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Gary Bennett

Other South Carolina exonerations
On the night of May 23, 2000, the body of 43-year-old Eva Marie Martin was found in the bedroom of her trailer on Little River Road near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Her pants had been partially pulled down and her throat had been slit. The room was in disarray as if someone had been searching for something.

Martin was a manager at a Taco Bell restaurant in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, about 11 miles south of the trailer park where she lived with a roommate, Natasha Adams. Adams worked at The Pavilion Park, an amusement park in Myrtle Beach. Adams told police that Martin was supposed to pick her up after she got off work at 9:30 p.m. When Martin did not show up, Adams said she called the trailer a few times and when she got no answer, she took a cab home, arriving around 10:30 or 10:40 p.m. Adams said she found Martin in a kneeling position in the bedroom. The room, she said, was “destroyed.”

The Horry County Police Department was called. Fingerprints were collected as were numerous hairs. The crime was unsolved in July 2000 when the police received a telephone call from Tera Lindsay, who said she believed her husband, Andrew, may have been involved in the crime.

Detectives located Andrew Lindsay in Arizona, and he denied involvement in the crime. However, the police brought him back to the Horry County Police Department. There, the officers said that Lindsay said that he and a friend, 36-year-old Gary Bennett, had gone to Martin’s trailer on the night of the crime because Bennett wanted to persuade Martin to give up the combination to the safe at the Taco Bell so that he could rob it.

Lindsay spent a period of three to four days giving multiple recorded and unrecorded statements to detectives. Ultimately, police said that Lindsay said he was in the kitchen when Bennett and Martin went into the bedroom after Martin refused to turn over the combination. Lindsay said that moments later he went into the bedroom and Martin was dead.

On August 4, 2000, Lindsay and Bennett were charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery. Ultimately, Lindsay reached an agreement to plead guilty to accessory after the fact to a homicide and testify against Bennett in exchange for a prison term of 15 years, to be served consecutive to a 10-year prison term he had received for unrelated burglaries.

On August 12, 2002, Bennett went to trial in Horry County General Sessions Court. He met his lawyer, Johnny Gardner, for the first time on the day the trial began. Gardner had not interviewed or located any of the alibi witnesses that Bennett contended would show that he could not have been in the trailer at the time Martin was killed.

Gardner would later admit that the focus of his defense was to discredit Lindsay’s testimony and to establish that Lindsay had a prior conviction for murdering a woman in Illinois in 1991. In that case, Lindsay was in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the Break Lakes Naval Training Center near North Chicago, Illinois. He admitted that he strangled a prostitute and dumped her body in a sewer (after taping shut her nose and mouth), but claimed that he killed her in self-defense when she attacked him for refusing to pay her for sex. Lindsay had been sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the sentence was later reduced to 15 years when an Illinois Appellate Court said the murder was not “exceptionally brutal and heinous behavior.”

However, Circuit Court Judge John Milling granted the prosecution’s motion to bar Gardner from eliciting details of the Illinois murder. The judge said he would allow Gardner to show only that Lindsay had a prior felony conviction.

A jury was selected on August 12. Stephen Kodman, the prosecutor from the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, told jurors in his opening statement that no physical or forensic evidence connected Bennett to the crime.

“What are you not going to hear?” Kodman said. “We don’t have any physical evidence in this case. You’re not going to have any….Was physical evidence gathered? Yes, it was, but not in every case does physical evidence lead to suspects. What we do have in this case is an eyewitness, the co-defendant, Andrew Lindsay.”

Amber Vrooman testified for the prosecution. Vrooman was Bennett’s wife and worked as a cashier at the same Taco Bell that Martin managed. Vrooman said that she and Bennett socialized with Lindsay and his wife, Tera, going to karaoke bars and that on occasion Martin accompanied them. According to Vrooman, Bennett occasionally talked about robbing the Taco Bell. She said that Bennett would “joke around with her; talk about robbing it, splitting the money.”

Vrooman testified that a few weeks before the murder, Martin came to their home to get ready to go out with them. She said that while Martin was in the shower, Bennett secretly took the key to the Taco Bell off Martin’s key ring. She said that Bennett, Lindsay, and Tera left to go to a karaoke bar and she and Martin followed later. Even so, Vrooman said, she and Martin arrived at the bar 30 to 45 minutes before Bennett, Lindsay, and Tera arrived. Vrooman said that she, Martin, and Tara went to the dance floor while Bennett and Lindsay played video poker machines. At some point, she said, Lindsay came over and asked for their purses, saying they wouldn’t get stolen while the women were on the dance floor.

Vrooman said Martin left early and the two couples stayed until closing. They then drove to the Taco Bell, which was closed, and parked in a parking spot away from the restaurant. She said that while she and Tera remained in the car, Lindsay and Bennett left. She said they wanted to get into the Taco Bell and “see what the safe looked like and what they needed to get into the safe.” She said they returned after about 20 minutes and everyone went home. In the following days, Vrooman said Bennett began pestering her for the combination to the safe. She said she told him she didn’t have it and wouldn’t try to get it. “I told him I didn’t want him to rob Taco Bell,” she said.

Vrooman testified that on the day of the murder, she and Bennett borrowed Martin’s car. She said Martin picked them and their daughter up and they drove to the Taco Bell. There, they dropped off Martin and then Bennett and Vrooman took their daughter to a dental appointment. Afterward, Bennett dropped Vrooman off at the Taco Bell and he took his daughter home.

Vrooman said that staff was short-handed that day, so she stayed late. She said that Bennett and their daughter came to pick up Martin around 6:30 or 7 p.m. so that Martin could drive Bennett and his daughter home and then drive her car home. The plan, Vrooman said, was that Martin was going to pick up Vrooman later that night and drive her home. However, Vrooman said that when she called Martin’s phone, Martin’s roommate answered and then hung up saying she had to call 911. Vrooman said she had someone at the restaurant drive her to Martin’s trailer and learned of the murder.

Vrooman said that after the murder, Lindsay didn’t come around anymore. She said Bennett was moody and short-tempered. She said he said that police were “grasping at straws, they’d never find anybody, whoever did it was still walking around, would never be caught; just never wanted to believe that anybody would be caught.”

Lindsay was the linchpin of the prosecution’s case. He recalled a night when Bennett got a key from Martin’s key ring. He said that he, Bennett, and Tera got a copy of the key made before they went to a karaoke bar. On the way home, they drove to the Taco Bell in Surfside. He said he and Bennett used the key to get inside, where they discovered that the safe was locked and that there was no way to get any money without a combination.

Lindsay said that on the day of the murder, Bennett called him and said he needed a ride to Martin’s because his daughter, Mallory, had left a stuffed animal in Martin’s car. Lindsay said he picked up Bennett and they put a child safety seat in Lindsay’s car because they were taking Mallory with them. Lindsay said that he parked down the street from Martin’s trailer and Bennett went to see Martin. He said he stayed behind because he had to put in more brake fluid in his car. Mallory was asleep in the child seat.

Lindsay said that Bennett and Martin walked by and told him to come to the trailer. He said that when he got there, Martin and Bennett were in the living room, “discussing getting the combination.” Lindsay said he asked to use the telephone to call Tera and went into the kitchen. He said he made one call, but did not get through. He said Martin and Bennett were talking about the combination to the safe as well as Martin’s opinion that Vrooman should leave Bennett.

Martin “was trying to get Amber (Vrooman) to leave Gary…and Gary was telling Marie just to stay out of him and Amber’s business,” Lindsay said. “After a few minutes, she told Gary for him and me to leave...Gary came into the kitchen and he was just upset. I was still trying to make a phone call. He said, ‘I’ll take care of this’ and he left out of the kitchen.” Lindsay said the call he made was to a wrong number.

Lindsay said that he saw Bennett get something out of a kitchen drawer and walk out of the kitchen.

“What do you remember happening next?” the prosecutor asked.

“Everything got quiet in the trailer,” Lindsay said. “After I hung up the phone—I couldn’t get through—I went back and that first bedroom…I looked in there and Gary was on top of Marie on the bed.”

Lindsay said he asked what was going on and Bennett said, “Don’t worry about it” and began ransacking the room. Lindsay said Martin was on the bed and “there was a lot of blood.” He testified that he rolled Martin off the bed and told Bennett, “You know, it didn’t have to come to this, you know.” He said that Bennett was enraged and told him to get out of the trailer. Lindsay said he went back to his car where Mallory was still sleeping in her child seat.

He said Bennett came out a few minutes later carrying a plastic bag. He said they drove to a convenience store where Bennett cleaned himself up in the bathroom and put on a clean shirt that Lindsay had in his back seat. Lindsay said while he was waiting, Mallory woke up, so he went inside to get her something to drink. Lindsay said he drove Bennett home, stopping along the way so Bennett could dispose of the plastic bag containing Martin’s purse, a knife, and his shirt into a dumpster.

Lindsay said that Bennett left behind in the car a piece of paper with the combination to the safe as well as some money from Martin’s purse. He said that he later told Bennett that he never saw the paper with the combination in the car. Lindsay said he actually had the paper and kept it in his wallet.

During cross-examination, Lindsay admitted that his first statement was a denial of being at Martin’s trailer on the night of the crime. He admitted giving two more statements that were electronically recorded and ultimately, he said, “(I)t came down to a breaking point to where I needed to tell the truth and get the whole truth out, and I did.”

The prosecution presented evidence that phone records showed that one call was made from the phone in the trailer at 8:39 p.m. The number did not belong to anyone connected to Lindsay.

Mary Young, who was the general manager of the Taco Bell, testified that prior to the murder, Martin had once summoned Young to the restaurant to lock up because Martin could not find her key. Martin was told that she would have to pay to have the locks and the combination to the safe changed.

Young said that on the day of the murder, she was scheduled to work the night shift. She testified that she was there when Bennett came to return Martin’s car. She testified that Martin and Bennett left around 6 p.m. Young admitted that in her initial statement to police, she said that Martin and Bennett left about 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. She also said that Martin took another employee, William Gillispie, to the Taco Bell restaurant in Myrtle Beach. Gillispie, Young said, had come to work at the Surfside restaurant because they were short-handed.

Horry County Detective George Merritt testified that he and another detective picked up Lindsay in Arizona. Merritt said Lindsay gave a written statement denying involvement in the crime. However, Merritt said that Lindsay had a piece of paper in his wallet with the combination to the Taco Bell safe. After they brought Lindsay back to Horry County, Merritt said, Lindsay gave two more statements, both of which were electronically recorded. Merritt said the third statement implicated Bennett.

The defense called no witnesses. On August 14, the jury convicted Bennett of first-degree murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Bennett appealed the convictions and argued that the trial judge erred by refusing to allow his defense attorney to bring out that Lindsay was previously convicted of a murder. In August 2004, the South Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the judge was wrong to bar that testimony, but upheld Bennett’s convictions. The court held that the judge’s fear that the jury would believe Bennett was guilty because Lindsay had a prior murder conviction was not only an erroneous rationale, but “also an unwarranted intrusion into strategy determinations vested solely in the accused and his counsel.”

However, at the same time, the court held that the judicial error was harmless and upheld Bennett’s convictions. In June 2007, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the convictions.

Over the years, Bennett wrote hundreds of letters to innocence projects, the media, and others protesting his innocence and seeking help.

In June 2008, Bennett, acting without a lawyer, filed a petition for post-conviction relief claiming that his trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to call alibi witnesses. Bennett said that the witnesses would have established a timeline showing that he could not have been at Martin’s trailer when she was murdered.

The petition languished unanswered until November 2012, when the Horry County Solicitor’s office moved to dismiss the petition. The prosecution’s motion was denied and in June 2014, a hearing on the petition was held before Judge Benjamin Culbertson. At this hearing, Bennett was represented by defense attorney Charles Brooks.

Bennett testified and said that Gardner, his trial defense attorney, did not investigate the alibi witnesses. He said that on the night of the crime, he went to the Taco Bell to pick up Vrooman. But because Vrooman worked late and he was driving Martin’s car (borrowed that day to take his daughter, Mallory, to the dentist), Martin agreed to drive him and Mallory home. Bennett said that another Taco Bell employee, William Gillispie, was also in the car because Martin was giving Gillispie a ride as well.

Bennett said that he arrived at the Taco Bell around 7:10 p.m. and that Martin drove him and Mallory to their home. Bennett said that Gillispie could have testified that Martin then dropped Gillispie off in Myrtle Beach. Gillispie had told police when he was interviewed after the murder that Martin dropped him off at the Myrtle Beach Taco Bell at 8:20 p.m.

Bennett pointed out that the prosecution contended that Lindsay was in the kitchen making a phone call at 8:39 p.m., just seconds before Lindsay said he walked into the bedroom to find Martin dead with her throat slashed.

Moreover, Bennett testified that a neighbor, Diane Walker, had told police at the time that she saw Martin drop Bennett at his home that night. Walker told police that she chatted with Bennett, who had Mallory with him, on her porch until 8:15 p.m.

Bennett also claimed that the numbers on the piece of paper found in Lindsay’s wallet were not the combination to the Taco Bell safe, but to a locker that Lindsay had at his job at golf course in Myrtle Beach.

In August 2014, Judge Culbertson granted Bennett’s petition and vacated his convictions. Judge Culbertson noted that Bennett’s attorney did not object to the prosecution introducing evidence about the phone call made from Martin’s trailer even though that evidence had not been turned over to the defense prior to the trial.

Judge Culbertson also noted that Gardner’s “entire trial strategy had been to shift the blame for these crimes to the State’s key witness [Lindsay].” As a result, Gardner “never conducted any investigation into the case, never contacted any of Bennett’s alibi witnesses and never prepared a defense,” the judge ruled.

In 2017, the Lovely Law Firm in Myrtle Beach took over Bennett’s case pro bono. Attorneys Amy Lawrence, Justin Lovely, Sarah Austin, Aimee Zmroczek, and Kristie McAuley began re-investigating the case. One of their first interviews was with Tera Strawhorn Lindsay, who was Lindsay’s wife at the time and who was then living in North Carolina under the name Tera McDermott.

McDermott was shocked to learn that Bennett had been convicted of the crime. She said that after Lindsay was arrested and returned to Horry County, detectives asked her to come to the police station because Lindsay wanted to “come clean.”

McDermott said that she went into an interview room after police told her that they were watching through a two-way mirror, and that video and audio recording equipment were turned on. She said that Lindsay admitted that he had raped and murdered Martin. She also said that Lindsay claimed Bennett helped hold Martin down. McDermott said that Lindsay asked her to have sex with him because it would be their last time together since he was going to prison for the rest of his life. McDermott said she agreed, and they had sex while Lindsay was restrained to a chair.

The defense team, noting that Detective Merritt testified at the trial that there were two tape recordings of Lindsay, requested the tapes from the prosecution. They were given digital copies which were of poor quality and nearly inaudible. The defense then requested to view the original tapes at the Solicitor’s Office.

There, the defense watched two VHS tapes that included 47 minutes of interrogation that were not on the digital copies they were given initially. Noting that the inventory record showed that the original tapes were eight millimeter, not VHS, the defense again asked to see the original tapes. The prosecution, however, could not find the eight-millimeter tapes. After searching for weeks, the prosecution provided another digital file of what was purported to be copies of the two eight millimeter tapes. This version, however, was exactly the same as the previous version, except one of these tapes showed Tera and Lindsay kissing each other goodbye.

In March 2018, the prosecution’s investigator, Ginger Pop, and prosecutor Nancy Livesay reported in court that they had interviewed Horry County Detective Paul Partin, who set up the recording equipment in 2000 for the detectives interviewing Lindsay. Pop’s report said that Partin had only set up the equipment and he had no knowledge of what he recorded.

Livesay said, “We have sought out each individual that is still with us that had anything to do with that interview. Each person said they never saw a tape, never saw any sort of tape that involved just conversations between Andrew Lindsay and his wife ... We have two tapes, they both have Paul Partin's markings on them and signature. We have converted them into CDs and handed those over. That is all we have and we've handed that over.”

After first contending the original tapes did not exist, the prosecution subsequently said they had found them. The defense and prosecution lawyers assembled at Coastal Carolina University, which had equipment to play the long-discontinued eight-millimeter tapes. Also present at the session was Detective Partin. When the tapes were viewed, Partin said the footage was not what he recorded back in 2000, and he said he had previously told Pop and Livesay precisely that.

Partin explained that he set up the recording equipment for Detective Merritt on the day Lindsay was first questioned at the police department. Partin was a narcotics detective and was familiar with recording equipment. He viewed the tapes with the lawyers and said that the tapes did not capture everything that occurred that day.

He vividly recalled setting up and activating a video camera as well as separate cassette recording devices. He said that about an hour after he first set up the devices, he was called back and told to put in new tapes. He said the detectives were laughing because Lindsay and Tera had sex in the interrogation room.

Partin particularly recalled that he was threatened with discipline at the time for being involved in the taping. But he said he was not disciplined because he was able to show that he was not present during the taping and that after the second tape was completed, he created an evidence log, labeled both tape cases and gave them to Detective Merritt.

The defense team learned that Tera was the daughter of Myrtle Beach police officer Chuck Strawhorn and that her godfather, Guy Osborne, was the police captain in the Horry County Police department who supervised Merritt and the other investigators in the case.

The prosecution then disclosed that about a week after the original tapes were made that Detective Merritt had been reprimanded for recording the sex act between Lindsay and Tera. That reprimand was signed by Captain Osborne and was not disclosed to Bennett before his first trial or during his post-conviction relief proceedings.

In September 2019, the defense lawyers filed a motion to dismiss Bennett’s indictment. The motion said that the original tape showing Lindsay confessing to Tera and the couple having sex in the interrogation room had been destroyed prior to Bennett’s first trial and replaced with chopped up sections of interviews between Lindsay and detectives.

The motion, however, was denied.

Bennett went to trial for the second time in October 2020. By that time, DNA testing had been performed on evidence in the case. Neither Bennett’s nor Lindsay’s DNA was found. Lindsay, who had been released on parole in 2013, testified and again implicated Bennett in the murder.

The prosecution for the first time called Adam Wiseman, who testified that he shared a cell with Bennett prior to Bennett’s first trial. Wiseman told the jury that Bennett admitted that he and Lindsay killed Martin as part of their plan to rob the Taco Bell.

However, the defense noted that Wiseman’s letter to the prosecution claiming that Bennett had confessed was postmarked August 22, 2000, while jail records showed Bennett and Wiseman were not in the same cell until August 30—eight days later.

The defense presented testimony about police reports documenting the statements made by the alibi witnesses—Diane Walker, Bennett’s neighbor who said she talked to Bennett until 8:15 p.m. that night after Martin dropped him off, and Gillispie, the Taco Bell worker who said that Martin dropped him off in Myrtle Beach at 8:20 p.m. The defense contended that it was not possible for Bennett to get from his home to Martin’s trailer 15 minutes later when Lindsay said the crime occurred—especially considering the fact that Bennett did not have a car.

In addition, the defense also presented evidence that Martin was seen at a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Myrtle Beach at 8:30 p.m.

Moreover, Mary Young, the Taco Bell general manager who testified at Bennett’s first trial that Martin and Bennett left at about 6 p.m., testified that her original statement to police—that they left after 7 p.m.—was correct. She said she backed up the departure time to 6 p.m. at Bennett’s first trial because police officers told her the 7:00 p.m. departure time “wouldn’t work” and did not fit their timeline.

On October 29, 2020, after eight hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Bennett and he was released, more than 20 years after he was arrested on August 4, 2000.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 11/23/2020
Last Updated: 5/2/2022
State:South Carolina
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*