By Linda Looney-Bond
A Clayton County jury took less than two hours Thursday to find a Hampton man guilty of shooting a county police officer, in an incident in which the officer's bullet-resistant vest is credited with saving her life.
Jurors found Gerald Lewis Benn, 45, guilty of shooting Officer Yolanda Shumaker, 31, on Feb. 27. The officer had accompanied Benn's fiancee, Paula Theus, to the couple's home at 1258 Pebble Beach Lane, in Hampton, to pick up some belongings. The couple had had a dispute earlier in the day.
Benn was also found guilty of assaulting Theus and Theus' 18-year-old daughter, Racquel, by shooting at them as they fled the couple's home, and of fleeing from police officers following the shooting.
The jury convicted Benn on 10 of 11 counts: aggravated battery on a peace officer, two counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer, two counts of aggravated assault, three counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, robbery, and fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer.
The jury did not convict on a charge of criminal damage to property. Prosecutors contended had that Benn damaged the window of a neighbor's Mazda mini-van during the flurry of shots.
Judge Matthew Simmons sentenced Benn to 20 years on the charge of aggravated battery on a peace officer; 20 years for one charge of aggravated assault on a peace officer; 20 years each, for two counts of aggravated assault; 20 years for robbery, for taking the engagement ring off of Theus' finger; five years each, for three counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, and five years for fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer - for a total sentence of 120 years in prison. The second charge of aggravated assault on a peace officer, merged with another charge for sentencing purposes.
Judge Simmons set the sentences to run consecutively. "But for the fact that she [Shumaker] was wearing that vest, this would have been a murder case," said Simmons. "And with the fact that it involved a police officer, this would have been a death penalty case.
"I don't see much in the way of any kind of remorse by Mr. Benn," said Simmons. "The only remorse seems to be about the fact that he was Tasered," he said, referring to the fact that officers Tasered Benn following the police chase, after Benn refused to lie on the ground as instructed.
Following the verdict and sentencing, Shumaker said she was relieved. "I'm just happy and glad that it's over with," she said. "I can finally get a good night's sleep. I'm very pleased with the sentence."
Theus said, "I just feel that justice did prevail. I mean, I feel bad for him, but you just can't go around shooting people." Regarding the sentence, she said: "It was just, because I feel like, unfortunately, if it was not her [Shumaker], it would have been me, but I don't wear a bulletproof vest," she said. "So I thank God for her. She's my angel."
"I'm ecstatic," said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson. "Justice has absolutely been served." Lawson prosecuted the case along with Paul Garland, deputy chief of the district attorney's office.
During the trial Thursday, Benn took the stand, and was the only witness for the defense.
He testified that when Shumaker arrived at his home with Theus, he did not know that she was a police officer, because she was wearing a yellow raincoat over her uniform. However, earlier testimony in the trial revealed that Shumaker's raincoat was open, not closed.
"You didn't notice the badge, the radio, the shiny belt, and shiny black shoes?" Lawson asked Benn. "You didn't hear the police radio? There is no more distinctive sound than a police radio," said Lawson. "Even Ray Charles could have been standing in the room and known that was a police radio," Lawson said.
Shumaker testified earlier in the trial that when she entered the home, she saw a shotgun at the top of a flight of stairs, and moved toward the shotgun to secure it.
Benn testified that he thought Shumaker might have been a co-worker who gave Theus a ride home. "I said, where are you going in my [expletive] house?" Benn testified. "I thought she was going to shoot me with my shotgun."
"If she had come to the front door and said, I'm Officer Shumaker, I'm here to escort Ms. Theus to get her belongings, none of this would have ever happened," Benn said.
Benn, who worked as a long-distance truck driver, also testified that he had previously served as a heavy equipment mechanic and sharp shooter in the United States Marines Corps. He told the court that, after he shot Shumaker, he left the house, firing shots into the air, then came back shortly to find Shumaker was not in the house.
"I just shot someone with a .357, and they're gone ...?" Benn said on the stand. "It was like Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger. You shoot somebody, and they're gone."
Judge Simmons said Benn has 30 days to appeal, if he intends to file an appeal. Benn's attorney, Peter Simmons, could not be reached for comment following the trial.