Yoko Cullen was an eighty-five-year-old Belleville, IL resident in 2011. The elderly widow was born April 23rd, 1926, in Japan. She married Gordon Cullen in 1956 in Japan and came to the United States with her husband. The couple became parents to four daughters and one son. The family were members of St. Henry Catholic Church in Belleville. Gordon passed away in 2000. Yoko’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren remained the focus of her life. She also enjoyed karaoke, sewing, cooking, spending time with family and friends, and most of all playing bingo. Yoko frequented bingo games at the Collinsville Fireman’s Hall.
On May 18th, 2011, Yoko attended a bingo game at the Collinsville Fireman’s Hall. Also present was another frequent bingo player, thirty-seven-year-old Latosha Cunningham. Latosha has a violent history. At age eighteen, in 1992, she robbed a 60-year-old woman who gave her a ride. Latosha pulled a gun on Ella Shelton, robbed her of $205, and then shot the woman in the chest. Ella survived and was able to identify her attacker. Latosha Cunningham was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to eighteen years in prison.
Latosha claimed her 1992 conviction was a wrongful conviction and claims another woman admitted to robbing and shooting Ella Shelton. Ms. Shelton’s initial description of her assailant did not match Latosha’s appearance, who was seven months pregnant at the time. However, Ms. Shelton picked Cunningham out of a line-up. Latosha gave birth while awaiting trial, and the eighteen-year-old left her two children with her mother in East St. Louis while she served her sentence. She served nine years and was paroled.
On May 18th, 2011, Latosha was with her niece’s boyfriend, twenty-eight-year-old DeMarcus Barnes, and his cousin, eighteen-year-old DeQuan Barnes. The three were outside the Collinsville Fireman’s Hall when eighty-five-year-old Yoko Cullen exited the building. Two days later, on May 20th, 2011, Yoko Cullen’s family reported her missing. That same day, they found Yoko’s car abandoned and burned in East St. Louis.
The vehicle was transferred into police custody, at which point they opened the trunk of the vehicle. Inside the trunk were the charred remains of a woman. DNA testing confirmed that the woman was Yoko Cullen. An autopsy performed by Dr. Raj Nanduri determined that Yoko had substantial burns and soot in her throat and lungs, indicating she was alive when the car was set ablaze. She also sustained blunt force trauma injuries, suggesting she had been beaten prior to being burned alive in the trunk of her own car.
Police were quickly able to identify two suspects who were seen on video trying to utilize Yoko’s credit card. The two were Latosha Cunningham and DaQuan Barnes. On May 21st, 2011, around three o’clock in the morning, police brought Latosha in for questioning. She waived her Miranda rights but claimed that she had no knowledge of Yoko Cullen’s murder and denied trying to use her credit card. She soon stated that she had a severe headache and blood pressure problems, so she was transported to the hospital for evaluation.
Thirteen hours later, she returned to the police station. The detectives said she did not appear sick or unhealthy. She again waived her Miranda rights and began a conversation with detectives. They told Latosha that DaQuan and DaMarcus had already confessed to the murder. Latosha then changed her story. She said that after leaving the bingo hall, they were behind a vehicle that stopped along the side of the road and turned the hazard lights on. She said she pulled over to help the driver. DaQuan and DeMarcus got out of the car and told Latosha to get some tire irons.
According to Latosha, she then left the scene. Latosha said she later saw the car pass her along the highway, and learned the men were driving the vehicle. She said they stopped in East St. Louis where she saw DaQuan with a tire iron, but wasn’t sure if he hit Mrs. Cullen, who was in the trunk of the car. She said DaQuan told her they had to get rid of the car, so she took them to a local gas station to get gasoline. Then, according to Latosha, DeQuan set the car on fire. She admitted to trying to help the men utilize the credit card, but most transactions were unsuccessful.
DeQuan told a slightly different story. He said that the three were outside the Collinsville Fireman’s Bingo Hall, considering robbing the bingo hall. However, Latosha, who DeQuan claimed was the ringleader, did not have a gun to carry out the robbery. That is when they saw Yoko Cullen exit the hall. According to DeQuan, Latosha believed the woman had won money at the bingo game and told the group they were going to rob Yoko.
The three left the parking lot in Latosha’s car, following Yoko until she pulled over. The three approached the vehicle, and Latosha reached inside and grabbed the woman’s keys and purse. Latosha told the Barnes cousins that they were going to have to kill Yoko because she had seen her license plate. The three forced Cullen into the trunk of her own car. DaQuan said he drove Cullen’s car, following Latosha to East St. Louis. He said the three then beat Yoko with tire irons, trying to get her to give them the pin number to her card.
According to DeQuan, Yoko begged for her life. She asked, “Can I call my daughter?”. Then three shut the trunk on the elderly woman, drove to the gas station to obtain gasoline, and came back to the site where they left the car. Then, the three used gasoline and a piece of clothing found on the ground to ignite the fire. They then attempted to use her credit card, only to have all but one transaction declined.
Footage from the BP gas station security cameras showed the three on May 18th, 2011. DeQuan went inside and bought a gas can. They then got gas in the can from the BP pumps. They then left in Latosha’s car. Chase Credit Card Services confirmed that several attempts to use the card were made, although only one was successful. They also said several phone numbers were used to contact Chase about the card. These numbers belonged to DeMarcus Barnes and Latosha Cunningham.
Inside Latosha’s vehicle, detectives found two tire irons. Both had traces of blood on them that were linked by DNA to Yoko Cullen. A latent fingerprint on one of the tire irons matched DeQuan Barnes. All three were arrested and charged with first degree murder.
DeQuan Barnes accepted a plea deal that eliminate his burglary and weapons charges, in exchange for pleading guilty to first-degree murder and testifying against his co-defendants. He was sentenced to sixty years in prison. DeQuan is currently housed at Menard Correctional Center. As part of his plea arrangement, he is not eligible for parole and will serve his entire sentence. He will be eligible for release in 2071.
Latosha Cunningham opted for a bench trial in which she was found guilty of first-degree murder during a forcible felony. She was sentenced to sixty years in prison with no possible early release. She will be eligible for release in 2071. She has appealed her conviction and sentence numerous times, unsuccessfully.
DeMarcus Barnes was found unfit to stand trial and sent to a psychiatric facility under the custody of the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services. Under Illinois law, he was to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility until he was able to stand trial or for five years, whichever came first. In 2018, after being in custody for five years, DeMarcus was again found unfit to stand trial, at which point he was sentenced to remain in secure mental health treatment for eighty years, or until he is deemed fit to stand trial.