Survivors, mourners left to grieve
By PAUL WILBORN, JAMES THORNER, GRAHAM BRINK and DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 1998
child watched as her brother was killed and now waits with strangers to learn her future. A construction company owner saw a state trooper murdered, then risked himself to avenge the death. A convenience store clerk dressed the killer's wounds to save her own life.
Hank Earl Carr left four people dead and survivors living with memories of a rampage.
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The day those photos arrived in Ohio, Kayla watched her brother Joey, age 4, be shot and killed inside their apartment. She told neighbors that the man she called Dad, later identified as Hank Earl Carr, fired the gun.
The child now is at the heart of a custody fight among her mother, her maternal grandmother and her biological father.
Kayla Bennett was born in Ohio on Aug. 5, 1992, and grew into a slender child who smiles often and likes to pull her sandy blond hair behind her ears. She played on swing sets at her grandmother's home in Ohio and loved riding her bicycle. She would sometimes play dress-up, putting on lots of adult jewelry and painting her nails bright colors.
But there was darkness in her life as well. Born to a teenage mother, she endured the collapse of her parents' marriage, and at times she and her brother were handed over to relatives by both her mother and her father.
After living with Connie Bowen, her maternal grandmother, Kayla came to Tampa with Bernice Bowen, her mother, and Joey, her brother, in October. Bernice Bowen promised she had left her violent boyfriend, Hank Carr, and straightened out her life. She said she had a job at a Kmart.
But Carr quickly was back in the picture. He moved the family to a neighborhood of pawnshops, liquor stores and storefronts that hawked used appliances and furniture.
A neighbor, Patricia Mercer, said Carr often beat Bowen. When state child abuse investigators checked the family, they found no evidence that either Kayla or Joey was in danger.
"We had no legal grounds for action against the family," said Tom Jones, spokesman for the Department of Children and Families.
But one of Carr's friends, Patrick Seward, said he repeatedly scolded Carr for his harsh spankings of the children.
"I told him, you're a big man and they are just children," Seward said.
Bowen kept her job at Kmart, but she also worked at a Nebraska Avenue strip club called the Starlite Lounge where she danced under the name "Diamond."
Neighbors said Kayla called her younger brother "bubba dude." The siblings, born just 13 months apart, were very close.
The day her brother was shot, Kayla kept asking a police officer who was assigned to watch over her if her brother was going to be all right.
Today, she is with a foster family in Hillsborough County and talking to a counselor.
"Considering what she has been through, with all the trauma, she's doing pretty well," said Jones, the child welfare official.
Perhaps in the next few days, or weeks, a Hillsborough County judge will decide where Kayla will grow up.
State law encourages placement of dependent children with relatives whenever possible, said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder.
Holder said a judge must also consider the physical and mental safety of the child.
"I can tell you all too often we see situations where we look at the family members and the choices between available caregivers are perhaps not the choices we would desire to make," Holder said.
That may be the case with Kayla's family.
Her mother kept Kayla and Joey in a small apartment with a sometimes violent fugitive. Carr kept many guns there.
Her biological father, Joseph Bennett, is unemployed and has signed away custody of all four of his children in recent years.
Her maternal grandmother, who had custody of Kayla and her brother until last October, told reporters she was abused by her late husband. Her current husband lost custody of his son after allegations of physical abuse.
Connie Bowen, the grandmother, arrived in Tampa on Thursday afternoon. Joseph Bennett is still in Ohio but insists he will pursue a custody battle.
And Kayla's mother, Bernice Bowen, already has started proceedings to get her daughter back.
"My little girl is 5 years old. She saw her brother get shot," Bowen told the Miami Herald. "I can't believe they would take my daughter away from me. She doesn't belong with strangers. She needs to be with me."
Mitch Kroundgold, a Clearwater psychologist, said trauma such as Kayla endured could have a serious impact, but he said there is always hope.
"The nice thing about working with children is they are very resilient. Many of them can bounce back and lead a normal life," he said. "The important thing is to get some good intensive treatment early on. As well as to keep them in a loving, caring and safe environment."
'So I thought I might as well kill him'
Enraged at the sight of Carr shooting a highway patrol officer, Dwight Hopkins took matters into his own hands
"I thought he might have shot me next, so I thought I might as well kill him," said the 53-year-old construction company owner from Wesley Chapel.
He came within inches of doing it.
Returning from a business trip in Tampa on Tuesday, Hopkins was driving north on Interstate 75. As he approached State Road 54, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James Crooks pulled behind him and flashed his headlights, signaling him to get out the way.
Crooks was following Carr, who hours earlier had killed little Joey Bennett and Tampa police Detectives Randy Bell and Rick Childers and was driving a stolen pickup truck.
When Carr's truck became snagged in traffic at the SR 54 exit ramp, Crooks pulled his cruiser behind it. Hopkins tried to drive around, thinking he was witnessing a routine traffic stop.
But what followed seemed unreal, like something out of a movie.
Carr leapt from the truck, pulled a rifle from the seat, aimed it at Crooks' cruiser and fired. The blast blew out the front and back windows. A shower of glass pelted Hopkins' windshield.
Peering over the dashboard, Hopkins watched in disbelief as the gunman raced to the driver's side window of the cruiser and fired another shot.
"My adrenaline got up and I got so mad when I saw him do that to the trooper. I wanted to get the guy somehow."
As Carr began running back to the stolen pickup, Hopkins gunned his engine. He sped toward the killer, but Carr jumped into the truck and slammed the door moments before Hopkins rammed the truck's side.
Carr then sped off west on SR 54. Hopkins pursued.
"It was like a reflex," Hopkins said. "Something bites you, you turn around and slap it."
After driving a few hundred feet, Carr whipped the truck into a U-turn and headed east. Hopkins said he could see Carr's "vile and evil" face.
He saw Carr trying to train his rifle on him. But, in a flash, Carr was gone -- heading north again on I-75, to lead police on a desperate running gunbattle on the highway that ended with Carr holding a hostage at a Hernando County gas station.
Because there was no chance of catching Carr, Hopkins returned to check on Crooks.
A crowd of officers had arrived by then. Many were weeping.
Hopkins doesn't consider himself a hero. That goes to the man who died with a burst of shattered glass.
"It wasn't bravery on my part," he said. "I just got mad and threw a fit."
'All she wanted was to get out and get away'
Carr pulled off Interstate 75 about 3 p.m. and jumped out of his truck in the Shell station parking lot
Stephanie Kramer, a clerk, knew nothing of Carr's rampage until he climbed through the window of her cashier's cage with two 9mm handguns.
"He said, "Don't move, I've already shot two other people,' " Kramer said.
In the 41/2 hours that followed, she dressed his wounds, admired his pictures, played on his sympathy and filled his mind with a lie.
At one point, he asked her to console him.
"So I held his hand," she said. ". . . I told him I was sorry."
A Hernando County Sheriff's Office negotiator told her that she was getting too comfortable with Carr.
But that wasn't so, Kramer said in a transcript of the interview that the Sheriff's Office released Thursday.
By the time he burst into the Shell service station in Hernando County where she worked, Carr had killed four people. She offered friendliness to Carr only because she wanted to get out alive.
"Well, excuse me. He's got a gun," Kramer told officers.
"All she wanted was to get out and get away from him," said Paula Hill, the mother of Kramer's boyfriend of nearly 10 years, Christopher Hill, and the couple's next-door neighbor.
Kramer remained too upset to talk to reporters Thursday, Mrs. Hill said. She didn't sleep Tuesday night, barely ate the next day -- when she was still so fragile that she broke down at the sight of Carr and the boy on the television.
Her stress is understandable after her hours of high-stakes diplomacy: trying to persuade a known killer not to make her his next victim.
"I'm not going to rob you," he told Kramer, after picking up a bag of money and then putting it down.
"I'm not gonna make it outta here."
Outside, police officers took positions all around the station. SWAT-team snipers had the go-ahead to shoot if they had a clear view.
Inside, Carr asked Kramer to take a look at the wound in his left buttock. He said he could feel pressure on his spine.
"I need to know how bad it is," he told Kramer.
He pulled his pants down and peeled back the Ace bandage. The wound was still bleeding. Kramer described it as a "good-sized hole."
Carr sat down behind the cash register and called his mother on the phone. After he hung up, the phone began to ring. First, a Tampa radio station called. Then a Times reporter.
Carr calmly explained during the interviews how he had killed the Tampa detectives and said he didn't mean to shoot the boy.
As Kramer listened, she began to realize what Carr had done.
"(While he was on the phone) he kept turning back and looking directly at me and talking directly to me and ignoring them," Kramer said.
After the interviews, Carr talked with Kramer. He kept repeating that he didn't mean to shoot the boy. He didn't mention the trooper and spoke only briefly about the detectives.
" "I hate cops. . . . I meant to shoot 'em. That I will not take back,' " Carr told Kramer.
Instead, Carr dwelled on his girlfriend, whom he called his wife, and his love for her kids. He showed her the pictures of his girlfriend's children, the 5-year-old daughter and the 4-year-old son he shot.
""I didn't mean to do it.' He kept saying that over and over again," Kramer said. "Then he talked about putting his girlfriend through school and how proud of her he was."
This inspired her to make him think she was pregnant.
"I just figured one way to kinda earn his trust a little bit was to ask him a question," she said. What if she was pregnant and her boyfriend didn't want a baby?
"He looked at me and said, "Kids are the most beautiful thing in the world.' He goes, "If your man doesn't want to have kids, you need to find a man that does,' " she said.
Actually, Kramer told detectives, "I don't want to have kids, but anything to get (his trust). It seemed to work."
Most of the time, "he was actually very nice. He was very polite," she said.
Only once did he threaten her -- when he asked Kramer to get him a pack of cigarettes. "But please don't run because I don't want to shoot you," he told Kramer.
Eventually negotiators began talking with Carr on the phone. Carr often handed the phone to Kramer, allowing her to talk with the negotiators for long periods. She tried to persuade them to let Carr talk longer with his girlfriend, only because it seemed to calm him.
Carr always kept the guns nearby. He showed her the empty chamber of one of them. And then he explained how the other contained just two bullets.
"He told me he was gonna kill himself. He could not live with the thought of killing his child," she said.
He would do just that a few minutes later. When the SWAT launched tear gas canisters into the station, he killed himself with a single shot to the head.
Just before he did, he sent her out the door with letters he had written to his loved ones, $180 for his girlfriend, and the handcuff key he had used to escape from the Tampa detectives.
"Finally, he told me . . . , "Go, tell my wife that I love her. Give her a hug . . . and pray for me and my baby. Now go.' "
She wasn't convinced.
"Halfway out the cage, I turned back to look because I . . . I was afraid he had the gun up and he was going to shoot me in the back of the head."