Remembering the service of a former police chief

-A A +A

A column by former commonwealth's attorney Barry Bertram

My son John and I were discussing our long history of working with Dennis Benningfield over the past years, primarily since l988 when he became a detective with the Kentucky State Police. At the time I was the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Green, Taylor, Marion and Washington counties, and John soon became an assistant.

Dennis was one of the most capable detectives with whom we ever worked, and would spend whatever time it took to work the case and do follow-up work (even if it meant working on his own time). He handled scores of cases over the years, but some were high profile and had more interest to the general public. One of the more interesting was a bank robbery in Campbellsville that was carried out by a preacher’s wife from another county. Seems she had taken her husband’s savings for his future plans to enter law school. She robbed the bank to replace the money secretly taken from her husband. They later divorced, and I don’t think the pastor went to law school.
A much more serious case involved several dangerous inmates who escaped from prison and were apprehended in Taylor County after an investigation and chase in the part of the county near Smith Ridge Road. The escaped convicts fired some shots, but nobody was hurt. Later it took four or five deputies to subdue one of the inmates in a court appearance.
One of the cases that received the most publicity was the trial of two men who had beaten a young African American boy and put him in the trunk of a car and then set the car on fire. After they left, the fire went out and the young man was found two days later, still alive. It took good detective work by Benningfield and others to lead to the arrest and trial of the two men.
The case that probably took the most ingenuity and hard work was the solving of a rape case in Taylor County. A man had been stopping women at night by flashing his lights and giving the impression he was in law enforcement. In an incident on the road toward Lebanon, a woman leaving Fruit of the Loom late at night stopped after he flashed his lights.
In the ensuing rape, he left a couple of partial finger and handprints on her car. She was able to give a reasonable description, and the KSP had just come out with something called an “identi-kit” which Dennis says was a little better than a child’s toy where you could draw overlays. By making a rough outline of the features of the assailant, Dennis showed this to various police officers and one gave the name of who he thought it looked like. Dennis interviewed the man and ultimately found that his hand and fingerprint matched the prints from the car. He pleaded guilty without a trial.
Dennis investigated many other cases, and I remember that we either got guilty pleas or conviction at trial on practically all of his cases. We see in the papers that child sexual abuse is a terrible problem in our nation as evidenced by the pending high profile case at Penn State involving crimes that happened years ago. Late reporting is always a problem for prosecutors and law enforcement in general.
Dennis investigated a case in Washington County about 20 years ago that was reported by a woman in her mid-20s about a crime that had happened when she was about 11 years old. She was allegedly sexually assaulted by her stepfather over several months in Washington County, and later when they moved to Mercer County. She had gotten away from the home at around 13 and lived with her father.
She had never disclosed this to anyone until she saw the man in a grocery parking lot and he made a comment to her. She found out he was then living with a woman who had children, and she felt she must come forward. He was first indicted in Mercer County, but the case was settled without her input. Even though he took a 10-year sentence as I recall, she was very dissatisfied with that sentence. Her sister was a witness in Mercer County, but there was no witness in Washington County.
Relying solely on her account of what took place, we secured an indictment for several counts of rape and sodomy. She had earned a registered nurse’s degree by that time and was a very compelling witness, both before the grand jury and in the trial. I felt she was the most convincing witness I had seen in my many years of practice.
There were 22 counts each of rape and sodomy with a maximum punishment of 20 years on each count. The jury gave him 20 years on each count to run consecutive for 880 years. He came up for parole a few years later, but we appeared and objected to his release. He later came up again for early release because of a terminal medical condition. He was not released, but died in prison.
We share this to show what good police work means, but you must also have someone willing and able to testify.
Dennis, John and I appreciate your many years of effective service in law enforcement and wish you well in retirement or future endeavors.

Barry Bertram is a former commonwealth’s attorney. He lives in Campbellsville.