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Trappler trial opens
Opening statements presented; victim's parents testify
WATKINS GLEN, April 20 -- One year to the day after Daniel Bennett was shotgunned to death in his Town of Dix home, the murder trial of his former girlfriend, Alice Trappler, began Friday in Schuyler County Court.
Trappler faces charges of 2nd Degree Murder, 1st and 2nd Degree Burglary and 2nd Degree Conspiracy in connection with the shooting death of Bennett at about 11 p.m. on April 19, 2012 at his father's home on Pearl Street, where the 30-year-old Bennett resided.
The defendant is alleged to have conspired with her ex-husband, Thomas Wesley "Wes" Borden, and Borden's stepbrother, Nathan Hand, to have Bennett killed over a custody battle for a 5-month-old child born to Trappler and fathered by Bennett. She is not alleged to have been present at the killing.
The trial's first day started with starkly divergent opening statements by District Attorney Joe Fazzary and defense counsel Susan BetzJitomir, which were followed by sometimes emotional testimony by Bennett's father and mother, Frank Bennett and Jill May Dann.
When it was all over, Fazzary seemed satisfied. "It's just the beginning of the process," he said. "I put in evidence that I wanted to get in. The witnesses (Bennett and Dann) did the best they could. It was a traumatic day for them to testify about their dead child.
"It will be a long trial," he added, with another 40 to 50 witnesses scheduled, many of them police investigators. But after the first day, "I'm happy with how it went."
BetzJitomir, meanwhile, called the opening statements and the day's testimony "the first steps" of a lengthy process that will ultimately prove, she said, that "Alice is innocent." The attorney mentioned in her opening that Trappler would be testifying, and said afterward -- when asked about it -- that the testimony would come at trial's end.
"She'll be the very last witness," BetzJitomir said.
Fazzary's Opening Statement
Fazzary told the jury of 10 men, 2 women and 4 alternates that one year ago, "Dan Bennett was executed ... He was somebody's son, somebody's brother," with a 5-month-old daughter he had never seen: Lillian, "forever without her father." The child was the offspring of both Bennett and Trappler, who had lived together for a period in 2011.
Defense counsel, he said, "will say the defendant didn't do it. We will prove she did ... for the sole purpose that Daniel Bennett wanted to participate" in the child's life.
"It's not a contested point that Daniel Bennett was murdered," he added. "It's probably not contested that Wes Borden pulled the trigger. I have to prove to you that Alice Trappler was a participant and a co-conspirator."
Fazzary led jurors through the day leading to the shooting, to an evening in which Bennett arrived home -- at his father's log-cabin house on Pearl Street in the Town of Dix -- and relaxed on a couch, watching television at the end of what had been "a normal day." It was after Bennett was sleeping there in the living room, said the D.A., when Borden -- the ex-husband of Trappler -- entered the house, shotgun in hand. Borden's stepbrother Nathan Hand was with him, said Fazzary, to turn on the interior light and serve as lookout.
"Wes approached Dan Bennett, who was on the couch and raised his head," the D.A. said. "Wes shot him right in the head, blowing the front of his head off, blowing half of his brains across the room." Borden, Fazzary added, left a shell casing on the floor, and then with Hand "raced down the road" to their truck. Then they headed toward Big Flats on Catlin Hill Road.
The D.A. described texts between the defendant's cell phone and Borden's before and after the shooting that the prosecution will use to try and tie Trappler to the killing. And he described how Bennett's father, Frank -- who had been sleeping in his customary place in the basement of his home -- had heard an intruder enter the home, had heard the shooting and had seen (through a floor grating above his head) the living room light go on and dust flying following the shooting.
Fazzary outlined the trail of evidence that led to Borden and Hand, and how Borden fled to Philadelphia, where he died by stepping in front of a moving train while being pursued by police. The D.A. tied in shell casings to his account, and how the gun used was identified, through the investigation, as belonging to Trappler.
He described the contentiousness of the relationship between Bennett and Trappler, who vowed that Bennett -- whom she called "a monster" -- would never see his child. And Fazzary described how the murder took place the night before a scheduled custody hearing regarding Lillian -- Lily, the 5-month-old child -- in Steuben County Family Court. Trappler is from Addison, and had been staying with her mother near Woodhull.
Fazzary said that as the custody hearing neared -- pushed by Bennett, who wanted visitation rights -- Trappler "panicked" as witnesses she had expected to attend on her behalf started backing out. Among them was Bennett's mother. Accordingly, the D.A. said, Trappler contacted Borden and Hand to kill Bennett.
Fazzary told jurors he planned to piece together many threads of evidence through the testmony of dozens of witnesses, many of them police officers who participated in the investigation.
"I believe the evidence will show beyond a reasonable doubt," he said, "that Alice Trappler is absolutely guilty of what she has been charged."
BetzJitomir's opening statement
BetzJitomir's account, however, was diametrically opposed to just about everything Fazzary had said. Trappler, she said, is completely innocent -- was not involved in, nor aware of plans for, the murder of Daniel Bennett.
"I'm gonna speak ill of the dead," she said. "Alice had terrible taste in men."
She said that Bennett had physically abused Trappler and had threatened to rape the child and blame it on Trappler's father in order to win custody. That contention brought Fazzary out of his seat and led to a sidebar with County Judge Dennis Morris. BetzJitomir then steered around the subject by saying that Trappler "was abused as a child. There was no way she was going to let that happen to her daughter."
She said that on the day of the murder, Borden texted Trappler and said "I know you don't want to hear this," but that he was still in love with her. "I owe you," he added, which BetzJitomir said was a reference to Trappler's role in raising Borden's two daughters from a previous marriage. Trappler continued to take care of the children, the attorney said, after Borden departed the area to go to another state.
"She wanted a child of her own to raise from scratch," said BetzJitomir, adding that considering Trappler's break from Bennett, Alice "wasn't thrilled" that he was the father.
The defendant had two plans, she said, to counter Bennett's custody fight. One was to have Borden claim paternity. The other was to flee the state to Florida in order to keep the child from Bennett. Ironically, the attorney added, when bail for Trappler was set, it was because of that plan that she was considered a flight risk.
"The woman has been held for a year for a crime she didn't commit," said BetzJiromir.
She referred to the murder weapon -- one of two guns that had been given to her by another man for protection. "She considered them a loan," the attorney said. "One was probably the murder weapon ... Her property had been vandalized by someone after she and Dan broke up. Dan was a dangerous man."
Ultimately, after Trappler had moved into her mother's home from a goat farm she had inhabited, "Wes expressed concern about his daughters being around guns. So (Alice) put (the murder weapon) back at the goat farm. She didn't even know it was missing" after that.
BetzJitomir said she is "not convinced which man pulled the trigger." She said Hand, in his first statement to police, didn't know if Alice was involved, but told investigators he "wanted the bitch to go down." He implicated Trappler, said BetzJitomir, when it became clear he would be prosecuted and it would be to his benefit. Hand, who pleaded guilty to 1st Degree Manslaughter (reduced from 2nd Degree Murder) and faces a 19-year sentence, will be testifying against Trappler.
BetzJitomir closed by telling jurors: "Only you can stop a terrible miscarriage of justice from continuing."
The victim's father, Frank Bennett, was on the stand before and after a lunch break, telling about the night of the murder and how he had heard the front door -- never locked, he said -- squeak upon opening shortly before 11 p.m. He heard the shotgun blast ("an awful noise"), and ran up the stairs and out the front door, thinking that perhaps Daniel was shooting at raccoons. He saw no one outside, and turned back into the house -- and saw his son on the couch, dead.
He called the Schuyler County Sheriff's Office, a recording of which was played by Fazzary. On it, Frank Bennett was heard saying "My kid's got half his head blown off." About that time, he testified, he heard a vehicle down the road take off toward Catlin Hill Road. Then a deputy arrived -- "It seemed like forever, but I guess it was pretty quick" -- and the investigation began, with personnel from both the Sheriff's Office and State Police arriving.
He also discussed his son's relationship with Trappler -- how Daniel and Alice had lived together until one day Daniel moved back to his father's house. "He said she broke a coffee pot over his head and he wasn't going near her" again. She soon found out she was pregnant. Frank said she invited him to see the child shortly after Christmas of 2011 at her mother's house near Woodhull.
When asked by Fazzary if Daniel had ever seen the child, Frank Bennett said "Not that I know of," and that he had told Trappler that "all parents should be able to see their kids." Her response, he said, was this: "Dan will never lay eyes on the baby."
BetzJitomir kept hammering at Daniel Bennett's character, asking his father if Daniel had ever had a problem with police. "Yes, they came up and got Dan once," he answered, adding that he personally "had a problem with Dan once. He got loud with me; threw things. But he never hit me." He also said he wanted his son out of the house. "I tried to get him every day to go out of there. He was old enough to go out on his own."
Jill May Dann
Frank Bennett's ex-wife and Daniel's mother, Jill May Dann, testified that she had not spoken to her son for the final eight years of his life. "He got mad at me," she explained. "He started a fight one night and I didn't stick up for him."
She said she met Alice Trappler early in 2012 when "she came to my house in Monterey" and told Dann about the custody hearing. "She wanted me to testify against my son... It was just out of the blue." And Trappler "showed me a picture of the child ... Lillian Jane, but she called her Lily ... She asked me if I'd like to see the baby ... and said she didn't want Daniel to have anything to do with the baby, and would do anything she had to. I thought he should have visitation," but Trappler disagreed.
"I didn't feel Daniel was capable of taking care of a baby," said Dann. "I agreed to testify." And the two women "made arrangements (for me) to see the baby the following week at Alice's mother's house. Alice was living there." And the two exchanged phone numbers.
"My daughter (Kayla) and I went and saw Lily the following week," Dann testified. "We had coffee, and I held the baby and we talked. We were there an hour or hour-and-a-half." Trappler, she said, started talking about the custody case and how "she was afraid of Daniel, but had guns and knew how to use them. We talked about visiting again, but I never went back. Alice stopped in to my place of work (where Dann cut hair) with Lily for five minutes, enough for me to hold Lily for a few minutes."
The two texted on a daily basis for awhile, with Trappler sending along pictures of the child. Dann said that Trappler in one text referred to Daniel Bennett as "a monster. That's how she referred to him ... and I did as well."
Dann went on to say she was confused over the date of the hearing, and that when she was notified by Trappler that it was coming sooner than Dann expected, she didn't respond. Ultimately, she received a subpoena delivered by Nathan Hand.
"I was a little upset, and texted (Trappler). I said I wasn't happy about being subpoenaed. She asked me if I was scared. I told her I hoped nothing would happen to any family."
Fazzary asked what she was frightened of. "Of Daniel being mad at me and retaliating," Dann said.
Then, early on the morning of April 20, she said, "Frank called me, and told me Daniel had been killed." Her voice cracked and she briefly sobbed.
On cross examination, BetzJitomir asked about the "retaliation. Had he done something like that before?"
"He'd made threats," said Dann, "and you'd think twice."
She also testified that she had observed her son's Facebook page a few times before his death, and saw that he "was putting on some awful things. I sent Alice a link. I wanted her to be aware" since the custody hearing was approaching.
"It's fair to say Daniel had a temper?" BetzJitomir asked.
"Yes," said his mother.
Also testifying were two deputies and a state trooper, explaining the sequence of events leading to the start of the investigation. A Bennett neighbor, Sue Brill, also testified about hearing "a shot coming from the direction of the Bennetts'. I got out of bed and went to the window ... and heard footsteps running down the road, past the driveway. A car door opened, and a vehicle started and sped away."
She testified that it sounded like one set of footsteps, although she conceded when asked by Fazzary that it could have been two if one was louder than the other. But BetzJitomir seized on the testimony, saying later that it was "a key piece. She heard one set of footsteps. The People says it was two. I'm not even conceding who the triggerman was."
Brill said that after hearing the shot and the footsteps, she "dithered for a minute and then called Frank, rather than worry." She got the Bennett answering machine, and left a message saying she thought she'd heard a shot.
Testimony resumes Monday at 9:30 a.m. The trial will continue through Thursday, then take Friday off due to Drug Court using the courtroom. Then the trial will run five days the following week.
Photos in text:
From top: District Attorney Joe Fazzary, defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir, and defendant Alice Trappler following Friday's court session.
The Story from Day 2 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 3 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 4 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 5 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 6 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 7 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 8 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 9 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 10 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 11 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 12 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 13 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 14 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 15 may be found by clicking here.
(All court stories by Charlie Haeffner)
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