Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Three days after Brenda and Losey “Lee” Bennett’s son shipped off to Afghanistan in September 2007, tragedy struck here at home.
Lee, a retired West Virginia State Parks employee who had spent his career at Pipestem State Park, was doing electrical work at Pinnacle Rock State Park near Bramwell on Sept. 19, 2007. Although retired, Lee worked part-time for the state when the need arose.
On this September day, the need was electrical work at Pinnacle Rock, a tranquil haven for residents, visitors and camera buffs across the region.
When Lee did not return home on the evening of Sept. 19, his wife, Brenda, wasn’t worried. Lee was a hard worker who became immersed in the job at hand. He was the type to stay at work until the job was finished.
Brenda awoke the next morning to no sign of Lee. But still, she wasn’t worried — assuming her husband was still hard at work on the Pinnacle Rock job.
After Brenda left for work, Pinnacle Rock Superintendent Frank Ratcliffe stopped by the couple’s house. Ratcliffe and Lee rode together to work. When Lee wasn’t home, Ratcliffe knew something was wrong.
Ratcliffe had spoken to Lee around 4:15 p.m. the day before. At that time, Lee told Ratcliffe a piece of heavy equipment, an excavator, was being unloaded and he would be leaving shortly.
But he never left the park.
In a worried state, Ratcliffe and Lee’s son traveled to Pinnacle Rock. They found Lee near the picnic table area, where his body had been moved after a vicious assault.
When Brenda Bennett bid good-bye to her husband on Sept. 19 she never dreamed it would be the last time. She left for work before her husband. “We did a little kiss good-bye. I said, ‘See you later.’’’
On Sept. 20, Brenda received a call at work from her son. He told her she needed to come home.
“I said, ‘I’m not leaving work until you give me a reason,’’’ Brenda recalled. “He said, ‘Dad’s sick and needs to be taken to a hospital.’ And I didn’t know the extent until I came home.”
Lee was taken to Bluefield Regional Medical Center and then transferred to a Roanoke, Va., hospital. He had been assaulted in the head, and his injuries were severe.
“On Sept. 25 we had to decide whether to leave him on life support or take him off,” Brenda said. “The boys and I knew it was not the life he would want, so we had him taken off.”
Initially, State Police troopers worked to discover whether Lee had an accident on the job or if he was the victim of a crime. Doctors at Roanoke and a medical examiner’s findings determined Lee’s injuries were no accident.
State Police investigators soon found a suspect, Benny Ray Roberts Sr., 53, of Brushfork. Roberts had been employed at the park through a Welfare-to-Work program and was acquainted with Lee.
Police believed Roberts and co-conspirators were at the park on Sept. 19 to steal equipment from a maintenance shed. Roberts was indicted on murder charges in January 2008 and found guilty of the crime in October of that year.
While police are certain Roberts was guilty of the crime, they do not think he acted alone on that autumn afternoon.
“Through the information we gained at that time and since then, we feel another party or parties were involved,” First Sgt. J.R. Pauley, with the Princeton Detachment of the West Virginia State Police, said. “We are certain Roberts is guilty, but there is another guilty party or parties involved.”
Brenda is calm and composed when she speaks of her husband, describing him as a “kind, caring, compassionate man who would do anything for anyone.”
At the time of his death, Lee would have had no way of knowing that in less than a year he would be a grandfather to a baby girl, Hannah, born in August of 2008.
Next month, in July 2011, Lee’s second grandchild is expected.
Brenda says Lee was an excellent role model for their two sons. “He was a very hard worker. He could not be idle. That was not his thing.
“He instilled strong moral values in our kids,” she said. “They’re a lot like their dad in different ways — kind, caring and compassionate young men.”
She added, “Lee was a Christian man who believed in his faith. He helped me to become a much better and stronger person.”
Asked about the affect Lee’s death had on the family, Brenda pauses, and struggles to hold back tears. “It had a very big impact on us because we had just seen our younger son, Jacob, off to Afghanistan three days before this happened.
“He had not made the complete destination. He was in Kuwait waiting to move on ... when he got the terrible call. Then we had to make the decision that no family wants to make.
“He saw his father laid to rest the day after his 21st birthday,” she recalled.
The boys are still angry, Brenda said. “They’re getting better with it, but they’re still very angry.”
While son Jacob was in the Marines, Lee’s other son, Chris, had been accepted to the West Virginia State Police Academy. His father’s death altered his plans.
“He had been accepted, but he didn’t go,” Brenda said. Chris wanted to be near to support his mom.
As time passed, Chris still didn’t make the move to the academy. “He didn’t have the heart,” Brenda said. “I think it’s because he didn’t have Dad there to give him support. But Dad was so proud of him.”
Nearly four years after the crime, Brenda still struggles with the circumstances of her husband’s death.
In addition to his job at Pipestem, Lee also served as chief of the Pipestem Volunteer Fire Department for 25 years.
Had Lee’s death been an accident, it would have been easier to bear, Brenda said. “But it was something so senseless, so uncalled for, it made it worse.”
“He was just an all-American, wonderful human being ... and the love of my life,” she said.
“Thanks to God, my family and friends, my church friends and Pastor Rick (Chester) I’ve been able to get to where I’m at in my life today,” Brenda said. “It’s been a tough road, but God will get us through anything if we only have faith.”
Brenda also expressed her appreciation to the many state troopers who worked on her husband’s case in the past, and to those who continue the investigation today.
First Sgt. Pauley believes someone in the area may have knowledge of the crime that occurred in September of 2007.
“Someone out there knows something,” he said. “We would like for them to share that information with us.”
Pauley hopes someone who may have been visiting the park, or even driving by on Route 52, may have witnessed something that could help lead police to additional suspects.
“We want any information, whether the individual thinks it’s important or not,” Pauley said. “Please get it to us and let us see if it’s viable.”
Anyone with information on the crime should contact the West Virginia State Police at 304-425-2101. Tips may be made anonymously.
— Contact Samantha Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org