News Item: Detective determined to solve 'professional hit' killing
(Category: Biker News)
Posted by
Friday 06 October 2006 - 14:19:49

Six months later, motorcycle gang still focus of investigation into Benesh shooting
By Tony Plohetski

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Austin police Detective Frank Rodriguez was at dinner with his wife on March 18 when his pager started beeping with word of the city's latest homicide.

The 43-year-old investigator had joined the homicide unit eight months earlier and had recently arrested the suspect in his first big investigation — the shooting death of 16-year-old Austin High School student Christopher Briseño, who was killed while walking home from a bus stop in September 2005 by a man who thought he was a rival gang member.

Now Rodriguez was again first in line to be the lead detective on Austin's next killing.

He jumped in his car and headed to police headquarters. He planned to start interviewing witnesses and anyone — friends, family, co-workers — who might know why Anthony Benesh III had just been shot in the parking lot of Saccone's Pizza on Research Boulevard in Northwest Austin.

Rodriguez soon learned that the 44-year-old construction worker was a divorcé who was with his girlfriend and his two sons, ages 9 and 11, when he fell to the ground next to his Ford F-250 pickup from a single shot to the head.

Rodriguez said his initial suspicion was a domestic dispute. But after talking to investigators at the scene, who described the position of the body and blood spatters, Rodriguez said he began to consider another theory.

"I said, 'This is going to be a professional hit,' " Rodriguez said.

In the first few hours after Benesh's death, Rodriguez said the dead man's friends and family all pointed in the same direction: the Bandidos motorcycle gang.

Six months later, Benesh's death remains unsolved.

Rodriguez said he and other investigators have chased dozens of fruitless tips, reinterviewed witnesses and made public appeals for information.

That's usually enough to point detectives to a suspect. Last year, the homicide unit boasted a 100 percent clearance rate, meaning that detectives solved every one of the city's 26 killings.

Benesh's slaying is one of three that remain unsolved this year.

Authorities also are investigating the death of Loretta Lynn Roberts, a transient whose decomposed body was found in a field in the 200 block of Bastrop Highway on July 24. The Travis County Medical Examiner's office ruled that Roberts, 37, died of asphyxiation. The death of Harold Tom Robinson, 46, who was shot outside a house in the 1900 block of S.L. Davis Lane in East Austin, also is being investigated.

Rodriguez, who weeks ago stopped tracking the number of hours he has spent on the Benesh case, said he thinks people who may have information are reluctant to call police.Those who do fear retaliation and refuse to leave their names, he said.

To Rodriguez, who grew up in South Texas housing projects and worked as a Travis County corrections officer before becoming a police officer 13 years ago, solving the case has become consuming.

"What bothers me most is that there were two children at the scene," said Rodriguez, a father himself who worked in the department's gang and robbery units before joining homicide. "They weren't just witnesses. They were victims, and they have to live with this for the rest of their lives."

Investigators have so far stuck to their original theory that the Bandidos likely killed Benesh.

A search warrant affidavit that police filed to get access to Benesh's cell phone less than week after the shooting said Benesh was a self-proclaimed member of Hells Angels — he frequently wore a Hells Angels jacket — and had received messages and threats from the rival Bandidos, warning him against forming a Hells Angels chapter in Austin.

The Bandidos motorcycle group is one of five large motorcycle associations in the United States, with about 2,500 members nationwide, according to its Web site.

The group formed in 1960s near Houston and spread across the state, then the nation, forming about 90 chapters in such states as New Mexico, Nevada, Montana and Wyoming before expanding to Australia and Europe. But Texas remains the group's historical home ground, and its membership outnumbers that of other motorcycle gangs throughout the state.

"The Bandidos would be extremely turf-conscious in the state of Texas," said Edward Winterhalder, a former Bandido who wrote a book about the group. "The last thing on Earth they would want would be a Hells Angels club there."

Austin police Lt. Max Westbrook, who works in the organized crime unit, said police think that about 10 Bandido members live in Austin. Several Bandidos in Austin have been convicted of what Westbrook described as minor offenses, including drug possession.

Westbrook said Bandidos frequently rely on intimidation to protect their turf.

"There is competition between the organizations for traditional money-making adventures gangs get into — prostitution, guns and drugs, mainly," he said. "Unfortunately, competition for that can become heated and violent sometimes."

As the Bandido theory became public knowledge, Rodriguez said he also heard from people who claimed they had attempted to form motorcycle clubs in Austin, only to be threatened by Bandidos.

"Evidently, you can't start an innocent club without getting permission from the Bandidos here in Texas," Rodriguez said.

A local Bandido official whose e-mail address is on the group's Web site did not respond to an interview request. Several other reported Bandido members in Austin declined to comment.

Benesh had moved to Austin from Long Island, N.Y., as a child to live with his grandparents, who had left the Northeast for a warmer climate. His grandfather owned a bar near Lake Travis that catered to motorcyclists, and his ex-wife, Carol Hall, said she thinks that's where his interest in riding began.

By the time he was a teen, he had become an avid rider, even after what Hall described as a near-fatal motorcycle accident in Austin when he was 18. Benesh was in a coma for five days and had more than 200 stitches in his leg, she said, but soon after he recovered he was riding again.

Hall said she met Benesh in 1990 while he was visiting Key West, Fla., with friends — she was living there at the time. The couple dated a few months before Hall moved to Austin and married Benesh.

She said that early in their marriage, she frequently rode with him on his motorcycle. She remembers riding behind Benesh as he blasted down the highway at more than 100 mph.

"He was really into going fast," she said.

As an adult, he tinkered with motorcycles for fun — public records show Benesh owned a Harley-Davidson and an ASVE motorcycle — and worked in construction, rising from a framer to a superintendent.

Hall said she thinks Benesh got the idea of forming a Hells Angels club from a friend who was trying to form a group in College Station and that warnings from friends and family probably hardened his resolve to do it.

"He had the type of personality where if you told him not to do it, it would make him want to do it even more," she said.

Hall said she threatened divorce after Benesh mentioned his idea of forming a Hells Angels club . It was one of the few times she thought he listened to her.

Benesh also mentioned his plan to his uncle and got a similar warning.

"I told him, 'Don't do it,' " Richard Benesh said. "I made my point, but he was thick-headed and he wanted to do it."

Hall said she learned from mutual friends after their divorce nearly three years ago that Benesh had rekindled his Hells Angels plans.

Police called Hall to the pizza parlor to pick up her children the evening Benesh was killed. She said they didn't tell her he was dead until after she arrived.

"(The Bandidos) were the first thing that popped in my head," she said. "And that was the first thing I said to the cops."

By the next morning, tips linking Benesh to a possible Bandido hit were pouring into the homicide unit, said Rodriguez, who got help from several other detectives and members of the gang unit.

Rodriguez said he worked 20 hours straight that first day, taking the calls and trying to get as much information as he could in the critical 24- to 48-hour window immediately after the killing.

He said someone phoned to say that the Bandidos may call with tips that would try to send him on a different track.

Homicide investigators say they are lucky if they get five to eight tips in a case. They've gotten dozens in the Benesh killing, Rodriguez said.

But the tipsters left only fragments of information and refused to give their names and phone numbers for follow-up questions, Rodriguez said.

One caller said Benesh had been fighting with several friends, but Rodriguez said he had found no information to support that theory. Another tipster suggested that Benesh had been killed by Hells Angels — another lead that Rodriguez chased down, only to find no evidence to support it.

"Chasing ghosts," he called it.

Tips have since slowed to a trickle, maybe one every week or so, Rodriguez said.

"You have seasoned homicide investigators who were listening to what I was hearing and they pretty much knew I was going to hit a wall," Rodriguez said.

"I'm frustrated that these guys think they can intimidate everybody into not wanting to come in and talk," he said. "I'm frustrated by them having that kind of power and getting away with it, and I'm frustrated that there are people out there who have information, and if they would just open their mouth, we could solve this."

He and other investigators turned to the public for help. They released surveillance video from Saccone's that showed two vehicles — a light-colored sport-utility vehicle and a dark-colored four-door car — that circled the lot minutes before the shooting.

Rodriguez said that he still has not found the driver of the car, but the driver of the SUV later called police and said he had been looking for a parking spot.

Rodriguez said he has talked to Hall only a couple of times since their initial conversations. More than anything, he said he wants to check on her two sons.

Hall said that after the killing, the children were checking the doors and windows to make sure they were locked and frequently asked if the killer was in jail yet. She said they have since seen counselors and are back in school.

"I know there are people who know who did it, and nobody is talking," Hall said. "These little boys — what are they going to think? That somebody can murder and get away with it?"

Rodriguez said he still has people, including other Bandido members, he would like to question. He has written their names on a dry-erase board next to his desk at police headquarters and plans to spend the next few weeks trying to find them, then persuading them to talk.

"I want to solve this case," he said. "I want to solve it for those children."
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