Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Handcuffman

A Plea Deal

Defense Attorney Guy Notte with Bennett (AP)
Defense Attorney Guy Notte
with Bennett (AP)

After he was publicly fingered, Bennett issued vociferous denials. I am not the Handcuff Man! he emphatically told reporters. He alleged that an Atlanta detective led hustlers to identify him. I think that [the detective] wants desperately to put this Handcuff Man behind bars, Bennett said. And he thinks Im that person. It doesnt happen to be true. Guy Notte, Bennetts attorney in the Atlanta cases, called it a case of mistaken identity.

Free on $300,000 bail, Bennett resided, as he had in the past, with his disabled mother, Annabelle Bennett.

In September 1991, Notte suggested an alternative culprit in the Florida attack on unemployed carpenter Gary Clapp. Witchcraft is definitely involved in this, Notte said. The lawyer went on to say that close to Clapps burning body there had been decapitated chickens, decapitated goats, which smacks of the cult Santeria.

Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that combines elements of Roman Catholicism with aspects of the West African religion of the Yoruba. The religion, which has many adherents in Florida, is controversial because animal sacrifice is one of its rituals.

In the Atlanta cases, Notte requested a change of venue because he claimed that the tenor and intensity of publicity surrounding this case has severely prejudiced potential jurors. Fulton County prosecutor Dee Downs opposed the motion.

In June 1991, a tense and haggard-looking Bennett appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to waive extradition to Florida. He also complained bitterly about his conditions of incarceration. He said he was given no breakfast and had to go five hours without a blanket, pillow or cigarettes. He said other prisoners were threatening him. One . . . said hed cut me, Bennett claimed.

Speaking on his clients behalf, Notte requested that Bennett be separated from his fellow prisoners. Were not asking for special favors, Notte claimed. We just want to ensure his safety. Hes under a tremendous amount of pressure at the jail. Hes under constant harassment.

When Gary Clapp learned that his attacker was on his way to trial in Florida, he was living in a tiny, government-subsidized apartment. His trousers pinned up around his thighs, holding and petting a black cat purring in his lap, he gave an interview to a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times. The legless man was using a wheelchair to get around and talking about the possibility of someday being fitted with prosthetic legs. He fantasized about what he wished could happen to Bennett: Truthfully, Id like to see the same thing happen to him that happened to me. He also said that he wanted to be in the court when Bennett was tried though he knew it would be emotionally wrenching to have to face the man who burned off his legs. It cant be any harder than its already been, Clapp said.

Robert Lee Bennett Jr. on his way to court  (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)
Robert Lee Bennett
Jr. on his way to
(Fulton County D.A.'s

Before trial in Tampa, Clapp gave a deposition at the district attorneys office. Also present were Bennett, his lawyer Notte, the prosecutor and a court reporter. One of Clapps leg stumps began to bleed. Notte asked if he was OK and if he wanted to delay the deposition. This solicitousness made Bennett angry. Notte recalled Bennett as, the coldest, most remorseless client I ever worked with.

Bennett had at first been determined to fight the charges. He spent $500,000 preparing his defense but lost his nerve at the last moment. He knew there would be a parade of men to testify that he had committed similar outrages against them. He also knew that the Tampa fire department had a videotape of Clapp burning. It all added up to enough evidence to get him a life sentence. As his attorney, Guy Notte commented, In Florida, life means life. We just could not take the chance.

Prosecutors in both Tampa and Atlanta negotiated with Bennetts lawyers for a deal. They hammered out an agreement whereby Bennett would plead guilty to the attempted murder of Gary Clapp and two counts of aggravated assault in Atlanta, and could serve a 17-year sentence in Florida to run concurrently, rather than consecutively, with his sentence for the Atlanta crimes. The result of the deal, as Georgias Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton acknowledged, would be that he would serve no additional time for the Atlanta crimes.

Many gay activists were outraged by what they considered a lenient deal for a man who had terrorized their community for decades. Good citizens need to step forward, urged Larry Pellegrini, president of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. This is horrendous.

Lynn Cothren, co-chair of Queer Nation, said, Its a sad situation when people can get away with torture, intimidation and hate. Theres obviously a problem with the system.

The Atlanta president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Judy Colbs, remarked, Setting people on fire is setting people on fire, and it should not matter what the sexual orientation is. It goes back to prejudice. It affects and invades all parts of society.

Jeff Graham, a member of ACT-UP, an AIDS activist organization, also decried the plea bargain. I think clearly if it were a case involving heterosexuals, that if he had done this to a woman [or] a straight man, that his sentence would be much greater than what it is, Graham speculated. It has taken the Atlanta Police Department dozens of years to seriously investigate and solve this case. I think that clearly youve got a prejudiced judicial system in Atlanta, in Fulton County. Im happy Tampa was able to put together the case.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution also denounced the plea agreement in an editorial entitled Reject Handcuff case deal.

The outrage of those quoted above was shared by at least one of Bennetts victims. Max Shrader, who was burned by Bennett in 1985, said that prosecutors never contacted him to discuss the proposed plea bargain. The judge has got to decide if the time fits the crime, Shrader observed. Im going to be there to tell him it does not.

Bennett seated in court (The Tampa Tribune)
Bennett seated in
(The Tampa Tribune)

Despite objections, the deal went through. On February 24, 1992, Bennett appeared in an Atlanta courtroom and pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated assault. The sentence was 17 years in prison to run concurrently with the 17-year sentence that he was to serve in Florida for the attempted murder of Gary Clapp. The 44-year-old lawyer was also ordered to pay $65,000 in restitution for the medical bills of the two Atlanta victims, was banned for life from ever being in Fulton County, and was ordered to see a psychiatrist.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Isaac Jenrette asked the defendant, Did you pick up these two fellows?

Bennett paused, then talked to his attorney.

Did you pick up these two fellows? Jenrette repeated.

Im pleading guilty to the two charges was Bennetts answer.

At the time of the sentencing, Bennett was free on $300,000 bond, under the conditions that he was not to leave the home he shared with his mother except on approved business, such as seeing his lawyers. He was to report on March 9, 1992, to begin serving his sentence.

But Bennett broke his agreement. He was spotted cruising the same Tampa street where he had picked up Gary Clapp. Tampa detective Bob Holland testified that he saw Bennetts car and followed it only to see the convicted torturer talking with some guy leaning in his car window . . . What was weird was it was about the same time of day [that] he met Gary Clapp there. It was almost a year to [the] date.

Because of this offense, Bennett was sent to jail two weeks earlier than scheduled.

The notorious Handcuff Man was initially put into solitary confinement, partly because he feared other prisoners. Tom Patterson, a supervisor at the North Florida Reception Center where Bennett was initially kept, described him as an average inmate and said, he hasnt caused any problems. Bennett was later moved to Liberty Correctional Institution, a close custody institution in west Florida.

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