ADA: Murder of 15-year-old wasn’t just brutal — it was an execution

Sellers Johnson
Sellers Johnson

A 20-year-old man who was 17 when he robbed and fatally shot a 15-year-old Gulfport High School student was sentenced Tuesday to life without parole for capital murder.

Sellers Johnson of Gulfport was not eligible for the death penalty in the Oct. 22, 2013, slaying of Joshua Xavier “Xa” Cuellar. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling doesn’t allow execution for people who were juveniles when they committed capital murder.

Judge Chris Schmidt sentenced Johnson in Harrison County Circuit Court and then sentenced three teens who were at the shooting.

Johnson shot Xa seven times during a robbery, Assistant District Attorney Crosby Parker said.

Xa (pronounced Zay) was a ninth-grade student who enjoyed football, basketball and drawing. Family and friends have said he was happy-go-lucky and wanted to be a fashion designer or rapper.

‘It was an execution’

Xa died of gunshot wounds to the face and chest.

“The evidence from the forensic pathologist, as well as the location of the gunshot wounds, showed that this wasn’t just a brutal, senseless killing,” Parker said. “It was an execution.”

His mother, Natasha Cuellar, had spoken with him by cellphone about 5 p.m. He had borrowed his grandfather’s truck to go see his father.

“He was supposed to go straight to his dad’s and come straight home, but he didn’t,” she said. “He made a detour.”

The detour cost Xa (pronounced “Zay”) his life. He was killed after he gave a ride in the bed of the pickup to Sellers and three 15-year-olds. Xa was taking them to Lowe’s Home Improvement. He stopped the truck on Lowes Avenue to let them out, according to court testimony.

One of the teens pulled out a gun and tried to rob him. Xa fought back, and Johnson grabbed the gun and started shooting him as the other teens ran away. A nearby security camera filmed the three as they fled, Parker said.

His body was found about 7 p.m. He had no identification on him. Police linked the truck to Xa’s grandfather. His mother said she identified him through a picture taken by the coroner.

‘There were no winners today’

Johnson pleaded guilty Oct. 20, 2015, after the three other teens pleaded guilty to lesser crimes. The other teens were sentenced Tuesday after Johnson’s sentencing.

“We do feel that justice was served for our baby,” Cuellar said. “However, we are very saddened that five families had to go through this. Hopefully, this will be a lesson to many.

“There were no winners today.”

The loss of life from a violent crime must be punished, District Attorney Joel Smith said.

“But when we lose a son or a daughter at the hands of another juvenile, it is a shocking tragedy,” Smith said. “We will continue to aggressively prosecute violent criminals and are hopeful that the sentences handed down today can assist the Cuellar family in the healing process.”

Xa an only child

Xa was an only child.

“He was a mama’s boy and didn’t care if anyone knew it,” Cuellar said after he was killed.

They challenged each other to make good grades, she said. And they had celebrated his birthday four months earlier by throwing water balloons at each other and drawing with chalk.

Xa was known for his sense of humor. He once showed up at a youth football practice game wearing Crocs instead of cleats. Family friend Barbara McLemore has said he would say funny things and have facial expressions that “would just crack you up.”

Cuellar on Tuesday said the family is praying that “many will be closer to God because of this tragedy. We give God all the glory for the strength, peace and comfort that he has provided to our family in this dark time.”

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald