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Day 7: Hand takes the stand
Relates events surrounding the Bennett murder
WATKINS GLEN, May 1 -- A tale of horror was mixed with tears Tuesday in Schuyler County Court as confessed murder accomplice Nathan Hand told of the events leading to the murder of Daniel Bennett on April 19, 2012, and its aftermath.
Hand, who has pleaded guilty to 1st Degree Manslaughter under a plea agreement that reduced his charge from 2nd Degree Murder in return for his testimony, pointed toward defendant Alice Trappler as a distant participant -- one he said provided information to him and the alleged shooter, Thomas Wesley Borden, by text and phone on the night of the murder regarding the location of the Bennett residence and how to access it.
However, Hand had no direct communication with Trappler regarding that information. Nor was there evidence presented of any direct communication he might have had with her regarding any planning that might or might not have occurred leading to the murder.
He also admitted, both under direct examination and cross, that in the weeks leading to the murder he had been using synthetic marijuana and experimenting with such drugs as meth, cocaine, bath salts and marijuana, though he insisted he had a "clear head" on the night of the slaying. He said that after that night, he gave up experimenting with the drugs because "I didn't feel I needed them."
It was a compelling Day 7 of the trial of Trappler, charged with 2nd Degree Murder, 1st and 2nd Degree Burglary and 2nd Degree Conspiracy in connection with the death of Bennett -- a former boyfriend with whom she had a child, Lily, in early November 2011.
The defendant, a resident of Steuben County, is alleged to have conspired with her ex-husband, Borden, and Borden's stepbrother, Hand, both of Corning, to have Bennett killed over a custody battle involving the child. Trappler is not alleged to have been present at the killing.
It was a day in which Daniel Bennett's sister, Alecia, asked to speak to Hand as his testimony ended and the court broke for lunch. She was granted her request, and the two -- both in tears -- hugged, with Bennett thanking Hand for his testimony.
It was an unusual scene, but one that District Attorney Joe Fazzary said didn't really surprise him. The trial, he said, is bringing together two families "in a tragic situation. Look at the witnesses. A little girl (Chastity Borden) whose father (Thomas Borden) is dead. Nathan Hand, who will be going to prison for 19 years. Lily, whose father is dead. Sometimes tragedy brings people together. Both families have been harmed in such a way ... that they truly do feel one another's pain."
There were just four witnesses Tuesday. Fazzary said he will wrap up the prosecution's case with three morning witnesses today, finishing by noon.
The case will then go to the defense. Attorney Susan BetzJitomir said she expects to open her case Thursday morning, and conclude on Friday, with Trappler being the final witness. Then the case, she said, will likely go to the jury after closing arguments Monday.
Tuesday's witnesses, in order:
1. Brett Bacon, an on again, off again lover of Trappler's in 2011 and 2012. He was recalled to the stand by Fazzary to clear up a point made by BetzJitomir in her cross-examination of Bacon on Monday. She had elicited from him that he knew how to reload shotgun shells -- part of a defense move to suggest that he had the means, the opportunity and the motive to have committed the murder himself, although no evidence placed him anywhere near the Bennett residence that night.
"Do you still have the capability to reload shotgun shells?" Fazzary asked him Tuesday. "No, sir," he said, explaining that he doesn't have the proper equipment. In any event, he said, reloading a shell the size of the one used to murder Bennett would be foolhardy because its size is different from the ones most people reload and because it "has way more powder. I've never seen anyone reload a 3-inch" -- the size of the shell in question.
2. Nathan Hand, age 26, currently a resident of the Schuyler County Jail, where he's been held while awaiting Trappler's trial. He is there, said Fazzary, because he has not been sentenced -- a measure that has temporarily kept him from a state prison. That was done, said Fazzary, because "it's so much easier to go next door to the jail" to bring him into court to testify, as opposed to trying to arrange release from a prison elsewhere and transportation. "God knows where they'll put him," said the DA.
Hand, not married but with a son, 3 years old, is a son of Thomas and Melanie Borden. Thomas Wesley Borden, the alleged shooter who was himself killed when struck by a train while eluding police in Jenkintown, Pa., was Hand's stepbrother.
"Why are you incarcerated?" Fazzary asked Hand.
"I'm incarcerated for the murder of Daniel Bennett," he replied.
He went on to say he had spent two-and-a-half years in the Navy, but was given a dishonorable discharge for smoking marijuana. He said he also had a previous criminal conviction for possession of a controlled substance at the age of 16 -- Vicodin and Oxycodone.
When asked if he used drugs leading up to the day of the murder, April 19, 2012, he said "Yes. Meth, and there was cocaine that week. I smoked weed, did bath salts." His agreement for a reduced sentence was contingent on testifying "fully and truthfully," he said.
He said that Borden, who he had not seen in several years while Borden was living out of state, moved in with him after returning to New York early in 2012. Borden stayed first with another stepbrother, but moved in with Nathan because there was more room in the latter's place in Corning "and Wes could have his own room." He said that during this period, Borden had "frequently met" with Trappler, to whom Borden had once been married. And, Hand said, he believed they had had "several sexual contacts" since Borden's return.
After a sidebar in that point of the testimony, Judge Dennis Morris told the jury that the words of Hand constituted "a form of testimony, not being entered for its truth. He is saying Wes told him several things. We're not saying what Wes said was true."
Fazzary followed up on the same theme after Tuesday's session, noting that Hand's "testimony speaks for itself. The jury will have an opportunity to assess it and determine if it was credible. Obviously the defense has its theory of this case. The prosecution has its theory. It's a jury decision. We'll finish up (the prosecution case) tomorrow, and see after that."
Hand said he had never owned a gun, and that there were none in his house until two or three days before the murder, when Borden "came home with it, told me he'd just gotten the gun, received it at Alice Trappler's house."
On the day of the murder, April 19, Borden was at work in the morning, said Hand. When he arrived home, "sometime in the afternoon, he seemed very irritated," and explained that he had "been at the attorney's office all day (regarding a Family Court hearing scheduled for the next day concerning Lily), and was frustrated by the evidence he saw. And he had to give out several subpoenas" to people he and Trappler wanted at the hearing. The hearing has been suggested by the prosecution as being a major motive in the murder, for it involved paternity and visitation by Bennett (though not, says BetzJitomir, either custody or unsupervised visitation).
Hand said he went with Borden to serve subpoenas, including one he himself served "to a lady named Jill who worked at Cost Cutters in Painted Post." It was not explained whether that was Jill May Dann, the mother of Daniel Bennett.
Then Hand met with "Catharine Young, my girlfriend, and we had a cookout" at Hand's home in Corning. "Then Wes came home" and "was distraught about events that day and asked if I was ready to go."
That was in reference, Hand said, to an earlier conversation he'd had with Borden about "the custody battle" between Trappler and Bennett, when Borden had "asked if I was willing to go and beat up Dan Bennett."
"I'd forgotten" about it, he said, but Borden "tossed me some camo pants." Borden had a pair, too, and the two donned them "and headed to the vehicle" -- a blue pickup. "We drove up Route 414; (Wes) was discussing what went on during the day -- at the attorney's, how he'd gone through a thousand pages of Facebook, said Daniel Bennett was (saying he was) going to deflower his own child.
"I asked if he had a picture of Bennett or knew what he looked like," said Hand. Borden produced a photo of Bennett "in a lounge chair and holding a beer. I said he's a pretty big guy, and Wes said 'We can take him; don't worry about it.' I asked when it was going down, and Wes said he was waiting for a phone call from Alice."
"Alice who?" asked Fazzary.
"Alice Trappler," said Hand.
There was another sidebar at this point, and Morris soon told the jury: "We're going into the conference room for a moment." While the judge and attorneys and court stenographer were in the judge's chambers, Hand sat alone in the witness chair, staring ahead, his eyes occasionally darting left toward the jury, then scanning the spectator section, where about 50 people were on hand to witness his long-awaited testimony. The meeting in chambers ended after 15 minutes, with no explanation, and with testimony then resuming.
"How did you know" a call was coming from Trappler, Fazzary asked.
"My brother told me," said Hand. The call, he said, would be "to let us know when we could go to Bennett's house." (It was also, he said later, informational as to directions to the house, and how best to access it.) This was about 9 p.m., and "we left Corning, driving and basically talking about the day, and the plan to go beat this guy up so bad he couldn't appear in court the next day."
A phone call came, he said, "and Alice said Daniel Bennett had been fishing earlier in the day, and was probably not asleep yet. We had to wait. So we went to the Dandy Mini Mart (on Rte. 414) and bought a sandwich and beer and ate in the parking lot." They were there about "10 to 20 minutes."
After they were done eating, "I asked him 'What's the deal? Are we going there?' and he said 'Not yet.' During this time, he had a look in his eyes I'd never seen before. I asked 'What's wrong?' He said 'I'm gonna kill that mother****er.'
"'What do you mean?' I asked. That's when he showed me the gun."
They left the Mini Mart, "and basically I was in shock," said Hand, his voice quavering. "I had never known my brother to be that kind of person. We were driving around; I didn't know what to say, what to believe, if it was going to happen. He said we had to wait until Bennett was asleep. He said 'I'm not fired up enough yet.'"
Later, on cross-examination, BetzJitomir referred to previous statements where Hand had said that Borden had claimed during this period of the evening to having killed "other people like Bennett." And in another statement, Hand had told investigators that at one point after the murder Borden had allegedly pointed a gun at him, threatening "to shoot me like Daniel Bennett if I didn't do as he said."
"Is that true?" the attorney asked. "Yes," said Hand.
Eventually, Hand testified, "we came to the road (Pearl Street, where the Bennett residence sits) and went past the hunt club and we knew there would be a red truck in the (Bennett) driveway."
"How did you know?" asked Fazzary.
That was information from Trappler, Hand said, adding that he and Borden (who was driving) went past the house "and parked down the road. I said 'I don't want to do this. I don't want to be a part anymore.'" Borden, he said, responded: "Your job is just to make sure nobody's coming down the road."
"We walked up the road from the truck, through the grass and up the side of the (front) porch." They didn't go up the steps because they were aware of an alarm sensor, information he said was provided by Trappler. "We were told the door was always unlocked. We assumed we'd be able to open the door. Wes told me to look in the window. I couldn't see anything; it was completely dark in there. Wes said since the door swung to the right, the light switch was probably on the left. He was gonna open the door, and I would reach in and flip the light switch on.
"He swung open the door, and I reached in and turned the light on. That's when Wes ran in, that's when he shot him."
"Did you see him?" asked Fazzary.
"Yes," said Hand. "I ran and jumped off the porch, and that's when I heard the gunshot."
During cross-examination later, BetzJitomir pressed Hand on this point.
"In describing the moment of death, you said you saw Thomas Borden shoot Daniel Bennett, then you said you flipped on the switch, ran off the porch and heard the shot. So ... how did you see it?
Hand's answer: He jumped off the porch, then turned around and witnessed the murder through the open doorway.
"How far away was your brother from Daniel Bennett?" BetzJitomir asked.
"About three feet," said Hand.
"And did you see well enough to know where the gun was?"
"Maybe a foot (away)."
"When the light came on, Daniel Bennett was on the couch," said Hand, answering Fazzary during the direct testimony. "He woke up and looked at us. I jumped off the porch and we fled to the truck. We got in and took a right" at the corner of Catlin Hill Road. "I had no idea where I was."
"Had you ever been in that area?" Fazzary asked.
"No," said Hand. "When we took off, (Wes) stated he was pissed. He thought he'd remembered cocking the gun, but might have left a spent shell."
"And the other shells in the gun?" Fazzary asked.
"He discharged the unspent rounds and threw them out the window."
This, he later explained under cross, was done without stopping. Borden held the gun between his legs while driving, emptied the gun of its shells, told Hand to lower the passenger window and threw the shells out, past where Hand sat in the passenger seat.
"I had no idea where I was," Hand said again. "I told Wes I just wanted to go home. I typed my address in the GPS." They ended up in Big Flats, near the airport -- at which point Borden said he wanted to bury the weapon "and asked if I had a shovel." Hand didn't, and they went to WalMart in Gang Mills, where a shovel was purchased shortly before midnight.
The rest of the night was as described in previous testimony -- a trip to Pinnacle State Park near Addison, Borden burying the weapon, then throwing away his sneakers and donning a pair of flip-flops. "I asked him why not (throw away) the rest of his clothing, and he said 'I'm not riding back in my boxers. It's too cold.'"
"Was anyone there when you got home?" Fazzary asked.
"Yes, Catharine," said Hand.
"Did you tell her what you had done?"
The next day, he said, he became aware that police investigators were looking for a vehicle with a loud exhaust. "My brother drove to NAPA to get repair parts to fix his muffler," he said. The next day, the 21st, Borden had breakfast with Trappler at a Denny's restaurant across the Pennsylvania line, Hand said.
On the 22nd, "Did the police come knocking at your door?" asked Fazzary.
"Yes," said Hand. "They were asking where my brother was. I said Pennsylvania. They came back later and asked if I'd heard from him. I said yes, I had spoken to him. He was supposed to call them. They asked me to ride to the station to answer a few questions.
At the station, "They asked me if I knew about the Daniel Bennett murder. I said yes." But he didn't admit to being present at it.
"Did you lie to them?" asked Fazzary.
"Yes," said Hand. "I knew if you're there, you're there, it's just as bad as the person who did it. There was a chance I wouldn't see my family again."
His voice cracked with that statement, and he wiped his eyes with a tissue.
"I told them finally, but I left out the part about me being on the property."
"You told them your brother did it?" Fazzary asked.
"Did you tell them where the gun was?"
He went with police to the park in the dark, and a search failed. He returned the next day at their request, and with his help authorities dug up the gun and found the sneakers.
After that, he was released to his mother's custody, and "I slept on the couch, on my mother's lap."
"She knew you were in trouble?" asked Fazzary.
"Yeah," he said.
The next day, "The cops called, and asked if I was willing to take a lie detector test. I agreed."
But when the test was administered, he failed. He said he wasn't being entirely truthful because "I had seen how hurt my family was, and that this time there was nothing I could do. My mother and father had raised me so well ..."
He said that in subsequent statements, he was less than truthful, changing his story, because "my emotions were in an uproar, my family's emotions were in an uproar. I was trying to do anything to minimize my role."
"You told police you were drunk" on the night of the murder, said Fazzary.
"I wasn't," said Hand.
"Were you on drugs?"
"Did you have a clear head?"
"Defense counsel is suggesting that any number of people could have killed Daniel Bennett," said Fazzary. "Did you shoot him?"
"Did you want Daniel Bennett dead that night?"
"No, sir. Absolutely not."
"Then why, Nate, why didn't you get out of the truck?"
"I was terrorized, confused. I didn't know what else to do."
"Did you think (Borden) was really going to do it?"
On cross examination, BetzJitomir asked why Hand was "terrified if you didn't really think he would do it?"
"It was just the thought of it," Hand said. "I'd never seen anybody killed before. "
Later, BetzJitomir said this: "You pretty much did what Thomas Borden told you to do."
"Yes," said Hand, and Fazzary objected. The objection was sustained, and the jury was told by Judge Morris to "disregard the answer."
The attorney also revisited the matter of Hand's drug use.
"Isn't it true," she said, "that you don't even remember what happened that night?"
"No, ma'am," Hand replied.
3. Chastity Borden, 14, daughter of Thomas Wesley Borden. She has been raised by various people in her life, including by Alice Trappler for seven years. She was asked by Fazzary whether her father, following his return to New York in early 2012, had "contact" with Trappler.
Said Chastity: "My dad would say they'd go to lunch and text each other. I understood that they were together ... dating."
Chastity was also asked if, when visiting Trappler, she saw any guns. "Yes," she said, "an ankle gun, a shotgun in her bedroom" at Trappler's goat farm, and "a double pistol black gun," a reference to the double-grip shotgun used in the murder. The ankle gun, she explained, was "a little pistol thing" worn on the ankle.
4. Daniel J. Mandell, captain of administration in the Chemung County Sheriff's Office, overseeing jail administration. He is also custodian of records, and as such produced for investigators discs of phone conversations Trappler had with somebody while incarcerated in the Chemung County Jail in late April and May 2012. Schuyler County female prisoners are housed out of county because there are no facilities for them here. Mandell said prisoners are apprised that their calls are being monitored and recorded.
After entering the discs into evidence, Fazzary ended the day's proceedings early, saying he intends "to publish the discs tomorrow with other witnesses. And I expect to be done (with his case) tomorrow morning."
Photos in text:
Top: District Attorney Joe Fazzary meets with the media after Tuesday's session.
Second: Nathan Hand is taken back to jail after his testimony.
Third: Defendant Alice Trappler is led back to jail after Tuesday's court session.
Bottom: Defense Attorney Susan BetzJitomir talks with DA Joe Fazzary following the conclusion of court on Tuesday.
The Story from Day 1 may be found by clicking here.
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 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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