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Steven Wayne BENSON

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - To inherit $10 million tobacco fortune
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: July 9, 1985
Date of arrest: August 22, 1985
Date of birth: July 26, 1951
Victims profile: His mother, tobacco heiress Margaret Benson, 63; and his brother (actually his nephew but later adopted), tennis player Scott Benson, 21
Method of murder: Placed a pipe bomb on the family car
Location: Naples, Collier County, Florida, USA
Status: Sentenced to two consecutive life sentences (minimum 50 years) and an additional 37 years for attempted murder and arson on September 2, 1986
 
 
 
 
 
 

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On 22nd August 1985 Steven Benson, a 33-year-old Florida businessman, was arrested and charged with the murder of his mother, his nephew and the attempted murder of his sister.

A few weeks earlier Benson had rigged their car with a pipe bomb. His mother Margaret Benson (who had inherited $10 million from her father) was blown out of the car and died instantly.

Benson had hoped to inherit this money. Almost a year later on 14th July 1986 he pleaded not guilty to the murder of his family. Eleven hours later the jury found Benson guilty and the judge sentenced him to life.

 
 

Steven Wayne Benson (born July 26, 1951) is a convicted double murderer of his mother, tobacco heiress Margaret Benson; and his brother (actually his nephew but later adopted), tennis player Scott Benson. (Margaret Hitchcock Benson was heiress of the Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co., Lancaster, Pa., and had no connection with Benson & Hedges brand cigarettes manufactured in the US by Philip Morris.)

On July 9, 1985 Benson placed a car bomb on the family car, in which Margaret, Scott, and Steven's sister, Carol Lynn Benson Kendall, (a former Miss Florida runner-up) were waiting for Steven to join them in the vehicle when the Suburban exploded. Kendall survived but was badly burned; Margaret and Scott died instantly from the bomb impact.

Represented by attorney Michael McDonnell, Steven Benson was ultimately convicted of murder, attempted murder and arson. He avoided the death penalty, but is serving 50 years in state prison and will be eligible for parole at age 85.

Benson has been transferred to different prisons during his time, because of constant threats and abuse from other prisoners. Because of the murder, Benson was attacked by other prisoners while serving his sentence in jail.

In Media

Dominick Dunne's investigative crime show Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice devoted an hour for the case of Steven Benson.

There has been more than one book related to the crime and celebrity of the family. BLOOD RELATIONS By John Greenya. Illustrated. 358 pp. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, MONEY TO BURN The True Story of the Benson Family Murders. By Michael Mewshaw. Illustrated. 406 pp. New York: Atheneum, THE SERPENT'S TOOTH By Christopher P. Andersen. Illustrated. 246 pp. New York: Harper & Row.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

All in the Family

Time.com

Monday, Aug. 18, 1986

Even as she showered her sons with the proceeds from her $10 million tobacco fortune, Margaret Hitchcock Benson lived in fear of them. There were constant fights and drugs and a nightmarish unhappiness that led her to believe that one or another of them was stealing her funds and wanted her dead.

Her apprehension was well founded. A year ago, as she sat in her station wag- on in the driveway of her home in the wealthy South Florida city of Naples, a powerful pipe bomb exploded between the front seats. Margaret Benson, 63, and her adopted son Scott, 21, were killed immediately. Her daughter Carol Lynn, now 42, was seriously injured but escaped from the car moments before a second bomb blast.

Last week, after deliberating 11 1/2 hours on testimony heard during a four- week trial, a jury in nearby Fort Myers found her son Steven Benson, 35, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, two of felony murder and five relating to arson and unlawful explosives. Judge Hugh D. Hayes Jr. said he intended to heed the jury's recommendation for life in prison when formal sentencing occurs next month.

Prosecutors presented 52 witnesses who painted Steven as an improvident drifter whose business failures apparently led him to misappropriate some of his mother's fortune. Only days before the explosions, Margaret Benson asked a family lawyer to investigate. Steven, the prosecutor argued, feared disinheritance.

Experts testified that his handprints were found on receipts for a length of 4-in.-diameter pipe ($36.08, including tax) and two pipe endpieces ($28.05 total) of the kind used in the fatal bombs. Steven's sister, her face bearing ugly burn scars from the bombing, told the court that he left the car just before the blast, ostensibly to get something from the house, and kept his back to her as she screamed for help.

Steven's lawyers contended that the killings could have been the work of young Scott's enemies, made during a fast-track life of girl chasing and drug buying. Scott, it was disclosed after the murders, was the out-of-wedlock son of Carol Lynn; he had been legally adopted by his grandmother.

Steven, considered mild-mannered around Naples, where the freshly widowed Margaret Benson had moved from Lancaster, Pa., in 1980, wept twice during the trial. When the verdict was pronounced, he sat in choked silence. The defense planned to appeal.

 
 

Anniversary recalls notorious crime

By Brigid O'Malley - Marconews.com

Saturday, July 9, 2005

Sitting in a prison cell in North Florida, more than 500 miles from Naples, Steven Wayne Benson neatly charts the number of times he's had broccoli, applesauce and corn served to him.

He also logged the lack of red beans, gelled salad and French dressing, which could be found on the prescribed prison menu, but not served at chow time. That breaking of prison system rules angers him.

Two decades ago, his family angered him.

That time, it wasn't the menu. It was the money.

Twenty years ago today, Benson planted pipe bombs that killed his mother and brother and seriously injured his sister in one of the biggest, media-flooded criminal cases and trials in Southwest Florida history.

His motive back then was millions, a $10 million estate he wanted to claim from his mother, tobacco heiress Margaret Benson. His adopted brother, Scott, and his sister, the former beauty queen Carol Lynn, stood in his way. Only his sister, who told investigators that Steven watched her burn, would survive.

The Benson case, a tale of a family torn apart by greed, held headlines for years as the bespectacled Steven Benson was suspected, arrested and then convicted of the murders. He's now serving a 50-year prison sentence.

Benson, now 53 and his dark hair now gray, thought out the crime carefully, crafting every detail down to telling each of his victims where they should sit inside the van before it exploded outside their posh Quail Creek home on July 9, 1985.

Collier County sheriff's deputies teamed with federal agents to launch an intense investigation that zeroed in on the almost too calm and cool Benson. They tracked down tiny pieces of evidence, from the cap end of one of the bombs to debris that littered lawns all over the Bensons' North Naples neighborhood.

Prosecutors took on and prevailed over an experienced legal defense team that questioned all of the work authorities had put together.

All of Collier County and much of the nation watched as the details unfolded in a Fort Myers courtroom and ended in Benson's conviction in 1986.

CNN and People magazine came to town. Authors wrote books, detailing every secret that was unearthed. Movie producers scouted Naples. Local attorneys and cops became media darlings.

Now, Steven Benson sits in a cell, his neat handwriting spelling out grievances from his home at Jackson Correctional Institution in Malone in Florida's Panhandle. They're about everything from his vitamins being seized to his non-regulation shoes being confiscated.

But as far as anyone will say, Benson has never admitted he'd done anything wrong.

"I don't know that he ever grieved about what happened," said Amos Sands, 81, a family friend who lives in Lancaster, Pa., and who was one of Benson's only visitors at the prison. "I know he never thought what he did was wrong. I don't think he'd admit it if he was standing in front of God."

Twenty years ago this morning, Benson loaded his family into a Chevrolet Suburban. They were going to look at a spot for his mother's dream house.

Margaret, 63, Carol Lynn, 41, and Scott, 21, were to go on the outing. But before they left, Benson offered to pick up coffee and danish at the Shop-n-Go on Immokalee Road. He was gone 70 minutes and explained his delay on meeting a business associate whose name he couldn't recall.

He had been driving the Suburban.

When he returned home, he suggested where his mother and siblings sit in the Suburban. His mother was up front and his younger brother drove. His sister was in the back seat.

Before he got in, he said he had to get something from the house. Later, he'd tell investigators he was getting a tape measure.

Between 9:17 and 9:20 a.m. and sometime after Benson left the Suburban, the vehicle exploded. Moments later, a second blast rocked the vehicle.

Margaret and Scott were blown out of the Suburban and Carol, who had left her car door open, was badly burned.

The Suburban was in flames and a black cloud hovered over the house. Ralph Merrill, a family friend, had been playing golf near the Benson home when he heard the blast. Merrill and other golfers tried to come to their rescue. Merrill dragged Margaret Benson across the gravel driveway when a second blast happened.

Benson was sitting on the front steps, rocking back and forth.

He seemed to be in shock.

*****

West of Philadelphia, the rolling countryside of Lancaster, Pa., the Benson family lived a lavish lifestyle.

Although not part of the Benson-Hedges cigarette company, a detail incorrectly reported in media accounts at the start of the case, the Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co., which Harry Hitchcock, Margaret Benson's father, had founded was reportedly even bigger. Then, the company had $40 million profits. Hitchcock died at age 93 in 1990, his image more of a robber baron than a do-gooder.

But his daughter, Margaret, her husband, Edward Benson, and grandchildren, Steven, Carol Lynn and Scott, their adopted brother who was really Carol Lynn's son born out of wedlock, lived a crazy, "spoiled brat"-type of lifestyle, family friends said.

Steven Benson attended Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, studying business. He tried to run a landscaping company, but failed. Many more ventures would fail, too.

Benson depended on his mother to bail him out of financial woes, from his failed businesses to his excessive spending. But his mother was not too skilled in handling her money, either.

He eventually worked for a Lancaster Leaf subsidiary in Wisconsin where he met and then married his now ex-wife, Debra.

Margaret Benson moved to Naples, to a home on Galleon Drive in Port Royal, in 1980. Her husband had died of lung cancer. A year later, her son, Steven, moved in, too.

Sands recalled packing for him, loading a collection of dress shirts, some worn only once. He had a wall full of electronics in a bedroom, another hobby and then business that Benson had failed at.

When Margaret Benson's plans to redo the Galleon Drive mansion were rejected by the Naples City Council, she moved to Quail Creek, off Immokalee Road, until she could find another place to live.

On the day of the bombing, Steven Benson, who was living in Fort Myers with his wife and two children, was taking his mother, sister and brother to look at a lot where his mother could build a home and live out her retirement.

Investigators would find out much more about the Benson family, especially Steven Benson.

*****

Harold Young, who 20 years ago led the sheriff's investigation into the car bombing, said he knew Benson was his man from the start.

He was calm when he talked to investigators. Maybe too calm.

And his brief statement to Young and another investigator, Mike Koors, gave them enough information to keep the heat on Benson.

Investigators always said it wasn't the most complicated case. Only Benson drove the car before the bombing and only Benson wasn't hurt. There wasn't time for someone else to sneak in and plant the bomb, they speculated.

"There was always something going on in the case," Koors said. "The publicity was unbelievable." He said the case was handled just like all other homicides. But the help from the federal agents nearly doubled or even tripled the amount of investigators on the case, he said.

"It just got the most publicity," he said.

Investigators would uncover clues and Benson family secrets.

Scott was actually Carol Lynn's son and Margaret's grandson. He ran with a rough crowd and was hooked on nitrous oxide. Carol Lynn often fought with Scott and her mother.

But it was Carol Lynn who gave authorities their motive. Steven, she said, may have been embezzling $2.5 million from his mother. Margaret Benson was just about to have a family lawyer start looking at the company books. She'd even started discussions about removing her son as chief operating officer of Meridian Marketing, one of her companies.

Deputies followed Benson everywhere he went. Soon, his two businesses, a marketing firm and a security firm, ran out of money without his mother's financial aid.

The day before the bombing, Margaret Benson had considered cutting Steven out of her will, investigators would learn.

*****

Before the end of the summer, Benson would be behind bars.

Local newspaper readers could keep track of the sheriff's deputies' travels; their stops at local stores; their attempts to tie the explosives used in the bombing to their suspect; their trips to Pennsylvania, where they learned more about the family; and their stop in Boston to talk to a burned and recovering Carol Lynn.

Lab work would show traces of evidence that kept leading cops to their prime suspect. Once they had his fingerprints, the case was ready to prosecute.

Authorities found two sales receipts from Hughes Supply Inc. in Naples dated July 5. Two, 4-inch end caps and two, 12-inch sections of the nipple pipe had been bought by a man fitting Benson's description. The caps and pipe packed with gunpowder were the same kind found in the explosion.

Investigators would find that there were two distinguishable palm prints on the receipts and a flake of zinc from the pipes had been discovered on Benson's pants. A 19-page warrant would help seal the evidence and when the prints matched, the case was solved, investigators said.

Benson was arrested on Aug. 22 on two counts of first-degree murder and held without bond.

Benson was indicted by a grand jury in September 1985.

His trial started 12 months and five days after the bomb blast.

Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes would preside. For the prosecution, brothers Jerry and Dwight Brock. And for the defense, Michael R.N. McDonnell and Jerry Berry.

All five remain in high-profile jobs in Collier County. Hayes remains on the bench and is Collier's chief administrative judge. Jerry Brock is an economic crimes prosecutor, while his brother Dwight is Collier County's clerk of courts. McDonnell and Berry are two of the county's most sought after defense attorneys.

The attorneys recalled distractions from all the media covering the trial and the heavy daily coverage in the Naples Daily News. The trial was moved to Fort Myers after McDonnell asked for the change due to the publicity.

Ten women and two men sat on the jury when the trial's opening arguments began on July 14, 1986. They'd spend the next month in court.

*****

Local television carried the trial.

Prosecutors spelled out the state's evidence, starting with Margaret Benson asking her attorney to start reviewing the books to determine if her son was stealing money from her. Two days before the explosion, she asked for the company books.

When Benson tried to hold her off, his mother got more suspicious. She thought he'd used money from Meridian Marketing to put a down payment on his home. She confronted her son and told him to bring the books.

She was enraged and told her attorney that she was thinking of cutting Benson out of the will. The next day, she was dead.

Dwight Brock, who handled the financial end of the case, said he recalls spending weeks with an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms accountant, trying to put financial records together to establish Benson's motives.

"There we were, with all of the records," he said.

He said they worked from 9 a.m. to midnight every day.

"Then when we were done for the day, we were preparing for the next day," Brock said. "All we did was work." He said the media coverage and the atmosphere got lost on him and other members of the prosecutorial team.

"You lost touch with all of that," he said. "You were so busy." Berry, of the defense team, said the publicity was intense but he said the lawyers hardly had time to think about it.

He recalled a writer from Playboy wanting to do a major piece if Benson was acquitted. He wanted cooperation from McDonnell, the lead attorney, and Berry. He said they weren't interested.

But that acquittal never came. Berry said some later changes in the law might have made that palm print on the register receipt more questionable and perhaps not even admissible in court.

"It would be interesting to see today if it would be allowed," he said.

As the evidence started coming together, Brock said it was "painfully obvious" about what had happened.

"He was spending his mom's money and she had caught him," Brock said.

Witnesses recounted the explosion, law officers described the evidence and an auditor talked money as Benson, called everything from smug to emotionless, listened.

The courtroom was silent as burn victim Carol Lynn Benson took the stand. Her testimony about the morning of the explosion was carried live on television. Kendall testified that she saw her brother in front of the house watching her burn without coming to her rescue.

"I couldn't understand why he wasn't coming over to help me," she testified.

Four years later, and again in 2000, Carol Lynn Kendall unsuccessfully ran for a Naples City Council seat while living in Port Royal. Her last address was in Norfolk, Va.

McDonnell built his defense with witnesses from Merrill, the golfer, who testified he'd heard Benson yell for help, to a lineup of jail inmates who said Scott Benson was into drugs.

Steven Benson did not take the stand.

On Aug. 6, the case went to the jury and a day later, after 12 hours of deliberation, Benson was found guilty. He was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of arson, three counts of arson resulting in injury and two counts of building and discharging an explosive device.

He was spared the death penalty even with a passionate plea from Jerry Brock, who called the crime of killing the person who gave birth to you a "reprehensible" act.

McDonnell came back with his own plea that there had been enough killing.

The jury tied 6 to 6 in recommending life in prison. On Sept. 2, Judge Hayes sentenced Benson to serve 50 years in prison before being considered for parole when he would be 85. Benson left Collier County for state prison a day later.

He has appealed his conviction through every court in Florida and taken it to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has failed each time.

*****

Benson has moved around the Florida prison system. He's spent time at Cross City Correctional Institute, Martin Correctional Institute, Avon Park Correctional Institute and Santa Rosa Correctional Institute.

A lengthy Department of Corrections file tells about Benson's time behind bars.

He was stabbed by another prisoner and transferred to another prison for his safety. Another time, he was found to have a knife in his possession and punished.

While in prison, he's been written up for fashioning a battery pack outside his transistor radio. He was selling legal services to other inmates, using the prison computer to keep track of his customers. He made off with ketchup and mayonnaise packets from meal time and he's had his unauthorized Scrabble game confiscated.

Benson has lost a Cross pen set sent to him, a leather belt, some Clark shoes and an extra pair of slide shoes, all found to be outside regulations.

He's worked jobs from being a houseman to working in the laundry or on painting detail.

He's an avid writer of grievances, against inmates, against corrections officers, against anyone who wronged him. Often his grievances are written off by officials and he's told to read the regulations or law closer.

He complained about inmates having to wear shirts in the television rooms. It's hot, he said. He was concerned that a television room was used for Spanish programs several hours each day when the Spanish-speaking inmates just join the other inmates to watch television, anyway.

He argued the amount of sales tax charged at the commissary and had his account credited by 95 cents. He also protested in 2004 when a book, "Hacking Exposed, Network Security Secrets and Solutions" was taken from him. He said the title was misleading and that no one would listen to him that the book was about preventing hacking, not how to carry it out.

He's spent several stints in segregation after some of his exploits.

And he's told prison officials that he's trying to live a well-adjusted, low-profile life behind bars.

He did not respond to Daily News requests for an interview.

*****

Margaret Benson's sister, Janet Murphy, who still lives in Lancaster, Pa., does not want to see her nephew out of prison. Ever. She wanted him to face the death penalty.

"I would talk to him, I guess," said Murphy. "I'm sure Steven wouldn't want to talk to me." Sands, his longtime visitor who says he was turned away about 10 years ago because he wasn't family, said he tried to bring religion to Benson. He wasn't buying.

Sands said he'd be glad to write to Benson. Their conversations were mostly about what was wrong in the prison.

"He was always easy to talk to," he said. "He could find all of the problems with the prison. But he can't see that what he did was wrong." The Benson case may have overwhelmed the Naples community two decades ago, but Berry, now a veteran defense attorney, says he wonders how many people know about the crime and the trial.

He said even two weeks after the 1986 trial when he had a drunken driving case in a Collier County courtroom, very few jurors knew about the Benson case.

"Now I'll bet not more than 25 percent of the population, if you said, "Steven Benson", would know who you were talking about," Berry said.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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