Date: January 10, 2019

Episode Four: Murder in Broad Daylight

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William Carroll Bennett and Rebecca Browning were beloved in Adel. There was no reason anybody would want to hurt them. Then they were savagely beaten in broad daylight at a popular lunch spot. Thanks to the actions of a couple customers, their assailant was quickly apprehended: 20-year-old Hercules Brown. But the question quickly arose, was this the only murder Hercules was responsible for?

 

Liliana Segura: Bennett’s Cash and Carry was a corner store. More neighborhood grocery than 7-Eleven. Half of the store was stocked with groceries. Nothing too fancy. Meat, bread, chips, milk, sodas- or Coke, as they say in Georgia. The front of the store is where it was at. There was a lunch counter. The old fashioned kind. They served hamburgers, barbecue, fries, and the best chili dogs around. The store was owned by William Carroll Bennett. His family was well known in town. They’d been there for several generations. Everyone knew Bennett as a kind and gentle man. His employee, Rebecca Browning, was also well-known and well-liked. Friendly and sweet. She was usually behind the lunch counter.

Jordan Smith: The store was on the south side of Adel, Georgia, near the outskirts of town. It was a concrete block building on West Ninth Street. There was a Weyerhaeuser plant down the way that made particle board, and a few houses scattered nearby. Directly behind the store were the railroad tracks that slice the small city in half. So it was popular with the guys who worked on the railroad. People like Lloyd Crumley, an engineer who drove freight trains for nearly 40 years.

Lloyd Crumley: We’d stop there quite often. We’d have to work in a little place called Weyerhaeuser and it was right beside the track, and we could just get off and go in there and get us a hamburger for lunch and then go finish the rest of our customers. We enjoyed them, they were really nice people.

Jordan Smith: It wasn’t just the railroad people who loved it though. The store was a real neighborhood fixture. Here’s how Gail Bennett, the owner’s widow, describes it.

Gail Bennett: It was actually, really a family business, because my girls grew up there. They grew up checking people out, working in the store, doing hotdogs and hamburgers at lunch and stuff like that when they weren’t in school.

Jordan Smith: And when somebody didn’t have money for groceries, her husband often gave them credit until the end of the month.

Gail Bennett: Yeah, he did. He did that and especially those that were on fixed income, that had social security. He would let them get groceries until they got their check on the end of the month or the first of the month.

Liliana Segura: The community genuinely loved Bennett and Browning. It was inconceivable that anyone would want to hurt them. Yet, two years after Donna Brown died at the Taco Bell and six months after Shailesh Patel was killed, two more shocking murders: Bennett and Browning. Inside the store, just before lunchtime. From The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith. This is Murderville, Georgia.

Liliana Segura: These last two murders of the four that rocked Adel may be the bloodiest. We wanted to understand what happened and looked for clues that might connect them all.

Jordan Smith: I hope it’s  marked, because this is kind  of a country road, and it’s a  bit unclear. I wonder if we passed  it. Doesn’t it seem like that’s the end  of the road?

Liliana  Segura: Yes.

Jordan  Smith: We  have to have  passed it by now. These  aren’t even houses.

Liliana  Segura: I didn’t see any houses.

Jordan  Smith: There  were some over  on that side. But  maybe it’s up here.

Jordan Smith: We went to visit Lloyd Crumley at his house on the outskirts of Valdosta, about half an hour south of Adel.  It’s a tidy white house set far back from a secluded country road. There’s a rooster in the yard and a tractor with its engine running.

Jordan Smith: I’m gonna say we’re here.

Liliana Segura: Okay. Well.

Jordan Smith: I think this is him. Mr. Crumley?

Lloyd Crumley: Come up to the back door.

Jordan Smith: Oh, I don’t even know, sorry. I’m Jordan, nice to meet you, and this is my colleague, Liliana.

Liliana Segura: Liliana, it’s nice to meet you.

Lloyd Crumley: I thought you’d pull up around here like most people do.

Jordan Smith: Oh, well I didn’t even know if we were at the right house, so…

Jordan Smith: Crumley’s retired now. But he still drives a train sometimes, for the smaller railroad operators.  We sat with him on a brown leather sofa in his airy, light-filled living room. And he told us what happened the day William Bennett and Rebecca Browning were killed.

Liliana Segura: It was a Friday. Crumley was working with a brakeman named Corbit Belflower. The man he, and everybody else, calls Cornbread, and a conductor named Wayne Peters. The three of them worked together for years. It was just after 11 a.m. when they decided to break for lunch. Peters was starving, so he led the way.

Lloyd Crumley: That day, my conductor, he jumped off a little bit ahead of us, me and my brakeman.  He was a little bit anxious. Let’s say it that way.

Liliana Segura: Crumley and Cornbread stayed behind to make sure the train was properly parked.

Lloyd Crumley: The duties of my brakeman and myself was to secure the train to where it wouldn’t roll away, or nobody could jump on it and take it off or anything like that.

Jordan Smith: The train was behind the store, just feet from the entrance. The men were used to working together, so it took them mere minutes to secure the train. As Cornbread recalled it, they were really just seconds behind Peters. As soon as the train was set, Crumley and Cornbread headed over to the grocery store. They were looking forward to a lunch cooked by the woman that Crumley affectionately called Miss Becky. They walked down a path worn through the grass around the side of the building and into a dusty parking lot that ran all the way up to the front of the store. The door was near the middle of the building and there were four large windows across the front. As they approached the entrance, Crumley noticed something odd.

Lloyd Crumley: And as we got off the engine walking towards the train, a guy come walking by me with a baseball bat behind his back and got in a car. And I thought, “My Lord, that sure did look unusual,” you know? Like, “That don’t look right”.

Liliana Segura: The man was black. Twenty-something. Nearly six feet tall. More than 200 pounds. Short hair. He was wearing dark blue pants. The bat seemed to have some kind of stains on it. It looked suspicious. Crumley filed it away in his head but kept going, the way you do with something that seems kind of strange. The man walked toward a blue car parked diagonally right in front of the store. Crumley and Cornbread kept walking towards the grocery.  Crumley got there first and reached for the door.

Lloyd Crumley: And then, my brakeman and myself, we went in and went to open the door, and this black guy was holding the cash register in the door. I reached to open the door for somebody coming out, then I looked and he had a big cash register in his hands.

Liliana Segura: A man carrying a great big electric cash register with the cord dangling from the back. He was a big guy, also black, wearing a hockey jersey and white Nikes. There were small red spots on them. He burst through the door.

Lloyd Crumley: I said, “Hey, buddy, what you doing with the cash register?” And so he threw the cash register and knocked me down with the cash register.

Liliana Segura: Crumley threw his arms up to try to catch it.

Lloyd Crumley: I caught it with my hands as it come to me and it didn’t really hurt me at all. I just fell backwards, because it was pretty heavy. A cash register’s pretty large. He had it in his arms and he just went, “He-yah” and just screamed at me, and throwed it at me. Because I said, “Boy, what are you doing with that cash register?” And he didn’t like what I said, so he knocked me down with it.

Jordan Smith: Crumley quickly scrambled to his feet. The man who had thrown the cash register ran toward the blue car. The man with the bat was already inside it, sitting in the passenger seat.

Lloyd Crumley: And the other guy with me went to grab him.

Jordan Smith: Cornbread.

Lloyd Crumley: He’s a big old feller, the feller that was with me. Big old guy.

Jordan Smith: Crumley thought we might want to talk to Cornbread, to hear his version of the events that day. He offered to call him for us.

Lloyd Crumley: Cornbread. What are you doing feller? Working? Look here. You remember when the Bennett store got robbed and them two people got killed? Me and you went in there. You remember all of that? Uh-oh. I called Conrad. I’m sorry. I’m trying to get a hold of Cornbread. I dialed the wrong number Conrad, I’m sorry. Yeah. All right, you’re Conrad instead of Cornbread. All right, let me dial the right number this time. Excuse me, buddy. All right, bye.

Jordan Smith: He tried again.

Lloyd Crumley: Let me try and find Cornbread instead of Conrad. Oh my goodness, what’d I do that for? Good gracious. Now, see Cornbread is the next one down, under Conrad, and I hit the wrong button there. I might not get- He’s an engineer on the railroad now. He may be on the railway. If he is, he can’t answer. Hey, feller. What you up to? You are? Well lord help. Let me run something by you. You remember that Browning guy, where me and you went into the restaurant, the little store there and he killed them people? Yeah. There’s two ladies that’s reviewing that, and wanting to people about it nowadays. Would you be willing to talk to someone about it? Suppose I hand them my phone and let you talk to them and you give them the information. Will that be all right? Are you sure? All right.

Jordan Smith: Okay. Hello? Is this Mr. Bellflower, correct? My name is Jordan Smith…

Jordan Smith: We didn’t have a good way to record what Cornbread told us, but it corroborated Crumley’s story.

Liliana Segura: Cornbread wasn’t able to catch the man with the cash register before he got behind the wheel of the blue car. He tore out of the parking lot, churning up dirt. Speeding off to the west. Toward the Weyerhauser plant. Crumley and Cornbread jumped into action. Crumley pulled a pen from his shirt pocket and quickly jotted down the license plate number. Crumley then turned back to the store. He knew his conductor, Wayne Peters, was already inside. Cornbread noticed that Peters’ baseball cap was caught in the door.

Lloyd Crumley: I opened the door and looked in the door.

Liliana Segura: Peters was on the floor.

Lloyd Crumley: My conductor was laying on the ground over there just bleeding.

Liliana Segura: He had been hit in the head. His scalp was peeled back near his ear. There was a lot of blood. Crumley was horrified.

Lloyd Crumley: I tell you, it’s shocking to see something like that, to see that much blood on the ground. I didn’t know people would bleed that much.

Liliana Segura: Amazingly, Peters was alive.

Lloyd Crumley: But he was hurt pretty bad, he had a big place on the back of his head that the hide was peeled over, on his head you know? But when I walked over there, and went to pick him up, he was alive, he wasn’t dead.

Jordan Smith: William Carroll Bennett, the owner of the store, was also on the floor. Near the meat counter.

Lloyd Crumley: And then I walked on in and I found Mr. Bennett laying in the middle with a big puddle of blood. His whole head was bashed in.

Jordan Smith: The pool of blood extended from his head to his waist. His legs were straight out and his hands were up by his face. There was blood on the ceiling and on the counter. And a space in the blood to his left, where his assailant had been standing. On the floor there were bits of skull and scalp, with the hair still attached.

Liliana Segura: Rebecca Browning, the woman who worked for Mr. Bennett, had also been viciously attacked. There was blood spatter on the lunch counter near a partially-eaten sandwich and a cup of tea. Browning’s purse was next to it. There was $2.19 inside. Dark hair was stuck to the blood. A pair of dentures were found on the floor near her body, which was also drenched in blood.

Lloyd Crumley: And then the lady, that done the little cooking, she was over to my right. I could see her too, she was- tried to get up under the counter but he had killed her too.

Liliana Segura: Bennett and Browning each died of “blunt force injuries” to the head. Injuries consistent with a baseball bat. Only Peters survived the attack.

Lloyd Crumley: Yea, I was very surprised that Wayne was still alive. So I drug him to the door and put my handkerchief over the back of his head an all that and just held it and had dialed 911. And had talked with them, was telling them what was going on. And of course, they got there in just a few minutes, the police and the ambulance both.

Jordan Smith: Crumley’s call came in at 11:12 a.m. The Adel cops arrived soon after. And they called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the GBI, to take over. They did that anytime there was a big case to solve. Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent who had investigated Donna Brown’s murder, would take the lead.

Liliana Segura: The Bennett family, which owned the grocery, had deep roots in Adel. Bennett’s widow, Gail, told us it wasn’t just his daughters who had sold hot dogs there in the summer.

Gail Bennett: My husband was raised there. I was raised not far from there in a little town in Nashville. So, yeah, the Bennetts have been there for several generations.

Liliana Segura: They had owned the store for about a dozen years. Bennett’s brother, Derrell, also owned a store, which he’d had for almost 20 years. Derrell told the Adel News Tribune that “running a country store is a good clean way to make a living. You have to have it in your blood.”

Jordan Smith: Gail told us that on the day her husband died, she was out with a friend. They were both nurses at the local hospital. Gail was helping to plan her friend’s daughter’s wedding. They had heard the sirens, but didn’t think much of it.

Gail Bennett: Then I got a call around lunchtime from the director of nurses, saying “I need you to come home.” They wouldn’t tell me anything. When I got to the hospital, everybody was there, most of the family and friends and the deacons of the church were there.

Jordan Smith: What did you think? Can you remember what was going through your mind?

Gail Bennett: That it couldn’t be true. Mostly shock, anger. Wanting to see him, and I wasn’t allowed to. Basically when he kissed me bye that morning, that was the last time. That morning was the last time I seen him.

Jordan Smith: Gail Bennett had been in the area nearly all her life, but she couldn’t bear to stay in Adel after her husband died. It took a few years, but eventually she moved to Maine, where she works as a traveling nurse. She’s on the road a lot and hard to reach, but we caught her on the phone one day. She told us about meeting her husband, when she was 16 and he was 18.

Gail Bennett: Back then we just rode around town and we met and started dating. We went out on a double date to start with and then we started dating and ended up getting married.

Jordan Smith: They got married in 1973. His obituary said that he was an Army veteran and the Sunday School superintendent at his church. They had kids and grandkids.

Gail Bennett: We had three girls and he got to see three of the grandchildren. He didn’t get to see all of the grandchildren.

Jordan Smith: She remembers her husband fondly.

Gail Bennett: He was a very caring person. He would do anything for you. He was the deacon of the church that we went to. He was just a very kind, loving, family father, grandfather.

Liliana Segura: But she isn’t the only one who loved him. Tim Balch, the retired Adel police officer, remembered how he helped out in the community. Both on the black and white sides of town.

Tim Balch: I mean, I can’t tell you, probably two or 300 people that I talked with owed Mr. Bennett over $1,000, because he would give them groceries at the end of the month even when they had no money. He made sure the kids were gonna eat and stuff like that, I mean, he was a big-hearted guy, and it was a very adverse reaction down there on him getting killed.

Liliana Segura: Rebecca Browning was well-loved too. She was married and had a bunch of kids. A son, a daughter and five stepkids. Her obituary ran just above Bennett’s in the newspaper. There’s a picture of her, smiling. She has curly hair, pulled back. She wears glasses and small hoop earrings. Lloyd Crumley, the train engineer, remembered that she was the one who always cooked for them.

Lloyd Crumley: She’d fix us hamburgers and hotdogs, and just as sweet a lady as you ever met in your life. I really hated to see that. It looked like she had tried to get away from him and she was up under the counter. Terrible.

Jordan Smith: The community’s response to the murders of Bennett and Browning was powerful, far more so than the reaction to the grisly murder of Shailesh Patel, which was still unsolved. First there was just shock. Right after the crime, people gathered across the street. They saw paramedics attend to Wayne Peters and watched the police put up yellow crime scene tape. Then there was an outpouring of support. Flowers and cards and remembrances in the Adel News-Tribune. And lots and lots of prayers. By the end of the year, the Bennett family had bought an ad in the paper to show the family’s gratitude. “Words of thanks could never start to express the love we felt from this community at the time of the death of our loved one,” it read. “May God bless you, The Family of Carroll Bennett.”

Liliana Segura: The investigation into this murder started out on much stronger footing, certainly compared to the murders of Shailesh Patel and Donna Brown. This was mostly thanks to the quick thinking of Lloyd Crumley as he watched the men speed off. They drove a blue Cadillac with the muffler hanging low.

Lloyd Crumley: And as it come by me, I just looked at the tag number and I said, “You know, I might not remember that tag number.” So I keep a pen on me at all times, for railroad use. So I wrote it down across my hand, the tag number. It was a good thing I did.

Liliana Segura: The number was 104 WRS. A Georgia tag. After the Adel PD showed up, they put out a call for the car and the tag. Within minutes, an officer on patrol spotted the car pulling into a trailer park right around the corner from Bennett’s grocery. There was only one man in the car now. Police pulled him over.

Jordan Smith: The driver sat in the car for a minute. Then he got out. It was the large man from the grocery store with the red spots on his Nikes. The man who threw the cash register and ran. When the police asked him his name, he lied. He gave them a false one. But he wasn’t fooling anyone. Police knew who exactly who he was. It was Hercules Brown. 20 years old, former Cook County High School student and member of the school’s band. The beloved son of an important woman in town. And a guy with a mean streak.

Liliana Segura: People in Adel knew that Hercules’ behavior had been getting worse and more violent. Some had even told the cops that he might have been responsible for the last two murders in town. In particular, Donna Brown. The crime that Devonia Inman was facing the death penalty for.

On the next episode of Murderville: Now that Hercules Brown appeared to have committed a brazen double murder in broad daylight, would the police finally listen?

Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at theintercept.com/murderville. You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Talk to you next week.

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