Murder on the Florida Space Coast: Did he do it?

Gary Bennett knows little of life beyond the menacing rows of razor wire that have surrounded his cage for decades. After 33 years, memories of fishing from the dock or taking a swim or drinking a cold beer exist only as yellowing photographs in his mind.

For the last six weeks, Bennett's story -- his 1983 arrest and 1984 conviction  for the murder of Helen Nardi -- has been the subject of the FLORIDA TODAY investigative podcast "Murder on the Space Coast." The podcast was inspired by a simple question: Was the right person arrested, prosecuted and convicted?

As we dug back into this case it became apparent that -- at the very least -- Bennett never received a fair trial. The state made up evidence against him and the courts turned a blind eye to his numerous appeals.

Police apparently ignored other possible suspects and violated Bennett's rights by denying his request for an attorney during a 12-hour interrogation. Evidence that seemed to point to Bennett's innocence was shrugged off --- or reinterpreted.

Gary Bennett has served nearly 34 years of a life sentence for the 1983 murder of Helen Nardi. Here he talks about his case from the Northwest Reception Center in Chipley, Florida. Gary has always said he was innocent of the charges.

The jury that convicted Bennett heard testimony from a dog handler whose abilities were already being questioned and whose involvement in other cases across the country led to dozens of convictions being thrown out.The dog handler claimed his dog could do the impossible in linking a murderer to the crime scene or weapon. It was pure malarkey, but the jury was told it was science.

The case against Bennett bore remarkable similarities to other cases in Brevard where the convicted were later found innocent and freed. Reliance on the dog handler. Jailhouse snitches who conveniently appeared and promised to testify about alleged jailhouse confessions in exchange for a promise of concessions from the state. The replacement of competent public defenders with state-appointed attorneys who offered up pitiful defenses.

Those same tactics also helped convict and incarcerate three innocent men who spent decades in prison before being found innocent: Juan Ramos, Wilton Dedge, and William Dillon.

“That’s what they did to us,” Dillon said years after being exonerated for a murder he did not commit. “They took young kids that were easy to do, easy to throw away and they just took us and threw us away and now society won’t try and correct the problem.”

The following is based on extensive interviews, trial transcripts, depositions, police narratives, court files, medical records, incident reports as well as statements made in 1983 to the police.

Chapter 1

THE MURDER

There was already a large and curious crowd, never mind the July heat that afternoon. And the flashing lights from a squad car ensured even those who hadn’t yet gathered knew something bad had happened.

Mary Parkins bounded out of her mother’s trailer at the Fitzsimmons Trailer Park in eastern Palm Bay.

“Kermit didn’t do it,” she yelled, referring to her husband. “Kermit didn’t do it.”

Only yards away, in the small trailer's only bedroom, Parkins' mother – 55-year-old Helen Nardi – was sprawled on the floor. She was found lying naked and partially covered with a white sheet. A pair of scissors was crammed in her chest, just above her left breast.

The grimace frozen on her denture-less face relayed the horror of the ice pick lodged so deeply in her upper spine that the medical examiner would need vice grips to remove it. Broken glass was scattered over the filthy carpet from a Coca-Cola bottle that had likely been cracked over Nardi’s head.

The Palm Bay trailer where 55-year-old Helen Nardi
The Palm Bay trailer where 55-year-old Helen Nardi was stabbed to death in 1983.
(Photo: Courtesy Brevard County Clerk of Courts)
The television was on in the kitchen. Broken-off handles of an ice pick and steak knife were soaking in a cup of water in the dish-filled sink.

“Look at her knees,” Parkins told investigators. “It looks like she’s been dragged.”  

***

Up the road from the Fitzsimmons Trailer Park, Gary Bennett, his father and step-mother loaded into their car to head to the hospital.

Bennett's step-brother had a long roofing nail shoved into his knee during a construction job. It looked as if he was going to need surgery. He was waiting for his family at the hospital in nearby Melbourne.

“I wonder what’s going on over there.” Bennett's step-mother stated to no one in particular as they passed the growing police presence and yellow crime scene tape in the trailer park.

The crime scene would still be active hours later when the Bennett family returned home. Curious, they turned on the television and learned there had been a murder.

“Go on out there and see what’s going on Pee-Wee, will ya?” Bennett's step-mother asked him, using the moniker that had stuck on the 26-year-old since childhood.

It was July 13, 1983.


***

Bennett today is gaunt and pale. He looks like he weighs no more than a buck twenty five soaking wet. His eye glasses, circa 1977, could have been a prop on the set of the television show 'Love Boat' and his prison uniform looks to be at least two sizes too big. His cloudy blue-eyed gaze is intense; his toothless grin wide. Long scars run down both of his forearms from past suicide attempts.

“I’m trying my damnedest to keep a positive attitude,” he says while sitting in a small room the prison officials let us use for an interview at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley, a medium security prison.

Hope can be dangerous for someone in Bennett's shoes and he seems to know this, never allowing his freedom fantasies to become too elaborate.

"I want a pile of bait. I want a cane pole. I want to be able to sit on a dock and I want to fish for eight hours without anybody bothering me. I just want to sit there by myself," he says, adding a second simple daydream. "Go and rent eight hours worth of movies, then I would want a bucket of chicken, a bucket of ribs, a six-pack of beer and wouldn’t want anyone to bother me for eight hours."

He smiles sadly, lets his shoulders slump and mutters something about the fantasies "both sounding pretty good."

***

The broken-off handles of an icepick and steak knife were found soaking in a cup of water in Helen Nardi's kitchen sink.

The day after Nardi’s murder, Dr. Michael Dyer performed the autopsy. He concluded that she had been stabbed 26 times.

In her stomach, he found undigested potato chips and vegetables. In her mouth and vagina, he found traces of semen.

That was the same day that Palm Bay homicide investigator LeRoy Dunning went to speak with Nardi's daughter Mary. Ten years earlier, Dunning had rented a trailer to Mary and her husband Kermit Parkins. He was aware of the strange dynamic within the family.

He knew that murder victim Helen Nardi used to sell her children to landlords for sexual favors in exchange for reduced rent. He knew that two of her three children were taken away by child services. He also knew that the state permitted 16-year-old Mary to marry then-53-year-old Kermit Parkins to avoid being taken away as well.

It’s not clear when he learned Nardi was also having sex with Kermit Parkins, her son-in-law, who was also 10 years her senior. But Dunning knew that now.

Again, Mary told the investigator that her husband had nothing to do with the murder. When he asked her who she thought might have done it, she said Gary Bennett. After all, she told him, “Gary is mentally unstable.”

Chapter 2

THE INVESTIGATION

Due to epilepsy, Bennett was prone to gran mal seizures. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that.

But they likely did not know that Bennett had spent a few years in a state hospital then a boys home in West Virginia. His father, according to family members and Gary's medical notes, was an abusive alcoholic. Bennett's childhood was rough. According to a note summarizing some of Bennett's mental and medical issues as a child, he was placed in four different foster homes and had a history of running away and suicide attempts. The note also said he'd engaged in "homosexual experimentation."

And Bennett was no stranger to police.

In 1976, Dunning, who was then a fire marshal, knocked on Bennett's front door after a suspicious fire behind a drug store where Bennett worked. Palm Bay Police Sgt. Bob Swartz investigated. Bennett admitted setting the fire in a handwritten letter to Swartz. He also apparently admitted to something else in that letter:

I have feelings toward little girls sexually but have not done anything yet.

I am asking for psychiatric help.

I have asked for help before but I was put in A.G.D.S.B. (Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys) and forgot about.

Please help me this time.

Gary S. Bennett, Jr.

In another 1976 handwritten note, this time from Swartz to either prosecutors or medical personnel at the Rockledge Crisis Center, Swartz wrote: "Bennett had related in a handwritten statement that he had developed an interest in small girls and I would feel to blame if Bennett committed such an act."

“Mary spent most of the time during the interview giggling, showed no remorse or loss of her mother.”
FROM POLICE NARRATIVE TAKEN JULY 21, 1983
***

The crime scene investigation did not yield many clues. There were no bloody footprints leading from Helen’s trailer. There were no blood-smeared handprints on the door handle.

The investigators dusted for prints. They found several from Kermit and Mary, as to be expected.

By all accounts, Mary and Kermit Parkins were never considered suspects despite notes like this in the police files:

Mary spent most of the time during the interview giggling, showed no remorse or loss of her mother. Even though this was an informal interview and not documented it was obvious to this investigation that my conversation with Mary, as far as she was concerned, was a fun thing. Mary did not take me seriously. (excerpt from police narrative taken July 21, 1983, by Detective Gus Williams)

That same day, Mary’s husband Kermit also gave a statement to police. He described the day of Helen’s murder in detail and even added this: “There was even bad luck on T.V. that night because the Atlanta Braves lost the ball game.”

Detective Williams described Kermit as not very cooperative.

Police also found some of their own prints clumsily left at the crime scene, and roughly 10 they were never able to identify.

But there was one partial palm print hat caught their attention.

It was in the hallway closet that just 21 inches into Nardi's bedroom. That was one they could identify. That print belonged to a 26-year-old unemployed neighbor who was no stranger to the three lead investigators working the scene.

The print belonged to Pee-Wee, Gary Bennett.

***

Bennett looks up from the stack of papers the prison staff allowed him to bring to his interview with me and shakes his head. He pulls out a sketch of Nardi's trailer and points at where his partial palm print was found.

He never denied being in the trailer. Bennett and Nardi knew each other. Years earlier Nardi had rented a cottage to Bennett's father and stepmother. In fact, Bennett was in her trailer two days before she was brutally slain, he said.

Gary Bennett's partial palm print was found on this
Gary Bennett's partial palm print was found on this closet door inside Helen Nardi's trailer
(Photo: Courtesy Brevard County Clerk of Courts)
But he was never able to explain why his print wound up on the hallway closet except that it was directly across from the bathroom, which he'd used.

“I was on my way to my grandmother’s house, she lived on Glasner Avenue and when I got onto Palm Bay Road I ran into Helen and she had a big grocery bag and I said ‘let me carry it for you.’  I said ‘where are you living?’ and she said ‘right over here at the trailer park.’

And I carried it for her and she showed me her trailer and we talked for a good half hour, something like that. We talked about my mom and dad, and that she was only paying $100 a month for her trailer, just normal stuff like that.”

***

Police went to speak with Bennett briefly and he seemed to have an alibi. He also told them about a white car he saw driving around the night of the murder. Two days after Nardi's body was discovered, Dunning called Bennett and asked if he would come to the police station to look at photos of white cars to see if he could identify one.

Even though it was bowling night, Bennett agreed.

The second he arrived, Dunning spun Bennett around and slapped handcuffs on him.

“You’re gonna fry in the electric chair for what you did.”

Bennett went crazy. Other officers had to help subdue him.

Gary Bennett describes his interrogation and the speed of his trial.
That’s when the interrogation began, even though Bennett asked for a lawyer. The questioning continued for the next 12 hours. It even continued after Detective Williams went to his supervisor, Bob Swartz, and asked him to stop the questioning because Dunning had not honored Bennett’s request for an attorney.

Finally, during the early morning hours, Dunning asked Bennett if he would agree to a rape kit test at the hospital. They would check discharge and the pubic hairs found at the scene against Bennett's.

“What the hell are we doing standing here,” Bennett answered. “Let’s go. I want to prove I had nothing to do with it.”

“No hairs microscopically consistent with the head or pubic hair of Gary Stanley Bennett Jr. were found on the specimen," came back the test results.

***

In addition to the rape kit test, Bennett also passed a lie detector test administered by Phil Sellers, who was working for the State Attorney’s office.

He was released and the murder investigation seemed to stall.

And while Bennett thought that he was off the hook, police weren't that quick to dismiss his possible involvement.

LeRoy Dunning brought the polygraph results back to Swartz for another look. Swartz' interpretation was different.

He said Bennett failed.

Courtroom transcript regarding Gary Bennett's polygraph results by Florida_Today on Scribd

****

Retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent and profiler Tom Davis recently looked at the documents and photos in the case for FLORIDA TODAY and offered his assessment of the crime scene and murderer.

"It was very disorganized in nature," he said. "It gave the impression that the offender did not come there to commit murder. There was no forced entry so the primary crime was probably not burglary. It could have been a social visit that went bad for whatever reasons. Thus the offender was not prepared with weapons, ligatures or restraints of any kind. So he used what was available, weapons of opportunity."

He also surmised that the killer may not have been very strong or intelligent.

"The number of weapons immediately alert me to the inadequacy of the attacker," he said. "The victim, in this case, was an 117-pound female, unathletic, no known spatial training like martial arts, nothing that would elevate the risk to the offender. So, that says to me the offender wasn’t really intelligent and he didn’t have any killing capacity before and didn’t put  a lot of forethought into it."

“There was no forced entry so the primary crime was probably not burglary. It could have been a social visit that went bad for whatever reasons.”

Bennett looks bewildered when I ask him about his dreams.

“For years I was having nightmares about the state of Florida trying to execute me. One time I was down on a dock in Palm Bay, and I had a dream that there were nooses all along the dock and these guys were walking out there and putting their heads through the nooses and they were being executed. I’m sweeping the dock and then finally when they got done with the last one, the officer says: ‘Come on Bennett, put your head through the noose, I’m about ready to go home and I’m like…looking at him like, ‘you’re kidding me, right? You’re kidding me.’

Now I’ll sometimes have dreams that I found some money or I found this or I found that something really good happened to me.  And I wake up and ‘oh sh*t,’ you know?

Sometimes you have good dreams and sometimes you have horrible dreams."

Chapter 3

THE TRIAL

Police tightened their focus on Bennett but they needed more to present to the grand jury. This was about the time that leads prosecutor John Dean Moxley, who later became a judge, contacted former Pennsylvania State Trooper John Preston, who was earning a living as an expert witness and dog tracker. Preston said his dogs could track after weeks and months, after hurricanes, over water and even after a road had been asphalted.

There were already rumblings that Preston – Moxley’s longtime secret weapon – was a fraud. He was being investigated in New York by the federal government. That didn't keep Moxley from going to Preston time and time again. In all, Preston once said, he worked on more than 100 cases in Brevard County.


An independent FLORIDA TODAY investigation of grand jury indictments between 1981 and 1984 revealed Preston's involvement in 16 murder and capital sexual assault cases in which the dog handler testified or offered key evidence that resulted in a plea bargain. Three of those men convicted: Ramos, Dedge, and Dillon, were declared innocent years later.

In this case, he testified that his dogs “alerted” to Bennett's scent on the murder weapons months after the murder.

Disgraced dog handler John Preston claimed his dog tracked Bennett's scent to the murder weapon.

We now know that is impossible. We also know that the test was a sham. When presented with a pair of large bloody shears and small rounded scissors fresh from the plastic packaging, the dog predictably "alerted" to the bloody pair. Another similar test with a bloody towel from the crime scene could not be completed because the dog urinated over the evidence before the test.

Preston was eventually fully discredited and called a “fraud and a charlatan” by the Arizona Supreme Court a few years after Bennett's conviction.

But this was October 1983, three months after Helen Nardi's murder. The grand jury indicted Bennett on charges of capital murder.

Then came another blow to Bennett. Just like in the other cases of Brevard men later found innocent, prosecutors suddenly got lucky with another bit of apparent evidence - a jailhouse snitch. These snitches claimed the suspects confessed their crimes while awaiting trial in the county jail.

Gary Bennett during his two-day 1984 capital murder
Gary Bennett during his two-day 1984 capital murder trial
(Photo: Florida Today file)
The snitches received reduced sentences or other considerations. In Bennett's case, two men claimed that the slight man nicknamed "Pee-Wee" was bragging about the murder while threatening other inmates.

Once a jailhouse informant came forward, it created a conflict of interest because the defendants and the snitches were often being represented by the public defender’s office. This required a substitute attorney to be hand-picked to work the murder case. In the case of William Dillon, the new attorney was Frank Clark, an alcoholic who was later disbarred.

In Bennett's case it was Laurence Litus, whose peers said had problems similar to Clark's and should never have been given a murder trial.

***

During a telephone interview for the podcast, attorney Paul Casteleiro of Centurion Ministries described Litus' defense of Bennett as "appalling" and said it seemed as if Litus didn't care at all. In fact, Litus never called one palm print expert to refute the only piece of evidence in the case. He also never called one witness that would have allowed him to establish the fact that the victim and her son-in-law were having sex.


Seth Miller of the Innocence Project of Florida, the group that helped free Dedge and Dillon, said it was typical for the State Attorney's Office to fill in their less-than-convincing cases with jailhouse snitches and the dog handler.

“I got screwed so bad by the train that I didn’t even get a chance to see the caboose. That’s how railroaded I got. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.”

"(They took) steps to fill in those gaps with evidence that’s going to help them secure a conviction," Miller said. "What we saw in a number of these cases was really two key tools for filling those gaps:  We saw the use of John Preston, the dog handler, who had access to law enforcement files so he knew the facts of cases and could really lead his dog to answers rather than his dog leading him to answers and really just manufacturing evidence and we also saw the sort of prevalent use of jailhouse informants or snitches as we like to call them – people who are incentivized or given something to provide evidence against a criminal defendant usually that they confessed and what we find in many of these cases is that that confession that supposedly happened never did actually happen."

People like William Dillon, Wilton Dedge and now maybe Gary Bennett never had a chance.

Dedge spent 22 years in prison.

Dillon spent nearly 28 years in prison.

Bennnett has been in for 33.

***

Bennett was convicted after a two-day trial. The jury, despite arguments from the state to return a death sentence, instead sentenced Gary to life in prison.

“They selected a jury on the morning of January 3, 1984," Bennett said.  "My trial started on the afternoon of the 3rd. I was found guilty on the 5th, sentenced on the 6th and in Lake Butler (prison) on the 13th.

I’ll put it in plain prison English. I got screwed so bad by the train that I didn’t even get a chance to see the caboose. That’s how railroaded I got. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.”

Chapter 4

THE AFTERMATH

Gary Bennett has served nearly 34 years of a life sentence
Gary Bennett has served nearly 34 years of a life sentence for the 1983 murder of Helen Nardi. Here, he talks about his case at the Northwest Reception Center in Chipley, Florida. Gary has always said he was innocent of the charges.

The standard appeals were denied.

Just as the last ember of hope began to cool, a New Jersey group – Centurion Ministries – took on Bennett's case. They were intrigued by the involvement of John Preston and the similarity between Bennett's case and the others previously exonerated.

They fought for DNA testing but were told all evidence had been destroyed -  all except the door and the handprint.

Letter from Judge Moxley by Florida_Today on Scribd

They filed a motion claiming that the revelation that Preston was a liar should count as new evidence. They were denied.


They filed a motion that all judges in the 18th Judicial Circuit be recused because Moxley, the prosecutor in the case, now served as a judge in the 18th Judicial Circuit. The appeal suggested prosecutorial misconduct.  They were denied.

“I am more than willing at any time to take any type of test they can possibly come up with to prove my innocence.”

“To be quite honest I never quite understood why we couldn’t have even gotten a hearing on the evidence that we presented,” said attorney Paul Casteleiro with Centurion Ministries. “The Dedge and Dillon cases were pretty compelling arguments for newly discovered evidence.

“It’s always difficult when you go against a well-respected prosecutor who is now a judge, you know it’s a hurdle that you have to overcome," he continued. "We were alleging prosecutorial misconduct quite clearly. There was no evidence in this case.”

When contacted for an interview or comment on the case -- in particular regarding the involvement of dog handler John Preston -- Brevard State Attorney Phil Archer defended the conviction.

"As far as “overturning (your word)” all the cases involving dog tracking, as always all cases are subject to review if and when new evidence arises," Archer wrote in an e-mail. "As it stands, there is more than sufficient evidence to sustain the conviction of Gary Bennett regardless of the minor role played by Preston and the dog."

***

If Bennett had accepted a plea deal offered by the state just before he went to trial, he would have been out of prison a long time ago.

He's lost a brother, a sister, and both parents while in prison.


****

Sitting across from Bennett, taping him for our podcast, I knew I had, to put it bluntly.

"For the record: Did you ever have sex with Helen Nardi, even before this," I asked.

"No, I did not. Never. Never."

"Did you kill her?"

Bennett responded: "No sir."

Again I pressed, "Have you ever killed anybody?"

"No sir," he said. "I am more than willing at any time to take any type of test they can possibly come up with to prove my innocence."

USA Today


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