NATCHITOCHES — Hours after the defendant's probation was revoked Friday, a Natchitoches Parish judge found there was probable cause to charge Hanna Nicole Barker in connection with the burning death of her infant son and that she should be held without bond.
As 10th Judicial District Court Judge Desiree Dyess made her ruling, Barker swiveled in her chair at the defense table and shook her head. Before she was led out of the courtroom, she tearfully mouthed, "I love y'all," to family members sitting in the gallery behind her.
Barker was arrested July 25 on a charge of being a principal to first-degree murder in the death of 6-month-old Levi Cole Ellerbe. She has not been indicted, although a Natchitoches Parish grand jury has heard details of the case.
During Friday's preliminary examination hearing, the state laid out its evidence against the mother, who will turn 23 on Sept. 25.
Barker accused of arranging death
The only witness was Lt. Jeremy Swisher, the Region 5 supervisor for the Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office. Under questioning from Natchitoches Parish Assistant District Attorney Cliff Strider, he said it was Barker who approached Felicia Marie-Nicole Smith about killing Levi.
Smith, 26, has been indicted on a first-degree murder charge. The bill of indictment states she took Levi from his home, abandoned him in a wooded area, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire before leaving for her job at IHOP near Interstate 49.
Levi was found with second- and third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body. He died hours later, early on the morning of July 18, at a Shreveport hospital.
As Swisher described the scene, Barker cried and gasped.
The two women had an "intimate, sexual relationship," testified Swisher, although he said Barker related in an interview that she was only using Smith for attention and money.
He testified Smith told investigators Barker came to meet her at IHOP earlier on the day Levi was taken. Barker asked Smith if she loved her and if she would do anything for her, even if it meant going to jail, Swisher said.
He said Smith said Barker asked her to kill the baby, and Smith initially refused. But she agreed shortly after to do it.
Barker told Smith to shoot the infant, who was only days away from turning 7 months old, Swisher testified. Smith said she couldn't because her gun was jammed. Swisher said they found a gun — jammed because someone loaded a bullet backwards — at Smith's home.
Barker then told Smith she wanted the baby burned "until he was bones," Swisher testified. Barker told her that would get rid of evidence, he said.
The only potential motive alluded to were some comments apparently made by Barker, who talked about the difficulties of being a single mother. Strider later pointed to similar comments she made while in drug court.
Defense: No evidence to connect Barker
Barker's defense attorney, Dhu Thompson, argued that the only evidence the state has against Barker is Smith's statement. He said there's nothing else — no texts, no phone calls, no witnesses — that can back up Smith's claim.
Thompson asked Swisher if it was true Smith swore she'd "do something crazy" if Barker ended their relationship. Swisher testified Barker said Smith was much more invested in the relationship than she was and that the two hadn't talked for some time before Levi's death.
Thompson repeatedly asked Swisher about his thoughts to Barker's reaction at the initial crime scene and during her interviews. Swisher testified Barker didn't cry.
"Different people act differently in traumatic situations, correct?" asked Thompson, and Swisher agreed.
But Swisher also testified that some people interviewed by investigators called Barker "a compulsive liar" who was very manipulative. Some said they could believe Barker might be involved in Levi's death.
Some of those people were members of Billy Ellerbe's family. Swisher said they learned Barker and Ellerbe, who met while both were in drug court, had an estranged relationship. The two were civil, despite an unspecified incident, because of Levi, he testified.
The baby was their only connection, although some people interviewed thought Barker still wanted a relationship with him, said Swisher.
Swisher also testified that other people told investigators they couldn't believe Barker would be involved in Levi's death.
Thompson asked Swisher if there was any evidence that showed Barker had been at the scene where Levi was found or that she was involved in his burning. Swisher said no.
Swisher said two 911 calls were received on the night Levi disappeared — the first from one of Barker's landlords and the second from Barker, both received within 30 seconds of each other. He testified Barker was screaming someone had taken her baby, but that she ran from the trailer before that had happened.
Swisher called the crime scene at the trailer "staged," drawing disagreement from Thompson. Swisher testified that the back window of the trailer was smashed in, but not completely broken. He also said a bar in the middle of the window was bent, but remained in place.
Fingerprints and blood on the shattered window were traced to Smith, he testified.
Swisher also expressed doubt on Barker's claim she had been sprayed in her face with pepper spray. He said it couldn't be detected at the trailer and Barker wasn't suffering any "obvious discomfort," no swelling of her eyes or redness.
He said Barker was interviewed three times before her arrest. Each time, her story changed, he testified.
"She was lying, initially," he said, changing her story to make herself more credible.
While Thompson asked Swisher if that could be because Barker had had time to reflect on what happened, Strider had another explanation. He asked Swisher why it was important to note Barker kept changing her story.
Swisher said that showed investigators Barker was changing her story to fit what they knew. He testified that, at one point, Barker claimed Levi's father, Billy Ellerbe, might have been involved. But she dropped that when she learned Ellerbe had a solid alibi, he said.
But Thompson said Smith was the only one who had a motive — the end of the women's relationship — and she admitted to the crime. He said the only reason Smith is implicating Barker is "to save herself and get a better deal in this case."