Greed, drugs, murder and vicious family feuds are staple elements of many popular prime-time soap operas. Indeed, several freelance TV scriptwriters were in the packed courtroom in Fort Myers, Fla., last week for the climactic scenes of a real-life drama which surpassed television’s most
sensational offerings. After a threeweek trial that exposed the secrets of the rich, a jury of 10 women and two men found Steven Benson guilty of murder. As the 35-year-old Benson sat impassively in the hushed courtroom, the jury foreman declared him guilty of killing his mother, Margaret, and his nephew, Scott, and wounding his sister, Carol, last year in a bid to gain control of a $10-million tobacco fortune. The jury recommended that Benson serve a life sentence in prison, but Circuit Court Judge Hugh Hall could send Benson to the electric chair when he passes sentence next month.
The tale of murder and intrigue began on July 9, 1985, when two blasts shattered the morning calm of Quail’s Roost, an exclusive housing estate in the elegant resort city of Naples, 60 km south of Fort Myers on Florida’s steamy Gulf Coast. Two bombs triggered by the ignition of a 1978 Chevrolet Suburban wagon parked in the driveway of the family’s $400,000 redtiled home killed heiress Margaret Ben-
son, 63, and her grandson, Scott Benson, 21. But 42-year-old Carol Kendall escaped from the back seat before the second bomb exploded. And although scarred on her face and neck, the former beauty contestant survived to become the key witness in the state’s successful prosecution of her brother.
State prosecutor Jerry Brock portrayed Benson as a man who had siphoned off $247,000 from his mother’s accounts—and then killed her when she began to suspect that he had used part of the money to purchase a $215,000 house equipped with a swimming pool and a tennis court. But defence lawyer Michael McDonnell argued that the prosecution had failed to link Benson to the bombings and he promised to appeal the verdict. Said McDonnell: “This is Round 1. I’m not through yet. Steven Benson • is innocent.” McDonnell had sought to convince the jury that Scott, the defendant’s nephew, was a cocainesnorting playboy who might have been killed by drug traffickers seeking revenge for a soured drug deal.
McDonnell described Scott Benson as a violent addict who would do anything to obtain drugs. And Dr. José Lombillo, a Naples psychiatrist who treated Benson for drug dependency in 1983, testified that the aspiring professional tennis player was heavily addicted to nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Said
Lombillo: “He inhaled nitrous oxide like you might drink a Pepsi.”
As well, McDonnell noted that investigators had uncovered a startling family secret three months after the bombings: Scott Benson had died believing that Margaret Benson was his mother. In fact, the woman he knew as his sister, Carol, had as an unmarried teenager given birth to Scott, and Margaret Benson raised her daughter’s infant as her own son. McDonnell also recalled that Benson had physically attacked both women three years ago when Carol Kendall ordered him to get rid of a large guard dog which he kept inside the house.
When she spoke to investigators last winter, Carol Kendall harshly criticized her son, saying, “Scott always gets these real sleazo girlfriends who take advantage of him and he lets people talk him into things.” But she insisted that her brother Steven was responsible for the bombings. She testified that Benson had arrived at their mother’s house insisting that the other family members accompany him on a car trip to inspect some nearby real estate. Then, recalled Kendall, Steven returned to the house as his nephew slipped behind the wheel of the station wagon and turned the ignition key. Kendall said that she managed to throw herself out of the vehicle’s open door after the first bomb exploded, and she testified that her brother did not try to pull the victims from the burning wreckage. Said Kendall: “I saw Steven come out of the house and into the driveway. He looked terrified, and I couldn’t understand why he was not coming over to help.”
From the the testimony of both prosecution and defence witnesses, the Bensons appeared to be a family presided over by a mother who freely indulged her grown children. Margaret Benson provided Scott with a $7,000 monthly allowance to pursue his interests in fast cars and blond girlfriends. And Steven Benson—described by his lawyer as a mild-mannered peacemaker—emerged as a man who was deeply jealous of his nephew’s flair and colorful lifestyle. As disclosure of those intimate details rivetted the sun-drenched communities of southern Florida, the founder of the Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co. (the Pennsylvania firm that formed the base of the the family fortune) made his only appearance at the trial last week. As he sat near his grandson’s place at the defendant’s table, 89-year-old Harold Hitchcock declared: “The love of money is the root of all evil. I guess I didn’t do a good enough job teaching that to my children.”
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