Stephenson receives life sentence

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 28, 2004

JACKSON – After more than two years in jail, Benjamin Franklin Stephenson III, appeared before the court, Thursday, and pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder concerning his involvement in the slayings of former Woodland residents Levar Butler and Daniel Earl Spruill.

District Attorney Valerie Mitchell-Asbell of Judicial District 6B, who prosecuted the case stated, &uot;After many lengthy meetings with the family members of both victims, I agreed to allow the defendant to plead guilty to two counts of first-degree murder for which he received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.&uot;

She added, &uot;This decision was consistent with the families wishes of how the case should be handled since family members of both victims wanted the defendant to spend the remainder of his natural life in prison so he could reflect on his actions and what those actions did to their families.&uot;

According to Northampton County Sheriff Wardie Vincent, who handled the investigation in cooperation with the Woodland Police Department and Hertford County Sheriff’s Office, the death of the two individuals resulted from an altercation that began inside the old Onyx Nightclub in Potecasi on February 24, 2002.

Vincent said an argument or fight had been taking place between several young men before the shooting occurred, adding that when the three young men, later charged with murder, got into a vehicle to leave, the men in the car fired five or six shots from a .32 caliber handgun randomly into a large crowd of people gathered outside the club, hitting the two victims.

&uot;The two people who were killed were not involved in the fight,&uot; Vincent said. &uot;From what I understand, they were involved with security at the club, but had not gotten involved in that altercation.&uot;

Another victim, Maurice Williams, also from Woodland, was grazed by a bullet, but was treated and released from the hospital shortly after the incident took place.

Stephenson, who resided at 124 Hardwood Road in Murfreesboro, was 21 when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Also facing first-degree murder charges is Steven Deron Gatling, former resident of 1307 Highway 158, Murfreesboro who was 19 at the time of the crime and currently in jail under no bond.

Also facing charges are Glenn Montreal Cowper, former resident of 2105 G-8 Bogarde St. in Durham who was 22 at the time of the crime and Morgan Dupree Watford, then 19, and former resident of Ahrewood Road, Murfreesboro who were charged with accessory after the fact.

Both are currently in jail under a $100,000 bond each.

Investigators at the time stated that approximately 50-60 people were exiting the club when the fight escalated into the parking lot where Williams, Butler and Spruill attempted to break it up. Stephenson, Gatling and Cowper are then believed to have exchanged blows with someone outside their vehicle while they were attempting to drive away, resulting in a broken windshield.

After making their way some distance from the club, authorities say that Stephenson stood up through the sunroof of the car and fired shots into the crowd hitting Butler in the back and Spruill in the chest, killing them both with one of the bullets grazing Williams.

According to Sheriff Vincent the two young men charged as accessories to the murders, Shamar Rynell Simmons, then 18, of Mapleton and Watford were in a separate car that sped away behind the car carrying the murder suspects until the two cars reached Woodland, where the three young men from the first car got into the second car, which dropped all the suspects off at different locations, presumably their homes in Hertford County.

Asbell hopes to have the remaining cases related to the crime completed by the end of the year, depending on the defendant’s trial positions.