Founder of African-American museum found dead in car trunk

Cause of death still unknown

By Nicole Chavez, CNN
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Authorities say the founder of an African American museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who was found dead in the trunk of her car last week, had been suffocated.

The body of Sadie Roberts-Joseph was recovered about 3:45 p.m. Friday after an anonymous caller reported finding her, Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola said. The preliminary cause of death was "traumatic asphyxia, including suffocation," the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office determined following a Monday autopsy.

The 75-year-old did not die by strangulation, coroner Beau Clark told CNN, saying without elaboration that her nose and mouth were blocked. Asked if he found any wounds on her body, Clark said he is not releasing any such details at this time. A toxicology report will be available in three weeks, he said.

Roberts-Joseph's family had seen her earlier that day, Coppola said.

She was found in the truck of her car, which was about 3 miles from her home, according to Baton Rouge police.

Police were still seeking leads in the case over the weekend.

Roberts-Joseph was a renowned advocate in the Baton Rouge area. She founded the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum in 2001. For years she hosted the city's Juneteenth festivities, which celebrate the last slaves in the Confederate states learning of their independence more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

"She's an icon. And she was our hero," her niece Pat LeDuff told CNN.

Everywhere she went, her aunt often talked about the contributions of African Americans to the country, LeDuff said.

It's unclear if Roberts-Joseph had received any threats before her death, Coppola said, adding that it's too early to determine whether her death is a hate crime.

"Ms. Sadie was a tireless advocate of peace in the community," the police department said in a statement. "Ms. Sadie is a treasure to our community, she will be missed by BRPD and her loss will be felt in the community she served.

She also founded Community Against Drugs and Violence, a non-profit organization focused on creating a safer environment for children in north Baton Rouge.

Roberts-Joseph was the organization's first president, her niece said.

Local politicians, advocates and community members on Saturday mourned Roberts-Joseph's death.

State Representative C. Denise Marcelle said in a Facebook post that the activist "never bothered anyone" and was looking to expand her museum.

The NAACP Baton Rouge Branch remembered Roberts-Joseph in a Facebook post.

"We lost a Cultural Legend Yesterday! #RIP Sadie Roberts Joseph," the group wrote. "From reviving Juneteenth, to the Culture preserved at Her Museum, she was a trendsetter and icon in this City."

The community organization, Together Baton Rouge, said Roberts-Joseph embodied everything that is right about her city.

"While her death is a tragedy, it would be an even greater injustice to let her death overshadow her tremendous life that left behind (a) legacy of activism and Black pride that endeared her to the Baton Rouge community," the group said in a statement.

"To think that she had to die at the hand of someone else for what she stands for is horrible," LeDuff said.

CNN's Randi Kaye, Laura Dolan and Kaylene Chassie contributed to this report.

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