Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Handcuffman

Handcuffed and Helpless

For two decades, a man operating variously in Atlanta, Georgia and Tampa, Florida, preyed upon gay male prostitutes and men he apparently thought were prostitutes. The attacks are believed to have started in 1968. A hustler would meet a dark-haired, thin, bespectacled John with bushy eyebrows. Sometimes he would be in an expensive suit; other times he would be casually attired in jeans and T-shirt. Sometimes he wore a mustache or beard. If he was shaven, he always seemed to have a heavy five o’clock shadow.
The John paid the prostitute merely to take a drink of vodka, which must have seemed like an unusually easy way to earn a few dollars. Sometimes the well-spoken man told the prostitute that a study was being conducted on the effects of drinking a certain amount of alcohol and asked him to take part in this “research” for $50 or $100. Whatever the ruse, the drink was spiked and the prostitute quickly lost consciousness.
He awoke to a horror. Often he found himself handcuffed and burned on his genitals or legs. Sometimes the attacker put cigarettes out on the victim, other times flammable liquids.
Victims were reluctant to press charges. After all, they were prostitutes and didn’t want to draw attention to their profession or homosexuality. Often troubled men “on the margins” to begin with, they were left to cope with the psychological and physical devastation of these horrendous attacks without even the small compensation of justice being done.
The Handcuffs (AP)
The Handcuffs (AP)

To Print or Not to Print

The air in the newsroom of The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the city’s biggest newspaper, was thick with tension. It was the newspaper’s tradition to withhold the name of a suspect in a criminal investigation who was neither a fugitive nor officially charged with a crime. Did they dare break with tradition in the case of the Handcuff Man?
Robert Lee Bennett Jr. (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)
Robert Lee Bennett Jr. (Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
As reporter Richard Greer noted, the name of Robert Lee Bennett Jr. was “meaningless to most Atlantans, his right to privacy as great as any other little-known person’s.” What if Bennett was not the Handcuff Man? By publishing his name, would the newspaper be invading his privacy? Would it be subjecting an innocent man to an unwarranted public notoriety? Some feared it would compromise the privacy of innocent citizens in the future. Because of this concern, previous stories on the Handcuff Man had not only refrained from mentioning his name but had left out information that might lead readers to identify him.
But some in the newsroom argued that public safety was at stake. They pointed out that there were many documents connecting the wealthy local attorney to the Handcuff Man’s cruel crimes against gay hustlers. Bennett had been arrested for kidnapping an undercover officer posing as a hustler. When his ex-wife sued him for divorce, her lawyer and several men had accused him of being the Handcuff Man. And, as Greer wrote, “State archives contained more than 400 pages of documents providing solid links between Bennett and the sadistic acts of the Handcuff Man.”
Editors at The Atlanta Journal Constitution, however, still were not satisfied that publicly naming him as the suspected torturer was justified. Then his most recent victim picked his photograph out of a group of photos. And a victim of years previous also fingered him. That did it.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a story naming Robert Lee Bennett Jr. as the suspected Handcuff Man.
The next day, Tampa police requested information from their Atlanta counterparts, and they later charged Bennett with an attack on a Florida man, who had been doused in gasoline and lit on fire. The victim had survived, but the injuries were so severe that both of his legs had to be amputated.
“In retrospect I have no doubts,” Greer later said. “Considering the information we had by the time we published Bennett’s name, our natural fears should have been allayed. Our prime concern should have been prodding the police to enhance the safety of the young men who were at risk.”

Child of Privilege

Robert Lee Bennett Jr. was 22 months old when he was adopted. Prior to the adoption, had the infant been abused, neglected or traumatized in a way that might have turned him to violent crime? The answer is not known.
The childless couple who took him into their home was a successful attorney, Robert Bennett, and his homemaker wife, Annabelle Maxwell Bennett. They had married in 1933 and set up housekeeping in Towanda, Pa. In 1943, the elder Robert Bennett was appointed president of Citizen and Northern Bank. Annabelle Bennett volunteered for the Red Cross, and her husband was a tireless fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts. The family did a great deal of traveling for pleasure.
“Bob” Bennett Jr. does not appear to fit the profile of a serial predator. The background of such a vicious criminal is frequently one of severe deprivation, either economic or psychological or both. In many cases, there is a background of physical or sexual abuse, or often emotional abuse by unstable, repressed, neurotic, superstitious or alcoholic parents. None of this is known to have occurred to Bennett.
Both parents appear to have loved him and were close to him. As a little boy, Bobby was a Boy Scout and had a paper route. “If the weather was inclement, his father would drive him around in his Fleetwood Cadillac to deliver newspapers,” recalled Leon Wizelman, a friend of the family who, as a car dealer, sold them cars. “Both parents were very high-class people.”
Young Bob is remembered as an outgoing teenager, involved in many organizations. Never an athlete, he was not among the most popular boys in school, but neither was he the victim of bullying. He belonged to the Glee Club, the chorus, was features editor of the student newspaper, and was a member of the science club. He appears to have had a lifelong love for botany. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that, “He won second place in a science fair for a project about orchids.”
For his high school graduation, Bob’s father gave him a picturesque $167,000 house located by Lake Wesauking.
Bennett appeared to have grown into a bright and accomplished young man. He graduated from the University of Denver in 1969 and went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from the University of Virginia. However, in 1971, while studying there, he was charged with indecent exposure. Records about this case have been expunged.
In 1974 Bennett received his law degree from Atlanta’s Emory University, took a job with his father’s law firm of Davis, Murphy, and Bennett in Pennsylvania, and had another run-in with the law. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bennett allegedly observed a “plainclothes Atlanta officer who was working undercover to catch male hustlers on Fifth Street near Cypress Street.” Although the article does not report how successful the officer was at arresting male prostitutes, he was apparently quite good at imitating them since Bennett mistook him for one and kidnapped him. The undercover cop was soon rescued, uninjured, by backup police.
Kidnapping charges had been dropped by the time Bennett came to trial. His attorney cut an excellent deal by which Bob pleaded no contest to the relatively minor offense of simple battery. The millionaire lawyer got off with a meager $75 fine.
In 1976, Bob had another legal difficulty, and one that led him to move away from Towanda. A young New Yorker was traveling in Pennsylvania when, police believe, he met up with Bob Bennett. The attorney paid the man to drink, and the two had sex in Bennett’s car. They then headed for the lakeside cottage that had been the Bennett’s high school graduation gift.
For some reason, the man from New York got scared. He grabbed Bennett’s keys, jumped in his car, and drove off. But he quickly crashed.
The man refused to cooperate with police. Apparently, like so many of Bennett’s victims, he wanted to keep his dealings with Bennett private. Also, according to an article in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, a Towanda police officer claimed that another officer “discouraged the alleged victim from pushing an investigation.” Lindsay speculated that the officer did this because Robert Bennett Sr. “held a seat on the Civil Service Board, which reviews police promotions.” Another investigator seconded that opinion. “Nobody wanted to press charges against him because of the influence of his father,” the investigator said. “His father was gold.”
Guy Notte, an Atlanta lawyer who would eventually handle both divorce and criminal matters for Bob Bennett Jr., recalled a conversation he once had with a saddened Bennett Sr. about his son. “He is my cross to bear,” the father said. “My wife loves him dearly and I love my wife and that’s the only reason I put up with him.”
The Towanda police were, however, able to persuade Bennett Jr. that it would be best for him if he left the area. He moved to Atlanta.

Troubled Marriage

The attorney soon found employment with the Atlanta law firm of Kidd, Pickens and Tate. When not working at his chosen vocation, he was apparently pursuing his other, crueler interests.
One victim, James Crowe, later described his frightening encounter with The Handcuff Man. Crowe was just 19 years old. “In the early part of the summer of 1977,” he testified in a deposition, “I was on Buford highway and I was hitchhiking to Atlanta.” Friends had told Crowe that gay men hung out in Piedmont Park so that was where the slender, longhaired youth went.
At Piedmont Park he met a slim, tall fellow wearing large glasses.
“Do you drink?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Crowe responded.
“Want to make some money?”
“How?”
The man told Crowe that all he had to do was drink. “The more shots you drink,” the man told him, “the more money I’ll give you.”
Crowe stepped into the tall man’s blue Cadillac. The older man gave his new friend some liquor and Crowe was soon feeling tipsy. The man drove the pair to a trailer park and began playing with Crowe’s penis.
Suddenly Crowe sensed something was wrong. He tried to get out of the car, but the other man grabbed him by his long hair and pulled hard. Still, James unlocked the car door and torpedoed out. As he did so, he felt a sharp, stinging pain on his right shoulder. He ran and his attacker ran after him. Crowe fell, then got up and started screaming and throwing rocks at his assailant. Crowe got away but did not seek medical attention for his wounds or report the attack to the police. He gave as his reasons that he doesn’t “like doctors” and did not want his sister to know he had been hustling.
A couple of weeks later, Crowe was back at Piedmont Park, this time with another, more experienced hustler who was “trying to show me some ropes,” he said. Crowe spotted the man who had plied him with drinks and stabbed his shoulder. He pointed him out to the other hustler, who instantly recognized the thin, dark-haired man. “He’s got a bad reputation,” the hustler told Crowe. “They call him Handcuff Man.”
During roughly this time period, Bennett at age 29 began dating a female secretary, Sandra Powell, who worked at the law firm. She was five years older and earned $17,000 per year. At first, the two shared rides home from work, then began dating. Bennett proposed to her in 1978 and Powell accepted. She agreed to marry him despite his honest admission to her that they would not be husband and wife in the complete sense. Bennett told her that he was impotent.
“The marriage was one of convenience for both parties. They enjoyed each other’s company and he treated her like a princess,” said Bennett’s lawyer Guy Notte.
Did Bennett’s bride see anything in him beside dollar signs? Maybe. “He was an intelligent man,” Notte said. “He had a very dry sense of humor at times.”
Shortly after their marriage, Bennett quit the law firm and got a job as a jewelry salesman at Davison’s department store in Columbia Mall. Then, for reasons unknown, he stopped working. He did not need money, His father had died of heart failure and left his son a great deal of money, including a portfolio of stocks, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Bennetts’ elegant Towanda mansion.
According to Sandra Powell Bennett’s testimony at their divorce trial, Bennett did not become much of a househusband. “He would just hang around the house all day,” she claimed, “and he would be in his robe when I got home.” She said that she worked at her paid job, then went home to do all of the cooking and housecleaning. Bennett often suffered from insomnia. The main pleasures in his life appeared to be working in his garden and painting landscapes. The situation “was very stressful,” she recalled, but she “kept it inside and tried not to let it affect the relationship.” Despite their troubles, they discussed adopting a child, but never followed through on their plans.
During his marriage, Bennett apparently pursued a hobby other than painting and gardening — torture, which his confused, lonely wife knew nothing about.
In early 1982, young Cleveland Bubb was standing on an Atlanta street corner. Bubb was a good-looking guy with a rather wide nose and an oval face. A man in a blue car drove up to Bubb. “Would you drink a bottle of vodka with me?” he asked. “I’ll give you $100 to do it.” Bubb got in the car, and the two men drank together. The man wore expensive clothes but seemed a bit sloppy. He had a gold chain around his neck and the first three buttons of his shirt open. The pair also went to a bar called The Texas Drilling Company and downed a few.
The next thing Bubb remembers is waking up in the parking lot. He wore only his “parachute pants” and had two cigarette burns, one on his belly and the other on an arm. Later Bubb would say that he wanted to “take a bottle and break it over [his attacker's] fucking head.”
In September 1982, something happened that shocked Sandra Powell Bennett to the core and led her to leave her husband.
Bob Bennett Jr. was arrested for murder and armed robbery. His wife was walking home from a bus stop when she saw her handcuffed husband being led from their home by uniformed police officers.
“What is it? What have you done?” she gasped.
“I don’t know,” he replied, apparently as baffled as she was. “They won’t tell me anything.”
Bennett was charged with the murder of 24-year-old James Lee Johnson, a dishwasher who had been shot. His body was found with his wallet missing.
Although the charges were dropped two months later because of insufficient evidence, Sandra Bennett did not return to her husband. He contested her suit for divorce. According to Notte, his lawyer, “He knew she was going to get out of the marriage, but he simply contested it because of the money, because she wanted a fortune.”
Three gay male prostitutes testified at the divorce trial that they believed Bennett to be the notorious Handcuff Man. Sandra Bennett was granted a divorce and awarded $40,000 as a divorce settlement; in addition, Bennett was ordered to pay $12,000 in lawyers’ fees.

1985: Attack on Max Shrader

In the years following his divorce, Bob Bennett divided his time between Towanda and Florida, where he stayed with his disabled mother in winter and spring. Annabelle Bennett had been in a bad car accident while vacationing in Kenya and had been left paralyzed as a result. Her major comfort was the devoted son who doted on her as she had doted on him while he was growing up. While he spent much time comforting his mother and keeping her company, Bennett “could be verbally abusive to both his father and his mother,” Notte remembered. An acquaintance of the Bennetts recalled that Bob Bennett “made comments sometimes that she could irritate him to the point he wanted to scream. We said, ‘Bob, you probably do a lot of things to make her scream.’”
In 1983, Bennett was banned from the Gallus, an Atlanta bar and restaurant with a predominantly gay clientele. The ban came about when a gay male prostitute complained to Sergeant J. D. Kirkland that Bennett was known to pick hustlers up and injure them. On Nov. 4, 1983, Bennett signed a document saying he understood he had “been barred from the premises of the Gallus restaurant” and that he could “be arrested without further notice and charged with Criminal Trespass” if he returned to it.
In 1984, a young man named Myers Von Hirschsprung was standing on a street corner near his home waiting for a bus to take him downtown. A car approached him.
“Need a ride?” the driver asked.
The youth did. He got in the car and exchanged introductions and pleasantries with the middle-aged man behind the wheel.
“I’m a professor at Georgia Tech,” the driver told Von Hirschsprung. As Myers recalled, the man’s speech had a rather slow cadence to it. “I’m doing a study about people’s drinking and their tolerance levels for it. I’ll pay you $100 to drink whatever kind of liquor you want to, Myers, if you’ll drink it as quickly as you can. We’ll go somewhere and you’ll drink and then walk and if you’re walking OK, you’ll drink some more.”
Von Hirschsprung was instantly suspicious. They were near his destination, and the young man decided he did not want to earn $100 that way. “Please just let me out,” he told the supposed professor.
The man did, and Myers escaped.
In 1985, a gay male prostitute who used the name “Chico” was picked up in Atlanta by a dark-haired, bespectacled white man. As he was driving, the customer showed Chico a pair of handcuffs. “Try them on,” he urged. “I just want to see how they look on you.”
Chico was instantly wary. “Please stop the car,” he said.
“No,” was the reply.
Chico saw that the door lock had been removed and the handle covered with duct-tape. The window was open, however, and the terrified, and small, Chico dove out of it as the vehicle was moving.
He was badly bruised and scratched from his fall but escaped without other injuries.
Others were not so fortunate.
Max Shrader (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)
Max Shrader (Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
Max Shrader was a handsome, slim and streetwise Atlanta youth who sported small black tattoos on both forearms. One sunny day in April 1985 he was hanging around the streets of Ponce de Leon and Barnett and, in his own words, “looking for some money” when he spotted a potential source.
A man in a car kept driving around the block The man parked at a curb and motioned for Shrader to approach.
“Get a hard on for me,” the driver said. “I’ll drive around the block and come back.” True to his word, he took off and circled back to the same place. “Would you like a drink of vodka?” he asked Shrader.
“Yeah,” the hustler replied.
The John handed him a brown drink.
“I mixed some coke in it,” the customer explained.
Shrader began drinking. Almost immediately he felt woozy, then crumpled to the ground. He knew the drink had been laced with something. Semi-conscious, he was pulled into the passenger seat of the man’s car. “Don’t hurt me!” he begged. But the vehicle took off.
The stranger drove Shrader into a wooded area and began taking Shrader’s clothes off. He pored a cold liquid over the drowsy young man’s genitals.
Then he set Max Shrader’s genitals on fire.
The helpless man lay on the ground shrieking for help as his attacker sped away.
Someone heard Shrader’s cries and called the police.
Shrader spent two months in the hospital, in pain and often heavily sedated. He could not walk during much of his hospital stay and had to wear a diaper-like gauze over his genital area.
But the Handcuff Man was not satisfied. On June 10, 1986, two Atlanta pals, Michael Johnson and Anthony “Tony” Poppilia, were hanging out on Ponce De Leon between the Goofy Gofer and the Pegasus. Poppilia was wearing a tight blue fishnet tank top, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a black hat.
A man called to Poppilia from a car, and Poppilia approached him. The driver introduced himself as “Jim” and asked if Poppilia wished to earn $50 by participating in an Emory University study on the effects of given amounts of alcohol. Poppilia told Jim to wait a minute.
Then Poppilia ran back to his friend Michael. The two friends usually gave each other the license plate and description of guys who picked them up, and Poppilia did so this time.
When Poppilia explained that he was going to drink some alcohol for this “researcher” then walk a straight line, Michael said, “You can do that if you want to, but remember you’ve got to be at work tomorrow at seven.” He also warned his friend to be careful because there was a weirdo around attacking guys.
Jim drove Poppilia around for awhile, serving him vodka. Eventually, Jim stopped his car behind the Texas Drilling Company bar. “Would you like to put on a pair of shorts so you’ll be more comfortable?” Jim asked, holding a pair of cut-off jeans.
Poppilia agreed. Underneath the emergency stairs of the bar, Poppilia peeled off his pants and put on the shorts. They had no pockets, so he had to leave his wallet and other personal items in his own pants.
The two men went into the bar and downed a few drinks. Poppilia’s memory of the night is fuzzy after that. He recalled that, when they left the bar, Jim seemed to want to get away from him, but Poppilia followed him to the car because he needed his pants and wallet. Poppilia was able to get into the passenger seat, but Jim took off and pushed Poppilia out of the vehicle while it was moving.
Poppilia called to a man carrying a garbage can nearby, and the man approached.
“I just got mugged,” Tony explained before losing consciousness. He was wearing only his undershorts, and he had suffered several abrasions and bruises. He was later unable to recall removing his shirt or the shorts he had been loaned.
When he came to, three men were crowded around him.
“Where are you living?” one of the men asked.
Poppilia gave him his address and directions before passing out.
When he awoke, he was at a Dunkin’ Donuts with two Atlanta police officers. “Could you identify the man who called himself ‘Jim’?” one asked.
“Yes,” Poppilia replied.
He didn’t have to wait long. “Jim” was standing in the parking lot of the donut shop. Two men who had been alerted to the crime had blocked his car with their own vehicles. One of those men was Poppilia’s friend Charles Fallow, who had also been mugged by Jim. About nine months earlier, Fallow said the two of them had been drinking together and the man had handcuffed Fallow, then beat and robbed him.

Closing In

Gary Clapp was unemployed in February 1991. Trained as a carpenter, engaged to be married, and the father of a three-year-old daughter, Clapp had left his home in Massachusetts for Florida on a quest for work.
Needing a free meal one night, Clapp waited outside a Salvation Army office in Tampa, not knowing that the area was frequented by male prostitutes and their predators. As he waited, a man drove up in a white Lincoln Town Car and beckoned to Clapp. The thin, dark-haired driver wore a Fu Manchu-style mustache and large, gold-rimmed glasses. He offered Clapp $50 to drink vodka as part of an experiment. “He was well-spoken,” Clapp recalled. “He seemed like he was on the up and up. I asked him his name, but he wouldn’t tell me.” Clapp got into the car and settled against the brown leather of the passenger seat. The unemployed man accepted several shots of vodka from a plastic cup as the two men conversed and shared cigarettes. The man had a notebook and pen with him. He jotted down notes as Clapp guzzled drinks.
“You need to drink faster,” the “researcher” told Gary. Gary Clapp began losing consciousness. He has said that he may have visited a bar with the stranger but was not certain. He did not recall the horrendous events that transpired immediately afterward.
A police officer driving on Tampa’s Courtney Campbell Causeway spotted what looked like an out-of-control bonfire in a nearby field. He stopped to investigate. It was the burning body of Gary Clapp.
Nelson Garcia III was one of the firefighters on the scene. He later testified, “I was surprised he lived. . . . we really didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Gary Clapp (The Tampa Tribune)
Gary Clapp
(The Tampa Tribune)
Clapp did pull through, although both his legs had to be amputated above the knee. His fiancĂ©e broke off their engagement. Sitting in a wheelchair in a state-run boarding home, a despairing Clapp said, “Things fell apart when this happened. I don’t know why the guy didn’t just finish me off. This is not going to be easy.”
When the cops eventually brought a series of photographs and spread them before Clapp, he instantly recognized his attacker. Clapp said, “It took me a minute to say something. I couldn’t believe they got him so quick, and seeing his face again, I went into shock.”
But police did not catch Bennett then, and he often returned to Atlanta. In May 1991, a young man named Michael Jordan Jr. was found severely burned.
Michael Jordan Jr. (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)
Michael Jordan Jr.
(Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
Jordan was handsome and slightly built with wavy dark brown hair. He sported a small beard and mustache. He was walking down an Atlanta street when he saw a man in a white Lincoln motioning to him. Michael noticed that the tag on the man’s car said “Pinellas County, Florida.” Being from Florida himself and wanting to make conversation, Jordan said to the stranger, “How you doing, Clearwater?”
“No, I’m from St. Pete,” the smiling driver replied. “Do you want to make $50?”
“Well, what do I got to do to make $50?” Jordan asked.
“All you got to do is drink,” the man told him. “I got three pints and if you drink it all, I’ll give you $50.”
“Drink, that’s it? Sure.”
“First, walk around the corner to Fifth Street and Juniper. Then take your shirt off,” the driver instructed.
Jordan headed for Fifth and Juniper but didn’t remove his shirt when he got there. The Lincoln tailed him, then went to a nearby parking lot. Again the stranger motioned for Jordan, who went to the parking lot and got in the car with the older man. Michael took his shirt off, and the driver gave him a drink.
“You got a problem here,” Jordan jovially informed him. “I come from a long line of alcoholics and I’m going to be able to drink this with no problem.”
“If you get a bit drunk, don’t worry,” the man assured him. “I’ll rent you a room and you’ll be alright.” Then he asked Jordan to take his penis out and try to get it hard. Jordan complied with that request as well. The stranger told Jordan he was going to go to the store for a Coca Cola to mix in the drinks. He handed the youth a $20 bill and Jordan stuck it in his moccasins, then sat down in the parking lot and waited for the man to return.
He did and gave Jordan another drink.
Michael Jordan Jr. showing burn area (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)
Michael Jordan Jr. showing burn area (Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
That was all Jordan could remember before waking up in the hospital in agony because of terrible burns over his genitals, buttocks and legs.
He had been naked and unconscious when his assailant dropped him behind an Atlanta hotel. For awhile, the badly injured man could not be interviewed by authorities because he was either in excruciating agony or heavily medicated.
He also had special fears because of where he had been burned. “If I get an erection,” Jordan said, “it bleeds and they don’t know if I’m going to be normal again there.”
May 1991 was apparently a busy month for Bennett. A young man named Mathew “Red” Vernon told police that on the weekend of May 17 he was picked up by a white male driving a Lincoln Continental. The man gave him $20 for every pint of vodka he could drink. As they drove around, Vernon realized who had picked him up.
Bennetts car (Fulton County D.A.'s Office)Bennetts car
(Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
“I’ll drink the next half pint if you give me the $20 now,” he told the man.
Bennett gave him the money.
The $20 securely in his palm, Vernon opened the door and jumped out of the car, telling the driver, “I know you. You’re Handcuff Man.” Once on the sidewalk, Vernon stuck his finger down his throat and vomited up the vodka.
In the meantime, Jordan had recovered just enough for a productive interview with police investigators. He could not remember how he had been assaulted but he did recall Bennett being the last person he had been with before losing consciousness. He had no trouble picking his picture out of a group of photographs the police showed him.
Then Max Shrader picked out Bennett’s picture as that of the man who had offered him money to drink five years before. “The reason I didn’t forget it,” the wounded man said, “is that I thought about it every day.”
It was after this second identification that The Atlanta Journal Constitution made the difficult decision to name Bennett as the suspect in the vicious Handcuff Man assaults.

A Plea Deal

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 I’m that person. It doesn’t happen to be true.” Guy Notte, Bennett’s 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 Clapp’s 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 he’d cut me,” Bennett claimed.
Speaking on his client’s behalf, Notte requested that Bennett be separated from his fellow prisoners. “We’re not asking for special favors,” Notte claimed. “We just want to ensure his safety. He’s under a tremendous amount of pressure at the jail. He’s 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, I’d 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 can’t be any harder than it’s 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
court (Fulton County D.A.’s Office)
Before trial in Tampa, Clapp gave a deposition at the district attorney’s office. Also present were Bennett, his lawyer Notte, the prosecutor and a court reporter. One of Clapp’s 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 Bennett’s 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 Georgia’s 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, “It’s a sad situation when people can get away with torture, intimidation and hate. There’s 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 you’ve got a prejudiced judicial system in Atlanta, in Fulton County. I’m 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 Bennett’s 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. “I’m going to be there to tell him it does not.”
Bennett seated in court (The Tampa Tribune)
Bennett seated in court (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.
“I’m pleading guilty to the two charges” was Bennett’s 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 Bennett’s 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 hasn’t caused any problems.” Bennett was later moved to Liberty Correctional Institution, a “close custody” institution in west Florida.

Why?

What was behind the crimes of Robert Lee Bennett Jr.? Because he was frequently described as a “gay basher,” his attacks were assumed to be the result of a homophobic homosexual’s hatred for his own preferences directed outward.
For several years, Bennett denied that he was gay. “However, he eventually admitted to being gay,” Notte said. Was he, as most people naturally suppose, a homophobic homosexual? Notte was not able to say with certainty. “He never expressed any homophobic sentiments to me,” the attorney related.
But the gay-basher label is incomplete. As far as is known, Bennett never sought out homosexuals per se, but men he thought were selling gay sexual services. Similar crimes occur in the heterosexual community. Ted Bundy murdered young women. Joel Rifkin murdered female prostitutes.
Of course, there are strategic reasons why someone bent on robbery, rape or other violence might target prostitutes of either sex. They are easy prey, being approachable and accustomed to odd requests. Being paid to drink does not set off an alarm in someone who may, as one hustler recalled, have been paid to urinate into a jar by a fetishist. Since prostitution is illegal, its perpetrators are less likely to report crimes against themselves to the authorities. All of these may have been factors in the Handcuff Man’s choice of targets.
One of the victims, Michael Jordan, commented, “I feel sorry for this guy. I don’t feel sorry for him in some ways but I feel sorry for him because I don’t understand why he would do something like this. It’s got to be something that [is] hurting him inside so bad or something.”
Bennett was not insane. The office of his attorney, Guy Notte, had a team of psychiatrists in Florida examine him. “He was completely sane,” Notte recalled. “He knew right from wrong. He had a behavioral disorder. That’s an understatement.”
He is known to have suffered from chronic impotence, which may have been a factor in his burning the genitals of male prostitutes. “If you can do something I want to do and can’t,” Notte speculated, “I might want to destroy your ability to do it.”
While the Handcuff Man’s sexual dysfunction may explain his choice of victims, it does not explain his barbaric cruelty. After all, there are millions of men who suffer from impotence, and very few of them become violent.
Could sexual sadism have been behind his crimes? There is no evidence that Bennett reached an orgasm while he was torturing his victims. Still, it cannot be ruled out, since his victims were usually unconscious. It is possible that, like a minority of other sex offenders who are described as generally impotent in non-violent situations, Bennett could only get erections or climaxes through criminal acts.
A contempt for those who sell sexual services is common in our culture. After all, prostitution is a criminal offense and “whore” a common term of derision. That feeling might have become an exaggerated and obsessive fixation for Bennett.
He is not known to have expressed remorse for his crimes or any concern for the damage done to his victims. Gary Clapp, who saw Bennett in the Tampa courtroom during his plea, said, “I don’t think he’ll ever feel sorry for anything he’s done. This guy’s a sick puppy.”
Notte described Bennett as, “very cold and clinical. He never would in so many words admit doing these things although he pled guilty.”
Once during his imprisonment, in 1997, Bennett got a disciplinary write-up for disorderly conduct. Other than that, he appears to have been inoffensive as a prisoner. He did, however, break with Notte. Bennett attempted to bring an “ineffective assistance of counsel” claim against the lawyer because, according to Notte, “he believed that we had told him he would get out in two or three years.” No attorney would take Bennett’s case but he did find a lawyer who filed a suit against Notte to get Bennett’s fee back.
That lawsuit was still pending when Bennett died of a stroke on April Fool’s Day 1998. He took the reasons for his hatred of male prostitutes, and the genesis of his extraordinary cruelty, with him to his grave.

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