Woman pleads guilty in Durham 'cult' killings

LaRhonda Renee Smith (ABC11 Reporter Anthony Wilson)
February 18, 2013 1:38:39 PM PST
A woman who was charged in connection with two Durham "cult" murders plead guilty in court Monday.

LaRhonda Renee Smith, 28, plead guilty to second-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges related to the deaths of 28-year-old Antoinetta McKoy and 4-year-old Jadon Higganbothan in exchange for her cooperation as a witness for the state. She will spend 25 years behind bars.

McKoy and Higganbothan's bodies were found buried in plastic bags by a plumber working in the backyard of a home in the 2600 block of Ashe Street in Durham back in 2011.

Smith was one of seven people originally charged in the crimes. She was charged with murder, accessory after the fact, conspiracy to commit murder, first-degree kidnapping and injury to real property, according to the Durham County Sheriff's Office's records.

Investigators have said Smith was a member of a polygamist religious group led by 28-year-old Peter Moses Jr. known as the "Black Hebrew Israelites."

McKoy and Higganbothan lived with the group.

At a court hearing last year, former Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline said Moses believed the boy was homosexual and that was unacceptable to his religious beliefs. She said Moses shot Higganbothan in the garage of a home on Pear Tree Lane in front of his mother.

Cline said investigators believed McKoy was killed because she tried to escape from the group and it feared she would tell police about the murder.

In June 2012, Moses Jr. pleaded guilty to the murders. Prosecutors said his fingerprints were found on plastic used to wrap the bodies before they were buried. The plea meant he would avoid the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation with the investigation.

Since then, prosecutors have dropped felony accessory after the fact charges against Sheilda Harris and Sheila Moses, while the case against three others continues.

Higganbothan's mother -- 25-year-old Vania Sisk -- and 40-year-old Lavada Quinzetta Harris, are also charged with murder in McKoy's death and as accessories in Higganbothan's shooting.

Moses Jr.'s brother, P. Leonard Moses, is charged as an accessory in McKoy's death.

Smith's attorney, Lisa Williams, now wants Smith moved out of the Durham County Jail for her own protection, while she waits to testify against her co-defendants.

"She has given a videotaped statement that is hours in length that was extremely credible, and it was for that reason that they offered her the concession," Williams said. "She's prepared to testify at trial and meet her responsibilities."

Williams also said Smith has asked officers if she could speak to the victims' families.

"I think that had they been in court she would have made a statement to them apologizing for her actions," Williams said. "She's also given up custody of her children and pled guilty to 25 years, and so I think that is a significant act of contrition."

When Smith was originally charged, reports indicated she was 40 years old, however, jail records show her birth date as Sept. 1, 1984.

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