The trial of Arthur Bennett, an ex-Marine accused of molesting three girls and faking his own death, has been postponed indefinitely because attorneys were unable to qualify enough prospective jurors.
Seventh District Judge James L. Shumate, along with prosecutors and Bennett's defense attorney, spent all day Monday questioning 28 prospective jurors behind closed doors. In the end, they were only able to qualify 15 panelists, one short of the number needed for attorneys to pick an eight-member jury and an alternate.Shumate set a hearing for March 25 at which he will consider a defense motion to move the trial from St. George. The judge, however, said that at this point he is inclined to take another stab at seating a local jury. No new trial date has been set.
"I'll call 60 next time," Shumate said. "If we start with 60 and can't get a pool, then we'll try a change of venue."
Also at the hearing, Shumate will decide whether he needs to conduct a preliminary hearing on two additional charges of sexual exploitation of a minor filed against Bennett late last week.
Bennett, 44, was known to his neighbors in nearby Hurricane as Joe Benson, a gregarious veteran with a penchant to be a blowhard. He and his family moved to the community in 1995, and Bennett quickly involved himself in a variety of community projects, most dealing with children and some involving the Hurricane High school drama club.
Questionable behavior involving some girls - Bennett, for example, barged into the girls' dressing room a few times - got him banned from the school last spring. At the same time, ugly rumors about his alleged sexual assaults on young girls surfaced.
He was arrested on Halloween by Hurricane detectives who had been dogging the allegations for several weeks. Learning that he was about to be arrested, Bennett took an overdose of pills and wound up in the hospital.
Meantime, what was a routine case took a bizarre twist that has baffled police in three states and sent the town of Hurricane reeling.
Because Bennett, they say, is supposed to be dead.
Investigators say Bennett, a sergeant in the Marines, faked his own death in a trailer fire near Las Vegas in February 1994 during an investigation into allegations he molested another soldier's child while stationed in Yuma, Ariz.
Police don't know whose charred remains they found in the ashes of the fire but suspect he was murdered.
A Clark County, Nev., grand jury is expected to hear evidence in that case later this week.
Bennett, who remains in jail charged with 13 felonies, has refused interviews.
"I want to see what happens in Nevada," he told The Associated Press Monday.
Investigators say Bennett, flush with $200,000 in insurance money, moved with his ex-wife and three daughters to Hurricane, 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas, where he assumed the identity of the affable Benson, who endeared himself to the town's teenagers.
Last year, however, rumors began to crop up about Bennett. His eldest daughter, age 15, testified at a November hearing that she had confided in a friend that her father was coming into her room for sex almost nightly. She put a lock on her door once, the girl said, but Bennett broke it down.
Soon, lawmen found two other alleged victims - Bennett's 13-year-old daughter and a neighbor girl who claims that Bennett went from one girl to another for sex during a slumber party.