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Tobacco Heir Steven Benson Is Accused in the Bombing Death of His Mother

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Harry Hitchcock had spent a quarter-century building his once-modest Lancaster Leaf Tobacco Co. into one of the largest importers of cigar tobacco in America when in 1955, at age 58, he twice collapsed from exhaustion. Taking his infirmity as a sign from on high, he became a born-again Christian. “Money does not buy happiness,” he explained to his family. It was not a strikingly original observation, nor did it deflect Hitchcock from his entrepreneurial course: He ran the company for another decade before his retirement. Now, at least with regard to Hitchcock’s own unfortunate family, the comment can be seen as grimly prophetic.

One morning last July, as the dew was still rising in humid Naples, Fla., a Chevy Suburban truck carrying Steven Benson’s mother, sister and adopted brother was torn apart by two massive explosions. Steven’s mother, Margaret Hitchcock Benson, and the brother, Scott, were killed instantly; his sister, Carol Lynn Kendall, was thrown clear and survived, though she was badly burned. One month later Steven was indicted by a Collier County grand jury on two counts of homicide and one of attempted murder. Police said they believed the 34-year-old businessman had planted bombs in the truck and set them off with a remote control device. The presumed motive: money.

As recently as a year ago, the very suggestion might have seemed ludicrous. Margaret, Steven’s mother, was Harry Hitchcock’s daughter and the heir to his fortune. Her wealth was estimated at $10 million, and Steven Benson stood to inherit a third of that. But perhaps he could not wait. From the time he turned 21, the bespectacled young man had shown an inordinate passion for spending his mother’s money. Then, last summer, police say, he learned that not only had she decided to turn off the cash, she was about to cut him out of her will. At that point, authorities conclude, he decided to kill her. Margaret’s sister, Janet Murphy, was not entirely shocked by the charges. “You had to know Steven,” she explained later. “He was different.”

Certainly his childhood had not been conventional. Born in Baltimore, Steven Benson grew up in a 17-room mansion outside Lancaster, Pa. He always wore the finest clothes, and in high school he drove an MG. A friend from earlier childhood remembers, “He even had an elevator for his tree house.” But, according to people who knew him, the toys came with strings attached. Steven’s father was Edward Benson, a former Navy pilot who joined Lancaster Leaf shortly after World War II, married the boss’s daughter and took over when Hitchcock stepped down. Edward, who died in 1980, was a distant man whom people remember as having been always away on business. Steven felt rejected, say friends, and came to see his possessions as compensation for his parents’ indifference. “It was carrot-and-stick from day one,” says Mike Minney, a Lancaster lawyer. “Everything Steven owned was in Daddy’s name. The threat was always there that if Steven didn’t behave, he would be cut off.”

So Steven behaved, at least at first. He played tennis in high school and got average grades. Early on he had shown a talent for electronics; his mother liked to boast that he had assembled a television set before he was 10. Later he designed and often installed the security systems for the family’s homes in Montreal, New Jersey and Florida. But things began to go wrong when Steven reached 18. In 1969 he enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. He dropped out three times, and never made it past his sophomore year. He also gave up on a landscaping business he had started with money borrowed from his father. The company had been thoroughly equipped (“If there was a right-handed edger, we had it,” says a former employee. “If there was a left-handed edger, we had it”) but less thoroughly planned. Overlooking these failures, Steven’s parents bought him and his new wife, Nancy Ferguson, a modest home near Lancaster.

The pattern of failure and reward would repeat itself in the next 16 years, according to friends. In 1972 Steven began an undistinguished career as a low-ranking executive at Lancaster Leaf. In 1979 he divorced Nancy and remarried. With his new wife, Debra Franks Larson, he moved into a new home, provided by his parents, directly across the street from their own. Then, in 1980, Steven’s father died of cancer. Within a month the son quit Lancaster Leaf to found United International Industries, a tobacco-importing firm that would have competed directly with the family business.

But friends say that United International was never more than a gesture, and it died within a year. Five months later Steven signed an agreement to purchase Norwood, a 17-acre estate near Columbia, Pa., for $240,000. Most of the payments were left to his mother. Then, suddenly, he moved to Florida, where she had gone after her husband’s death. Payments on the Norwood property stopped, and it was eventually repossessed.

Naples, Fla. is a quiet city, a last harborage for retirees in pink-and-green madras jackets and wraparound skirts. Steven Benson was not conspicuous there, but perhaps more attention should have been paid. One day in 1982, according to court papers, a roofer on his mother’s Lancaster estate had seen him strolling toward the family tennis courts holding three one-inch copper tubes from which wires protruded. Several seconds later three explosions shook the air, and the worker saw Steven holding a small black box with two push buttons, one red and one white. The roofer would eventually testify that Steven was laughing.

At the time, Margaret Benson was busy in Naples, setting up a $475,000 waterfront home with gold doorknobs, statuaries and an Olympic-sized pool. And she was concerned about her adopted son, Scott, who, according to court documents, was really the illegitimate son of Steven’s older sister, Carol Lynn. As a child Scott had revered his older “brother.” At 18, he was rumored to be a heavy user of cocaine, had been named defendant in a 1983 paternity suit and had been hospitalized briefly under a Florida statute requiring the institutionalization of people who are suicidal, homicidal or unable to care for themselves. “Mother was scared of Scott,” Carol Lynn testified later. “I was scared of Scott.”

Steven, meanwhile, seemed to be exacting a kind of revenge on his mother. According to testimony at a hearing last September, he refused to allow her to see her three grandchildren or to call his home. Yet Carol Lynn has said he was also borrowing money from Margaret to finance an 11-company enterprise entitled Meridian World Group. Meridian, headquartered in a trailer, was supposed to be involved in a variety of businesses, but Steven ran it according to form. “He never followed up on leads,” says an employee. “He tied up the phones for hours, so we couldn’t utilize the leads ourselves.” According to prosecutors, $2 million of Margaret Benson’s money found its way into the businesses.

But there was a limit to her tolerance. Early in 1985, at Steven’s request, Margaret had given him two blank checks to help him meet a $3,000 payroll for one of the companies. Instead, according to Margaret Benson’s secretary, he made the checks out for $50,000 and $75,000 and presented them as a down payment on a house in nearby Fort Myers. “I’ve never seen mother so upset over anything,” Carol Lynn testified later. “She said, ‘That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ ” Margaret also said, according to Carol Lynn, that she wouldn’t put it past Steven to murder her. Not long afterward, she asked her attorney to redraft her will, excluding Steven and cutting him off from the companies held in her name.

Somehow, Naples investigators hypothesize, Steven found out what was happening. On July 5 and 8, they say, a man answering Steven’s description bought two 12-by-4-inch galvanized steel pipes and four four-inch end caps at a local construction supply firm. On July 9 Steven drove his van to his mother’s house, where Carol Lynn was visiting. He offered to fetch coffee and doughnuts for the family but borrowed his mother’s truck to do it. Curiously the five-minute trip took him more than an hour. Upon his return he urged his mother, sister and Scott into the truck to visit some nearby family real estate. Then Steven remembered that he needed a tape measure and ran back toward the house. Seconds later, according to police bomb experts, a galvanized pipe filled with gunpowder and hidden between the truck’s front bucket seats went off, tearing the car to pieces. Then a second pipe, hidden in the back seat, exploded. Steven ran into his mother’s house screaming, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Call an ambulance!” Later that week police discovered his palm print on the receipt for the purchase of the pipe and caps. On August 22, he was arrested.

From jail Steven, who has pleaded not guilty, released a statement expressing “overwhelming grief” over the death of his mother and brother. He also complained about the size of the squad car in which he had been taken into custody and asked whether he could be served poached eggs for his breakfast.

Now 89, Harry Hitchcock is living in Pennsylvania. He was there when his daughter and Scott were buried in Lancaster last July. Steven Benson was there, too. He wept during the service, then approached his grandfather, asking to borrow $20,000. Hitchcock lent him the money. Later, when Steven was arrested, the old man asked the judge to hold his grandson without bond pending his trial. “Anyone capable of murdering his mother for money, ” wrote Hitchcock, “is capable of murdering his grandfather for the same reason.”