Bensons' Saga Is Taking Turns That Seem Fit For Film

Posted: April 07, 1986

NAPLES, FLA. — Before murder stole its innocence, Naples was just another sparkling Florida boom town with sugar-soft beaches, tepid turquoise waters and boosters who wanted to make their Gulf Coast city a star.

They believed that Naples was pretty enough for a movie backdrop, but their star was not born until two pipe bombs exploded in a Chevrolet Suburban wagon and ended the lives of Pennsylvania tobacco heiress Margaret Benson and her adopted son, Scott.

Now the filmmakers are coming - the same ones who made The Amityville Horror.

By May, the crew is expected to start production on the movie about the July 9 car-bombing, although this tabloid family album of money, murder and a multimillion-dollar inheritance lacks a closing page.

Ten months since the bronze coffins of Margaret and Scott Benson were laid in the family's granite mausoleum, Margaret's second son, Steven, wears the bright-orange coveralls of a Collier County prisoner.

Benson, 34, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, with clipped brown hair, thick glasses and skin that has faded to a vanilla pallor, was scheduled to stand trial last week for the two slayings and the attempted murder of his sister, Carol Benson Kendall, who was severely burned in the blast.

Instead, Collier County Judge Hughes Hayes delayed the trial so that Benson's defense attorneys could gather more information that they say links Scott Benson to the killings - either through his suicidal tendencies or a

drug dealer's revenge.

Scott had threatened his mother before, those attorneys say, and he also had been feuding with Kendall, a striking former beauty queen who for 21 years had kept secret the fact that she was his biological mother.

"It would certainly enter the realm of possibility that Scott Benson planted these bombs and the plan went awry when Steven Benson unexpectedly left the vehicle," one of Steven Benson's attorneys, Jerry Berry, wrote in a letter to the judge. "This unexpected event could have caused Scott to panic, resulting in his being a victim rather than a suspect."

Not surprisingly, Steven Benson's attorneys say the state's evidence against him - which includes Benson's palm print on a receipt for bomb-making supplies - is a "tenuous, circumstantial case."

When the heat-haze of summer veils Florida in July, Benson is scheduled to go on trial, but it is an ordeal that the rest of his family - even the victims - will be forced to share.

For in many ways, it is their lives that will be on trial.

In pages and pages of court records filed in Collier County Circuit Court, the secrets, squandered fortunes, disagreements and changing alliances of the Benson family are exposed.

It has all the elements of a movie.

"It's a fascinating case, " said Elliot Geisinger, director of The Amityville Horror, who decided to make a movie about the Bensons after hearing about the case from friends in Naples. "You think of Florida as this mystical, enchanted land of milk and honey. The club they belonged to epitomized the wealth in this family and the tradition."

Money is the thread that stitches their lives together, and money, investigators say, was the motive for murder.

Margaret Benson's fortune, which is estimated at $10 million, comes from Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co., one of the world's largest cigar and chewing- tobacco trading companies.

Lancaster Leaf buys tobacco leaf from around the world, processes it and delivers it to manufacturers. Margaret Benson's father, Harry Hitchcock, founded the company, and after he retired her husband, the late Edward Benson, took it over.

Hitchcock, still active at 88, lives in Lancaster and is well-known for his monthly prayer breakfasts, charitable donations and vast tulip gardens, which he opens up for public viewing every spring. Not even death and tragedy has changed that tradition; family friends said the gardens would reopen again in about two weeks, when the flowers are blooming.

It was in Lancaster where Steven Benson spent his childhood, growing up in a 17-room stone house with a swimming pool and cabana in School Lane Hills. But after his father died, of cancer in 1980, he eventually was drawn to Naples, a sunny, affluent community where the Chamber of Commerce likes to boast that the population includes the most millionaires per capita in the nation.

Naples, a fast-growing community that is being dissected into subdivisions of waterfront suburbs, condominium complexes and mobile homes, has relied on its wealthy residents for donations that fund the local hospital. Even the chamber headquarters was donated by a benefactor.

But among the millionaires, the Bensons did not stand out.

Longtime residents say the Bensons apparently led a low-key life, because the residents had never heard of them until last July, when the two explosions left Margaret Benson's exclusive Quail Creek neighborhood shuddering.

Steven Benson led a rather mundane existence as an "executive" - the occupation he listed on his booking form at the time of his arrest. His mother was his sometimes-reluctant financial patron who supported his various Florida business ventures involving the far-flung-sounding Meridian World Group.

But when Benson had trouble making a payroll for his security firm, his mother wrote out the checks to keep the company afloat, according to investigators, who allege that eventually Benson raided more than $2 million

from his mother's Dean Witter Reynolds investment account.

Three weeks before the bombing, Steven Benson purchased a $235,000 house in Fort Myers that his irate mother later described as having a yard so big that it made its tennis court look small.

That, according to his sister, Kendall, "was the straw that broke the camel's back," and the family's Philadelphia attorney was directed to delve into the tangled finances of the family to determine the losses.

"Steven didn't gamble and he didn't drink and he wasn't the kind that ran around with rough characters or anything, and I really wouldn't feel as though Steven was into drugs. . . . He was the kind - he was always thinking in grandiose terms," said Kendall in a taped interview with investigators after the bombing.

"I mean, if he opened a company, it couldn't be the John Smith Pencil Co. It had to be Worldwide Industries . . . and he couldn't have a printed card. It had to be the $30 embossed kind. I mean, that was just the way Steven's mind ran around things."

In the interview, Kendall sketches a family portrait of bickering, divided relatives.

So tense were relations, she said, that Margaret Benson was barred from visiting Steven Benson's three young children. Kendall contends that it was Benson's wife who also ordered Margaret Benson to call their house only during emergencies and that, when Margaret violated the rule, the telephone receiver was immediately slammed down.

Scott, 21, an aspiring tennis pro, also went his own way, she said. Defense attorneys go even further, contending that Scott was a suspected narcotics dealer who had several brushes with the local police - once in 1983, when Naples police were called to the family house to break up a fight and once in 1985, when Scott was committed to a hospital for five days under a Florida law allowing police to hold anyone considered dangerous to himself or others.

Naples police confirmed that they were called to the Benson house for help in 1983, but a police spokesman said information about Scott's alleged commitment could not be released. The spokesman said the information was not covered under the state act that allows public records to be opened.

Steven Benson's attorneys contend that Scott had a rancorous relationship with his mother, bickering with her about his tennis career and his "wild and expensive lifestyle."

But apparently Scott never knew that Margaret Benson was not his mother, but his grandmother.

The rumor about his true parentage circulated for years within the small community of Lancaster and was finally confirmed by Kendall, Scott's real mother, during depositions taken for the trial. When she was an unmarried, pregnant teenager in 1965, she gave birth to Scott in Baltimore, then gave him up for adoption to her parents.

Scott was himself the target of a paternity suit in 1983, filed by a former girlfriend who said her daughter, Shelby Ann Nicole Benson, was Scott's child. That lawsuit is still wending its way through the Florida courts.

Kendall contends that her mother feared Scott, but she said Margaret Benson believed that Steven was the one capable of harming her for her money.

"It wasn't exactly that my mother said that, 'I think Steven would kill me.' It wasn't that kind of statement, but we were talking about the property that she was thinking of buying and she said something like, 'Steven would certainly prefer that I did it, because it would be more money for him if I were dead,' " Kendall recalled for investigators.

Later, Kendall added that her mother "indicated that she wouldn't put it past my brother to possibly do away with her."

When the investigator inquired which brother she was referring to, Kendall replied:

"My brother Steven. I knew she was scared of Scott, but that was a different situation. I mean, I was scared of Scott. But you know, we were talking - my mother and I were very, very close and we didn't have anybody else except each other because Scott went his own way and Steven, since he's been under the influence of Debby (his wife), doesn't have anything to do with my mother anymore," Kendall said.

A few weeks after they shared that conversation, Margaret Benson died - leaving a $10 million estate and a family even more bitterly divided.

Most of the Bensons have turned against Steven. His grandfather, Harry Hitchcock, wrote a letter to the judge in the case, appealing to him to keep Steven in jail because of fears for his own safety.

The same appeal was made by Steven's aunt and his cousin, Sheryl Murray of Mahwah, N.J., who wrote a letter to the judge saying that she could not ''sleep nights knowing that he was free."

"I know my cousin very well, and I know what a callous, cold man he is," she wrote. "He would do anything for money. I put nothing past him."

Benson's letters of support came from his in-laws, his former best man and

from a Fort Myers neighbor who befriended Benson's wife, Debra.

In January, Debra Benson's financial situation was so desperate that she asked the neighbor to sell her children's discarded toys in a garage sale to raise some money. The neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said that a trust fund had since disbursed money for the support of the children, but that the family was still living in a virtually empty house - furnished only with beds and a picnic table.

He said that Debra's friends had turned against her and that she had been unable to find a job because of her husband's notoriety.

It's a far cry from the luxury-in-the-sun living that is the stuff of movies.

But then, the producers of the Benson movie are flexible about their ending.

"We have a preliminary schedule of attack," said Geisinger, "but a great deal will be determined by what comes up in the trial."

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