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Apartment Complex Challenges Civil Lawsuit In Bennett Case

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A North Raleigh apartment complex wants a judge to throw out a lawsuit that contends a tenant's slaying could have been prevented.

In the lawsuit filed in May 2004, Carmon Bennett claimed Bridgeport Apartments was negligent in its security procedures and ultimately could have prevented the death of his daughter, Stephanie Renee Bennett.

On May 21, 2002, the 23-year-old's body was found inside a first-floor unit at Bridgeport Apartments on Lake Lynn Drive. She had been gagged, strangled and raped.

The homicide went unsolved until last October, when investigators arrested and charged Drew Planten in connection with Bennett's death. In early January, Planten killed himself in his jail cell at Raleigh's Central Prison. The case never went to trial.

"This tragic event occurred, which tears the heart out of everybody in Raleigh," said Wake County Chief Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens in court on Monday.

Lawyers for Equity Residential, the Chicago-based company that owns Bridgeport Apartments, told Stephens that the lawsuit does not fit the law's guidelines for who can be held responsible in someone's death.

"We're asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the person responsible for the crime was the criminal," said Equity attorney Dan Hartzog. "And the effort to hold an innocent third party liable for the crime is inappropriate, because this crime wasn't foreseeable."

But Carmon Bennett's attorney, Charles Bentley, contends the crime was foreseeable. A man matching Planten's description had been seen crouching in the bushes outside Stephanie Bennett's window 24 days before she was killed.

The apartment complex knew about the peeping Tom incident but did not notify tenants. Hartzog said it was seen as an isolated incident and there was no way for apartment management to know that the man, identified as Planten, was dangerous. The area was considered safe, he said, and nothing the apartment complex could have done would have stopped Bennett's killer.

Raleigh police said the killer entered Bennett's apartment through a window during the night and committed the crime. In an e-mail to her aunt soon after the peeping incident, Bennett wrote about how she could not sleep at night and how unsafe she felt.

"Planten went through that window. The window was defective. The shrubbery was too high," Bentley said. "There was no lighting out there, and Planten had been operating on the premises of Bridgeport and stalking female tenants."

Hartzog contends that there is no proof that the window was broken or that the killer entered through the window.

A civil trial, pending Stephens' ruling, is scheduled for Oct. 30.

Originally from Rocky Mount, Va., Stephanie Bennett was a Roanoke College graduate who had moved to Raleigh in 2001 to work at IBM. According to her father, she had been planning to move to Greenville, S.C., in July 2002.

Carmon Bennett said Monday that the lawsuit is about letting young women and their parents know that all apartment complexes are not safe. He wants them to take more responsibility for the safety of their tenants and hopes this lawsuit will send that message.

"If we can save one more person's life, we've accomplished a goal," he said.


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