“Lorenzo walked into the place, and I went behind him – then he grabbed her and put the gun to her head and told me to get in front of her, and she swung at me.”
Those words, written by accused killer Trenton Barnes in a jailhouse letter to his mother, were read aloud in a Richland County courtroom Thursday afternoon and described the seconds just before the 2013 slaying of Columbia baker Kelly Hunnewell as she worked alone early one rainy morning.
“I got scared, Mom. I didn’t do it,” Barnes’ two-page letter said. It was read to a jury of eight women and four men by SLED handwriting expert Gaile Heath on the second day of a high-profile trial in the slaying of Hunnewell, a 33-year-old single mother of four school-age children.
In the letter to his mother, LaToya Barnes of Columbia, Trenton Barnes, 17, put the blame for Hunnewell’s death squarely on his co-defendant, Lorenzo Young, 19, who is standing trial with him this week.
“I’m sorry, Momma, I miss you. I never should have listened to ’Renzo. I just want to come home and be with you,” SLED agent Heath read. “People keep telling me I’m going to prison for a long time. Love you, Momma. ... Your baby boy, Trenton.”
Young persuaded Barnes to go roaming the Beltline Boulevard neighborhood where Hunnewell was working in the early morning hours of July 1, 2013, preparing bagels for a downtown eatery, the letter said.
In the letter, Barnes – who was 16 at the time – portrayed himself as not wanting to go but giving in to Young, who repeatedly urged him to come along, promising everything would be all right.
“He starts talking about how much money was going to be there, and he says, ‘Let’s go scope it out’,” the letter said. “We ain’t got to do nothing. ...You ain’t going to jail, little bro.”
The two originally had set out to rob a nearby nightclub. But it had closed. By chance, Young spotted Hunnewell through an open door nearby, and that’s how the two wound up in her kitchen, the letter said.
The letter was written from the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center last March, months after Barnes and Young were arrested. It was introduced by prosecutor Dolly Garfield over objections from Young’s defense lawyer Tracy Pinnock. Pinnock told Judge Robert Hood that since Young and Barnes were being tried together, she could not question Barnes in front of the jury about the letter.
Both Barnes and Young – members or associates of the Bloods street gang, police say – are accused of murder, kidnapping, attempted armed robbery and violent burglary. A third man, Troy Stevenson, 19, Trenton’s brother, faces the same charges but is expected to be a government witness. The two could get life in prison if convicted.
Earlier Thursday, Young’s girlfriend testified that Young had gone to his home later on the day Hunnewell was killed and placed a gun into one of his children’s cribs. The girlfriend, Rhonda Coleman, is the child’s 20-year-old mother.
“He just set it in,” testified Coleman, who told the jury that she had two children, both under 2 years old, by Young.
Coleman, testifying reluctantly, only took the stand after Judge Hood threatened out of earshot of the jury to put her in handcuffs.
In her testimony, elicited by prosecutor Luck Campbell, Coleman confirmed statements she had made about Young to Columbia police investigators a few weeks after Hunnewell’s death.
According to police, surveillance cameras captured footage of two males wearing hoods who entered the bakery through an unlocked door.
That video was played to the jury Thursday morning, but prosecutors positioned the screen so that only the jury – and two members of the press who happened to be at an extreme angle in the public courtroom – could see what is apparently a crucial piece of evidence.
Out of the jury’s hearing, prosecutors have said the defendants and some of the witnesses are members or associates of the Bloods street gang.
But Judge Hood has issued instructions that witnesses are not supposed to mention the name of the gang, which applies to numerous loosely affiliated gangs around the country that have a reputation for violence and drug-dealing. Mention of the Bloods is considered inflammatory and hard to prove, court officials have said. Were prosecutors to assert to a jury that someone is a Bloods gang member, they would have to introduce evidence to prove that allegation.
In their cross-examination of Coleman, defense attorneys Mark Schnee and Pinnock got her to admit that she faced charges of burglary and faced a minimum 15-year prison sentence.
Under their questions, Coleman admitted she didn’t want to go to prison and miss seeing her youngsters grow up. But she said she hadn’t made a deal with prosecutors to get a lighter sentence if she testified.
The case has highlighted a violent Columbia teenage subculture, in where some teens with easy access to guns commit crimes of opportunity.