Keller guilty in ‘04 killing
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 10, 2008
By KEVIN CHIRI
Editor and Publisher
EDGARD – Days, weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina hit Southeast Louisiana, there was little which could be considered normal.
So consider the challenge of local law enforcement to solve a murder case, reportedly committed and covered up with the help of the destruction Katrina brought.
That was the situation in the brutal killing of a LaPlace woman, who was found in her Country Club home in LaPlace only days after Katrina had come through the area.
“These men tried to use the hurricane as cover to commit this crime,” St. John Assistant District Attorney Barry Landry said.
Three men, led by 21-year-old Mark Keller Jr. of Reserve, broke into the home of Natasha Baggett-Butler planning to burglarize the home, thinking no one was home since so many had evacuated after Katrina.
However in finding Butler home, the resulting crime led to the murder of Butler, in a case that remained unsolved with no arrests for six months.
Regardless of the challenges, the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office Homicide Division remained diligent on the case to eventually bring about the arrest of the three men, which was followed by the conviction of Keller for second degree murder just this past week in the 40th Judicial District Court.
Keller now faces sentencing on July 16 and will receive a life sentence with no possibility of parole or probation.
Landry said that it was the work of three key detectives with the Sheriff’s Office that brought the case to justice, and was the reason Keller was eventually convicted.
“This conviction was thanks to the excellent detective work by the Sheriff’s Office detectives,” Landry said. “We wouldn’t have gotten this without the work they did. They never gave up on the case even though the hurricane actually did create some special problems getting evidence from the home. But they never quit on it.”
Butler was killed when the three men broke into her home on September 24, 2004, and were surprised to find her in the house as they attempted to burglarize it.
“They didn’t expect to find anyone home,” Landry said. “They figured everyone was evacuated from the hurricane. But when they found her, that led to eventually having her killed as they tried to cover things up.”
The three men bound and gagged Butler, and put her in her bathtub. Then they set the house on fire, hoping the fire would get rid of any evidence. Butler did die from asphyxiation, according to the coroner’s report, but evidence in the case became difficult to get since the closed up home created conditions which kept some evidence from being gathered.
In the end, the D.A.’s office got one of the other three men, Anthony Babin, to testify against Keller, helping the conviction from the 12-member jury.
Capt. Willis Stelly, Major Robert Hay and former St. John Detective Terrell St. Martin were named by Landry as key detectives with the Sheriff’s Office who made the case.
“We didn’t have any eyewitnesses in the case and that made a conviction hard to get in this case,” Landry said. “But they never stopped working on the case and helped us finally put enough together to make the arrests, and then get this conviction.”
Babin eventually turned states evidence and testified against Keller at the trial last week. In exchange, he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of conspiracy to commit burglary. He got 15 years in prison.
Bryan Stewart, the third man arrested and charged with murder in the case, has had several sanity hearings so far and has delayed his appearance in court. However Landry believes Stewart will come to trial soon to face the murder charge as well.