Natchitoches mom held without bond after baby burned to death

Felicia Smith, Baby Levi, Hannah Barker | Photos: Natchitoches PD
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NATCHITOCHES, La. (KTBS) - A Natchitoches woman accused of playing a part in the murder of her 7-month-old son will remain jailed without bond.

Hanna Barker is charged with principal to first-degree murder in the death of her son, Levi Ellerbe. Felicia Smith, Barker’s girlfriend, is charged with first-degree murder in the baby’s death. Investigators arrested the women after Levi’s burned body was found near railroad tracks on a Natchitoches Street on the night of July 17.

RELATED REPORT: Baby Levi's mother: 'Anxious, nervous, excited' about his birth (KTBS)

On Friday, a judge ruled that there’s enough evidence to keep Barker in jail. In August, a Natchitoches grand jury said it needed more evidence before making a decision on the charge against Barker but allowed the investigation to continue. There's no word on when the grand jury will take up the case again.

That prompted her attorney, Dhu Thompson, to ask for Friday’s hearing in an effort to get Barker released.

Neither woman testified Friday. The only witness for the preliminary examination was Lt. Jeremy Swisher of the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

He took the stand to explain to prosecutors Cliff Strider and District Attorney Billy Joe Herrington why investigators think someone staged the crime scene at the travel trailer where Barker lived with Levi. He also described what he called inconsistencies in Barker’s statements – including giving three different names for the person who knocked on her door before Levi was taken -- to police and fire investigators.

Swisher questioned her reaction at the scene, which he said alternated between “mad” and “screaming,” but never did he see her cry.

Swisher also said there was no evidence Barker was sprayed with Mace or pepper spray by an individual who knocked on her door that night. Barker did not exhibit physical signs that would have been left by the chemical nor was there a lingering smell in her home, he said.

Another thing sticking out to Swisher was Barker’s statement to her landlord and in her call to 911 that her baby had been taken. He questioned how she would know that when she ran from her home straight to her landlord’s.

“She changed her statement based on the facts we gave her to look more credible,” Swisher testified.

The bulk of the state’s case against Barker appears to be from the confession of Smith, who admitted to taking Levi to a wooded area near the railroad tracks along Breda Street, pouring gasoline on him and setting him on fire.

Swisher said Smith told him and a Natchitoches police investigator she did that at Barker’s direction. Swisher said Smith accuses Barker of coming up with the plan to kill her son. No reason was given.

They first discussed shooting Levi, Swisher said of Smith’s statement. But Smith said she couldn’t because her gun was jammed. Investigators later confirmed that fact.

Then the two talked about burning Levi, Swisher testified. It was Barker’s idea, Smith told investigators, to put his body where “nobody would find him until he was bones” and burning the body would leave no evidence.

But under questioning from Thompson, Swisher conceded there is no direct evidence tying Barker to Levi’s death. There are no text messages, telephone records, fingerprints, DNA or other evidence to support Smith’s statement.

Barker took a polygraph during one of her interviews. Since the results are not admissible in court, the outcome was not disclosed by Swisher.

Thompson called Smith’s allegations “self-serving,” adding she not only had motive to do the crime but admitted to it. Accusing Barker was only done to “save herself,” Thompson said.

Without those, all investigators have are “I believe” certain things happened, Thompson said.

Strider disagreed, telling Judge Desiree Dyess the state proved it has probable cause to prosecute Barker. He said Smith’s statement about meeting Barker at IHOP, where Smith worked, to talk about what to do about Levi is corroborated by the restaurant’s video.

There’s little doubt, Strider said, the crime scene was staged. And Barker made changes in her statements, which is an “indication of guilt,” Strider said.

Wearing a red Caddo Correctional Center jumpsuit and shacked at the waist, Barker sat next to Thompson sobbing before the hearing and into its start. She occasionally looked back at the dozen friends and family who sat behind her.

At one point during the hearing as Swisher described how he believe the crime scene at Barker’s travel trailer was staged, Barker looked back and shook her head.

As the hearing progressed on for several hours, Barker placed a yellow legal pad in her lap and began taking notes.

Barker did not look to the other side of the courtroom where Levi’s biological father, Billy Ellerbe Jr., sat with other family members. When details of Levi’s death were discussed several hung their heads in tears and passed out tissues.

As the judge ruled that Barker would stay jailed, a woman with Ellerbe murmured, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Barker had an estranged relationship with Billy Ellerbe, Swisher said, but they were civil to each other because of Levi. They didn’t have a formal child custody or visitation agreement.

There was no information given by Swisher as to the reason why Levi was killed, other than referencing some statements by Smith that Barker found it difficult finding babysitters and trying to keep a job.

The state doesn’t have to prove a motive, just the facts to support a conviction of the crime as charged.

But there was some insight given by Swisher about the two women that was gleaned from their interviews. When Barker was asked if she knew Smith, Barker initially called Smith an acquaintance but didn’t delve into their relationship, only saying they had been fighting and hadn’t seen each other in weeks.

But Swisher said there was an “intimate sexual relationship” between the two. Barker admitted, he said, to using Smith for attention and money, but labeled it as a one-sided relationship. Barker alleged Smith was “infatuated” with her, he said.

Barker also reportedly told investigators Smith was the jealous type and didn’t like other people being around them. There was jealousy involving a former girlfriend of Smith’s, too.

When told she had been implicated by Smith, Barker said, “That b---- killed my f----- baby,” said Swisher.

Prior to the start of the preliminary examination, another judge set an Oct. 6 hearing to consider revocation of Barker’s probation. Barker was sentenced to 5 years’ probation in 2016 as part of her plea to two drug charges.

The Louisiana Probation and Parole office submitted a petition revoking Barker’s bond on those charges. A probation officer read through a list of violations during her time in drug court. The latest happened in July before her arrest when she admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with a person known to sell drugs, the officer said.

This story was originally published at KTBS.com.