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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Trial rips at family's fresh wounds
John Benjamin's loved ones are there as jurors hear the gruesome details of his slaying.
By MOLLY MOORHEAD, Times Staff Writer
Published November 14, 2007
Daniel Lee Parbel is one of two men accused of killing John Benjamin over a $300 drug debt.
[David Degner | Times]
[David Degner | Times]
From left, sisters Teresa NaDell and Michele Benjamin, mother Margaret Benjamin and brother Robert Benjamin observe jury selection Tuesday.
NEW PORT RICHEY - On a typical Tuesday, Robert Benjamin goes to work as a lawyer for the Pasco County teachers union.
His sister, Teresa NaDell, teaches PE to special needs kids at a local elementary school. His other sister, Michele Benjamin, lives in New York.
Mom Margaret dotes on the grandkids.
They are, in Robert's words, "an all-American family."
But this week, they are out of their normal routines, reliving a family nightmare. On Sept. 25, 2005, Robert's twin brother, John, was found dead and his body burned inside an SUV in Hudson. His throat had been slashed. Two men are charged in the killing, which authorities said was retribution for a drug debt.
One of them, 37-year-old Daniel Lee Parbel, is on trial this week.
So the Benjamin family is here, sitting side by side in the chilly courtroom, enduring the gruesome retelling of the slaying.
"I'm there for John," Robert said, "making sure we get what little justice we can for him."
* * *
John Benjamin's last day was a horror.
Unable to pay the $300 he owed his dealer, he was first beaten and threatened, then kidnapped in an SUV driven by Parbel, Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis told jurors during opening arguments Tuesday.
From a gas station pay phone, Benjamin called his mother to ask her for the money. Parbel got on the phone, telling Margaret Benjamin that unless the money was produced, her son would be killed.
John Benjamin called her once more later in the day, and that was the last she heard from him.
That evening, he was driven to a construction site off Hays Road, where Christopher Wright, the other man charged in the murder, cut his throat, Halkitis said. Benjamin managed to run, but Parbel, Wright and a third man caught him and beat him, Halkitis said.
Then they left him for dead. He was 37.
They returned later with cans of gasoline, Halkitis said, and the next day construction workers found a charred SUV with a body inside.
Defense attorney Joseph McDermott said the state's case relies on the testimony of felons whose stories are unreliable.
* * *
In 1974, the twins were first-graders when the Benjamin family moved to Florida from New York. Robert remembers spending hours exploring on bicycles with his brother. In all of his childhood memories, John is there.
"We would play around in the bayous of Tarpon Springs, collect conchs and bring them home for conch chowder," Robert said.
When the brothers were trying out for youth soccer, Robert was the last to get picked for the club team, leaving John just behind the cutoff. He got upset, so Robert asked the coach if they could switch places.
But as they grew to be teenagers, the differences between them became clearer. John was the extrovert, the clown, the laid-back one. Robert was none of those things.
Robert joined the Navy after high school, traveled around the world. He went to law school and moved back to Florida after their father died. He's married now with two kids.
John never left. He worked in construction for a while, but eventually went to school to become an optician. He married and divorced and had two sons.
And sometime shortly before he died, he picked up a drug habit.
He had lost his house after a work injury, the family said. His sons had to move in with Robert. His girlfriend left.
"He was self-medicating," Michele said.
But things were beginning to turn around. John was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was getting treatment, for that and for his addiction. The week before he died, he told his brother he had an apartment lined up for himself and his boys.
"He told me, 'I've got to do what's best for my kids,' " Robert said.
* * *
They are each hanging on, in their own way.
Michele can't delete his number from her phone. Robert did it only last week.
After John died, Teresa found his driver's license, which he'd been missing, on the floor of her car.
"I still carry it with me," she said.
The most painful part, they all agree, is thinking about the agony John endured in his last hours. It's something they're enduring together, as a family.
Michele is staying at Robert's cozy house on Cecelia Drive, where a cuckoo clock chimes and family photos adorn the TV room. Margaret lives with Teresa just a few blocks away.
They talk easily about memories, and laugh at things John once laughed at. Every family gathering, though, carries a tinge of emptiness.
"It's like you want to call him," Teresa said, "and there's no one to call."