree kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting deaths of Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, 28, and Jadon Higganbothan, 4.

Durham County prosecutors said Smith and two other women were in thrall to Pete Moses, leader of the Black Hebrews, and lived with him in a home on Pear Tree Lane in southeast Durham. The three feared him and called him "Lord," authorities have said.

Moses shot Jadon in the head after he made, what Moses considered, inappropriate gestures toward one of the six children that Smith had with Moses, prosecutors said.

Smith knew about the crime and helped cover it up.

Two months later, Moses ordered McKoy killed, according to investigators, when he learned she couldn't have children and wanted to leave the group.

Smith, Lavada Quinzetta Harris and Vania Rae Sisk – Jadon's mother – beat McKoy in a bathroom while religious music played before Sisk shot and killed her, prosecutors said.

Police in June 2011 found both victims buried behind a house on Ashe Street in Durham where Moses' mother used to live.

Defense attorney Lisa Williams said Smith is remorseful for her role in the murders and had asked to address the families of the victims.

"I think that, had they been in court, she would have made a statement to them apologizing for her actions," Williams said after Monday's hearing.

Williams said her client fully cooperated with investigators and is prepared to testify for the state in the trials of her co-defendants.

Moses pleaded guilty to both murders in June in a deal that allows him to avoid the death penalty. He agreed to cooperate in the trials of other sect members and will be sentenced after their trials.

According to court documents, Durham police tracked the group to Colorado, where they moved in early 2011 and had Sisk return to Durham to answer questions about her missing son. During one search of the Pear Tree Lane house, police found Moses hiding in a cabinet.

During another search, investigators dug a bullet out of a wall that had been patched over and found evidence of human blood and signs that someone had cleaned up in an attempt to hide a crime.

Investigators said they found Moses' fingerprints on the tape securing the trash bags in which the bodies were buried.

Colorado police found a .22-caliber handgun on the roof of a townhouse where the group had been staying. Tests showed the gun was used to kill both Jadon and McKoy.