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Leodor Rousseau, left, speaks to his attorney, Matt Harnett, during proceedings in Vermont District Court in Barre on Friday. Rousseau pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and kidnapping charges in the 2006 murder of James Saunders.
Photo: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Times Argus

'Kahoona' pleads guilty to murder charge, bringing Saunders killing case to an end

BARRE It was a wild murder case: Two suspects were caught in North Carolina, one was arrested in Florida, and an accomplice fled to Mexico. Seven people, including three teenagers, were charged in connection with the crime a lethal beating with pistols and fists.

But it finally came to a close Friday in Vermont District Court in Barre when Leodor "Kahoona" Rousseau pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and kidnapping. Of the seven people charged for the 2006 murder of James Saunders, Rousseau was the last defendant to resolve his case.

For his role in the murder it is widely believed he orchestrated the beating Rousseau will serve at least 21 years in prison. Rousseau, 35, was sentenced to 21 years to life for the murder and 20 years to life for the kidnapping. Rousseau will get credit for the two years and four months he has already spent in prison, and the sentences will run concurrently. He will not be eligible for any early-release programs or reductions to his sentence for good behavior.

Rousseau's trial was scheduled for March, and Washington County State's Attorney Tom Kelly said he was surprised when Rousseau accepted the plea deal at a recent status conference.

"I thought it was going to trial," Kelly said. "We were ready to go."

Kelly described Rousseau's sentence as a "fair and just" resolution in the case.

Saunders was a 33-year-old Barre resident, and a small-time drug dealer who apparently failed to pay Rousseau. He was lured into Rousseau's Land Rover and beaten by at least two other men as Rousseau drove the vehicle.

Saunders was killed in May 2006, but his body wasn't found until September, when Jonathon Whalley led police to the corpse, which was buried in Vershire near a home that Rousseau once rented. Whalley witnessed some of the beating and helped Rousseau conceal the corpse.

State's Attorney Kelly and Judge Brian Grearson both expressed sympathy for the victims in the case Saunders and his family and friends.

"Our heart goes out to her," said Kelly, speaking of Saunders' mother, who he said is named Donna Rivette. Saunders was estranged from his family, and Rivette learned of her son's death from a newspaper story posted online. She helped identify Saunders using birth certificates and other information.

Rousseau apologized to the court for what he has done, saying the intention wasn't to kill Saunders.

"Things went a lot farther than what was going to happen," said Rousseau.

Rousseau said he knows he can't bring Saunders back, but he feels sorry for him every day.

"I pray for him," he said.

Rousseau is hoping to be imprisoned in New Hampshire rather than Kentucky or Alabama where Vermont convicts with long sentences often go. The Department of Corrections will decide where Rousseau serves his prison term, but Rousseau asked Grearson to urge Corrections to send him to the Granite State. Rousseau wants to be imprisoned there because his children and parents would be able to visit him more easily, he said.

In addition, Rousseau said, "They have lots of arts and crafts programs in Concord "

Grearson denied the request.

"I'm not going to, Mr. Rousseau, because whatever kind of person Mr. Saunders was violence, drug issues, whatever he had he did not deserve to die," Grearson said. "I feel sorry for your children, but they are going to be separated from you."

Rumors about Rousseau's mafia and organized crime connections swirled in the community following the murder, and Kelly tried to dispel those rumors during the hearing.

"They largely came from the defendant's own words," Kelly said. "The facts in the case belie that there's any reason to fear the defendant."

Kelly said Rousseau was a small-time drug dealer, who also sold things at flea markets.

"He even had a cologne called 'Kahoona,'" Kelly said.

Plus, the beating took place in front of witnesses who were strangers to Rousseau.

"It was hardly a mob hit," Kelly said. "It was almost a foolish extension of his play-acting."

The case drew extensive publicity in the community, but there were few people in the courtroom for Rousseau's hearing Friday. Two people there were either friends or relatives, but they declined to comment.

The lead investigator in the case, Vermont State Police Lt. Russell Robinson, attended the hearing.

He said the number of co-defendants made this case unique, adding that the plea deal was a "good resolution."

"It's been almost three years, and there's been a lot of work behind the scenes with the detectives division, prosecutors and the uniformed division," he said.

There is "loads" of evidence against Rousseau, but at least one real weakness: It would be very difficult to prove that Rousseau actually beat Saunders, Kelly said, and it might be hard to convince a jury to convict him of murder for arranging the beating.

"There's always a risk in going to trial," Kelly said.

Rousseau's case and the cases of the other defendants were resolved one by one over the last two years.

Whalley, who fled to Mexico and then turned himself in, is serving 2 to 10 years in prison.

Joshua Darling was one of two men who beat Saunders. He and Rousseau were arrested in North Carolina soon after Saunders' body was found. Darling pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is serving a 14- to 15-year sentence.

Aaron Bassett was the other man who played a major role in the murder. He was found in Florida. Bassett pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving a 20-year minimum.

The three teenagers, Melinda Pike, Shawn Fordham and Nathanial Masi also pleaded guilty. They were 14, 15 and 17 years of age, and were paid to get Saunders into the car by telling him he was going to a drug deal.

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