Beating victim had been key witness in BR fatal shooting

A Baton Rouge man beaten to death Thursday had feared for his life after implicating the triggerman in the January fatal shooting of Keith Matthews, police department records show, a case in which he was to be the key witness.

Shaun Hartley, 31, was found slain — apparently by a wooden board — inside a vacant home on Wenonah Street near Plank Road, authorities said.

Hartley had been threatened with violence and “was fearful that his life would now be in danger” after pointing the finger at his former roommate, Shingo J. Edwards, a fellow transvestite prostitute who was charged with murder this summer in Matthews’ death, according to investigative police reports.

“Edwards had repeatedly threatened to kill Hartley if he talked to police,” Detective Joseph Dargin wrote in a report, adding Hartley asked for assistance from police. “Detectives granted Hartley’s request, and he was placed into the Victim’s Assistance Program.”

Hartley’s death came a week after he was released from Parish Prison, where he had been held for more than a month after a prostitution arrest. Authorities could not say late Friday whether Hartley was afforded any assistance after making the incriminating statements against Edwards.

“We assist all victims and witnesses,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “There’s no particular program, we just provide assistance on a case-by-case basis.”

Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a police spokesman, referred questions to Moore’s office about any witness protection efforts. He said investigators have not ruled out a possible nexus between Hartley’s death and his statements to police earlier this year.

“There’s no proof,” McKneely said. “We knew that was definitely out there, but we don’t have evidence showing it.”

Hartley’s aunt, Juanita Bates-Washington, said her family had been told Hartley was supposed to be in witness protection because of the upcoming murder trial.

“He was 31 years old, but he had the mind of a 10-year-old,” Bates-Washington said, adding Hartley suffered from mental illness.

An autopsy Friday revealed Hartley died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark said.

The gruesome beating happened inside a recently vacated duplex in the 2600 block of Wenonah Street. Trash and blood stained the carpet in a back room of the residence, and dried blood appeared to have been smeared across the walls.

Neighbors reported seeing an unidentified man grab a board early Thursday and walk into the home. One neighbor, LeRoy Watson, said he watched the man casually walk out the front door sometime later without the board.

Bates-Washington said Hartley knew the vacant home and had often stayed there with friends before they moved out.

“He didn’t just go into this abandoned home and take a man in there and have some sexual relations with him and then the man beat him to death,” she said.

The killing could have a devastating impact on the murder case against Edwards, as Hartley provided statements considered critical to the investigation. “Obviously with his death, we need to review the file with the Police Department and assess how his death affects the case,” Moore said.

Hartley initially denied knowledge about Matthews’ death in the days after the shooting. The case prompted detectives to begin questioning transvestite prostitutes along the Plank Road corridor for potential leads.

Hartley and Edwards surfaced as known prostitutes who saw clients inside a vacant home at 2749 Erie St. Matthews, 43, of St. Francisville,was shot three times in his vehicle outside the vacant home on Jan. 5., apparently by someone in the passenger seat.

Detectives found $7 and a credit card in Matthews’ pocket, leading detectives to believe robbery was not the motive.

It wasn’t until police re-interviewed Hartley in March that he reluctantly began to provide details of the slaying, records show.

In a recorded interview, Hartley described being inside the home after 2:30 a.m. — having just finished with a client of his own — and seeing Edwards pull into the driveway of the home beside Matthews’ vehicle.

A few minutes later, Hartley recalled, he heard a couple of gunshots and saw Edwards drive off. Hartley told detectives he walked outside, saw Matthews’ lifeless body and ran away. Edwards found him nearby and told him he had shot Matthews in the vehicle, the records show.

“Edwards threatened Hartley by stating if he told anyone about the shooting he would end up stinking (dead),” Dargin wrote in a report.

Edwards and Hartley then drove to Edwards’ mother’s home, where Edwards left the alleged murder weapon. Hartley told detectives that Edwards warned him to not discuss the shooting with anyone.

Hartley said he had only spoken with Edwards one other time since the shooting. On that day, which is not specified in the reports, Hartley claimed Edwards picked him up while he was walking near Scenic Highway and asked him whether he had been talking to detectives.

“Edwards advised Hartley he would kill him at that very moment if he found out he was talking to detectives,” a police report says.

Edwards was taken into custody in late March after authorities received an anonymous Crime Stoppers tip that he was staying in a room at the Ramada Inn on East Kaliste Saloom in Lafayette. A team of Lafayette police officers and U.S. Marshals surrounded the hotel and arrested Edwards along with Danny J. Cousin.

Cousin was wanted at the time for armed robbery and, in July, was booked with first-degree murder in the fatal shooting last year of Bryan Young, another local prostitute.

Detectives took a DNA sample from Hartley that excluded him from the Matthews crime scene. Swabs were also taken from Edwards after he was arrested, but the reports make no mention of any results from the State Police Crime Lab.

As police continued their investigation into Hartley’s slaying Friday, the man’s aunt said she was hoping that someone would come forward with information.

“We’re begging for somebody to come forward and find this horrible, horrible man that did this to my nephew,” Bates-Washington said. “We’re not letting this one go.”