The retrial of a man charged in an Horry County murder that happened more than two decades ago continued Wednesday with testimony from witnesses including the mother of his child.
Prosecutors said 57-year-old Gary Wayne Bennett, who has been incarcerated for nearly 20 years, killed Eva Marie Martin.
Martin was found dead in her Little River Road home on May 23, 2000. Her throat was slit and her pants had been pulled down.
Bennett, however, has maintained his innocence. He is being tried on charges of murder, armed robbery, first-degree burglary and conspiracy to kidnap.
Initially, police charged Bennett and a man named Andrew Lindsay with the murder.
Prosecutors allege the murder stemmed from a plot concocted by the two of them to rob a Surfside Beach area Taco Bell where Martin and the mother of Bennett’s child, Amber Vrooman, both worked.
The state said Bennett and Lindsay were co-workers in a pest control business and would take others’ money and belongings.
Vrooman said the same during her testimony.
"[Lindsay and Bennett] were creating master keys and took things from certain units," she said. "They brought back phones, TVs, anything they wanted from these units."
She added the stolen items were sometimes brought back to her home in Socastee.
The state contends Bennett and Lindsay wanted to get the combination to the Taco Bell’s safe and that Bennett grew “obsessed” with stealing the money.
Vrooman said Bennett inquired about how the money gets counted at the eatery and if she had access.
"I didn't have keys to the store nor did I have access to the safe," Vrooman said. "I would take the money to the store's office, which was located in the middle of the store, and I would hand the money off to the manager. I would then stand outside the door and wait for the manager to hand me back the tray.”
She said Martin, an assistant manager, had keys to the restaurant and access to its safe.
Martin’s supervisor at the Taco Bell testified this week that if lost, team leaders’ keys were not easily duplicated. And, it was expensive to do so.
She recalled Martin losing her keys twice and said Martin had to pay to replace them on the second occasion in the time leading up to her death.
She also said there had been a couple of break-ins at the Taco Bell, including one through the drive-thru window.
Martin’s roommate, Natasha Herrick, discovered Martin’s body the night of the murder.
She testified Martin had been set to pick her up from work that day.
Herrick said that morning she’d heard Martin get ready for work.
Herrick ended up having to take a cab home after getting off of work. When she arrived home, she had to use one of its two back doors to get in due to a lock at the front door.
Once inside, she saw Martin kneeling beside her bed with her back and rear end exposed. Herrick tried to talk to Martin, but Martin did not reply.
Martin’s bedroom was a mess, which was unusual as Herrick said Martin always kept her bedroom tidy.
Horry County Police Lt. Mark Bonner, who was a patrol officer at the time of the murder and responded to the scene that day, said Martin’s room was in disarray.
Herrick ran to a nearby trailer and called the police after seeing Martin’s body.
Lindsay received a plea deal that allowed him to admit to being an accessory after the fact. Lindsay testified that he and Bennett were at Martin’s home when he overheard him killing her while he was in another room.
Lindsay was convicted of murdering a woman in Illinois in the 1990s, but that information was not presented at Bennett’s trial.
Although Bennett has proclaimed his innocence, he was convicted of murder and armed robbery on Aug. 14, 2002. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Bennett’s conviction was upheld by the appeals court, so he sought post-conviction relief, or PCR, to secure a new trial.
In his pursuit of PCR, Bennett said his trial attorney Johnny Gardner, who is now the Horry County Council chairman, had been ineffective.
Bennett was successful in 2014, leading to his new trial that began this week.
Testimony continued Wednesday afternoon. Check back for updates.