Fosston, Minn., still baffled by assault, murder case
The young man, a single father known as a model parent and "pillar of the community," stood outside his place of business in Mesa, Ariz., in May, smoking a cigarette.
When he had finished, he dropped the butt to the ground -- and gave watching Mesa police officers the break they needed to connect him to a string of brutal assaults on women.
Trent Christopher Benson, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Fosston, Minn., has been in jail since that cigarette break six months ago, accused as a serial sexual predator and charged with 10 counts of rape, kidnapping and murder.
His arrest May 14 helped settle nerves in the Phoenix area, but the news baffled former classmates and others who knew the 1990 Fosston High School graduate as an amiable young man from a respected family.
"It's just very shocking that someone you've grown up with in a small town like Fosston could (be accused of) acts of rage and violence like this," Karena Dunham, a Fosston native now in Bemidji, told an Arizona newspaper.
The initial shock has subsided with the passage of time, Fosston Mayor Jim Offerdahl said last week. "But there's still concern for the family," he said. "He's long been gone from here, so the immediate feelings are more for the family. Our hearts go out to all the people affected on the other end, too."
Benson has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty, but no trial date has been set. Lynn Burns, Benson's public defender, told the Herald last week that a trial is months away as she seeks evidence of mitigating factors that could argue against a death verdict.
"Do you have any idea what it takes to research mitigation in Korea?" she asked.
In the thin spittle left on that discarded cigarette butt, authorities said they found DNA linking Benson to the 2004 sexual assault and strangulation killing of Alisa Marie Beck, 21, whose partially clothed body was found in a trashy alley less than a mile from Benson's home.
According to court documents, authorities also matched Benson's DNA to evidence recovered after the August 2007 rape of another Mesa woman, who escaped; the October 2007 abduction, rape and strangulation killing of Karen Jane Campbell, 44, whose nude body was found in the middle of a street by a newspaper carrier, and the abduction, rape and beating a month later of a 35-year-old Phoenix woman, who survived.
The court documents, unsealed after the Arizona Republic newspaper intervened in the case, indicate that Benson told police that he had had sex with the two women who turned up dead -- but he stopped short of admitting that he killed them.
He apparently had an accomplice in at least one of the four attacks, police said.
A caring family
Benson, 36, was adopted as an infant by David and Elizabeth Benson, longtime and respected residents of Fosston. In an e-mail to the Arizona Republic in May, shortly after Trent Benson's arrest, former classmate Chrissy Davis described his parents as "a wonderful, caring couple who adopted a handful of kids that were of Asian descent."
Davis attended school with Benson from first grade through high school. "It is hard to believe that Trent would be capable of anything like this," she wrote.
Benson ran track and sang in the choir at Fosston High School, and he was captain of the swim team. Pat Hanlon, his former swimming coach, recalls "an average kid who came from a tremendous family and upbringing." Hanlon also told the Herald in May that Benson "seemed like one of those kids you would expect nothing but the best from throughout his life."
Benson's parents did not respond last week to requests for an interview.
After graduating from high school, Benson attended Minnesota State University-Moorhead from fall 1990 to spring 1992, according to school records. On Dec. 18, 1990, he was arrested for shoplifting at Macy's in the West Acres Shopping Center, according to Fargo police records, but records maintained by the local court don't indicate how the charge was resolved.
He later transferred to Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn., but apparently left there after a year without a degree. By the mid-1990s, he was in Mesa.
In April -- a few weeks before his arrest -- he told people that he wouldn't make it back to Fosston for an all-class reunion in July, part of the town's 125th anniversary celebration.
"Hello all. Wow, it has been forever since I have either talked, saw or even been back to Fosston," he wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Arizona Republic. "I am glad to hear that everyone seems to be doing well. Congrats on all the kids and to those of you that are expecting."
Arizona was "nice," he wrote, "but nothing beats the mentality, friendliness and overall atmosphere of being back in MN."
Cyndee Hoialmen, a former Fosston resident who now lives in Edina, Minn., said last week that as she struggled to grasp the ugly accusations against Benson, she recalled reading a magazine article about the effects a brain injury in infancy could have on the personality and behavior of people later in life.
"His family is such a nice family," she said. "He came from a nice home and was such a nice man growing up. So, what happened? It's so confusing for his friends, his community."
Her daughter was in Benson's class. "My daughter is totally devastated," she said. "She feels so betrayed, and she's gone through denial and disbelief to total anger. She looks at him now and asks, 'Who are you?'
"Something is just not right when a guy everyone saw as a passive, nice guy turns out to have such a dark side."
Responding to Benson's arrest, one anonymous contributor to an online crime blog said that he lived on the same Moorhead dorm floor as Benson in 1990, and he recalled problems.
"Trent feverishly pursued a couple girls to the point it was unnerving," the person wrote. "Once one got to know him, it was apparent he had a dark and sinister side to him. Sorry, but this (the arrest) doesn't surprise me at all."
But others joining that discussion insisted that "Trent must have changed big-time" if the accusations were true. "He was a really nice guy. ... I still can't wrap my mind around what the heck happened to him."
Wrote another former friend: "I even went out with him on a friendly date when I was in seventh grade and Trent was in ninth. He was so nice. This person I am reading about is not the Trent I grew up with in Fosston."
A different person
Before his arrest, Benson had sole custody of his 7-year-old son. Four years ago, he took out a protection order against the boy's mother, alleging that she was an alcoholic and an unfit parent.
Two weeks after Benson's arrest, the mother told the East Valley Tribune in Mesa that "he never hurt me -- emotionally, yes, but he never hurt me physically. I don't know if he's capable of that. That's just a whole different person."
Benson's neighbors and co-workers reacted in much the same way.
Benson had lived for at least three years in a Mesa condominium that his parents bought in 2000, according to Maricopa County records cited by local newspapers, and he had worked for a used-car dealer before acquiring -- again, apparently with his parents' help -- the shop in a Mesa strip mall where he sold ice cream, candy, water and ice.
Deborah Heidbrink, who lived in the same condominium complex, told the Arizona Republic at the time of Benson's arrest that she "can't believe it's the same person" who helped her maintain her car and took part in meetings of the homeowners' association.
"This is like a guy who is a pillar of the community," she said.
Benson "would be the last person that I would have expected" to be involved in violent behavior, Mike Fraccola, a Mesa used-car dealer, told The Associated Press. Added Bill Fralick, who worked with Benson at a car dealership: "There is no way, shape or form I would have thought him capable of harming anyone."
Friends were surprised by revelations that Benson had been arrested in 1997 and 2001 for soliciting prostitutes. Court records are unclear about what happened with the 1997 arrest in Phoenix, but Benson pleaded guilty in 2001 to a charge of public sexual indecency and loitering in Mesa. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined $555 and put on probation for three years.
In a police interview with Benson, included in the court records ordered unsealed in June, Benson admitted to picking up Alisa Beck after he left a stripper bar.
He told police they were having sex, and he became angry, hit her head on the steering wheel and choked her until she lost consciousness.
He also admitted picking up Karen Campbell, negotiating a price for sex and then becoming angry when she asked for more money. He claimed to have memory loss, according to the police statements, and woke up to find Campbell dead. He drove to a side street and left her body there.
"As he sped away, he heard a thud," the police report states, "which he believes may have been from running her over."