By Denise Noe
Handcuffed and Helpless
For two decades, a man operating variously in
Atlanta, Georgia and Tampa, Florida, preyed upon gay male prostitutes
and men he apparently thought were prostitutes. The attacks are believed
to have started in 1968.
A hustler would meet a dark-haired, thin,
bespectacled John with bushy eyebrows. Sometimes he would be in an
expensive suit; other times he would be casually attired in jeans and T-shirt.
Sometimes he wore a mustache or beard. If he was shaven, he always
seemed to have a heavy five o’clock shadow.
The John paid the prostitute merely to take a drink
of vodka, which must have seemed like an unusually easy way to earn a
few dollars. Sometimes the well-spoken man told the prostitute that a
study was being conducted on the effects of drinking a certain amount of
alcohol and asked him to take part in this “research” for $50 or $100.
Whatever the ruse, the drink was spiked and the prostitute quickly lost
He awoke to a horror. Often he found himself
handcuffed and burned on his genitals or legs. Sometimes the attacker
put cigarettes out on the victim, other times flammable liquids.
Victims were reluctant to press charges. After all,
they were prostitutes and didn’t want to draw attention to their
profession or homosexuality. Often troubled men “on the margins” to
begin with, they were left to cope with the psychological and physical
devastation of these horrendous attacks without even the small
compensation of justice being done.
To Print or Not to Print
The air in the newsroom of The Atlanta Journal
Constitution, the city’s biggest newspaper, was thick with tension.
It was the newspaper’s tradition to withhold the name of a suspect in a
criminal investigation who was neither a fugitive nor officially charged
with a crime. Did they dare break with tradition in the case of the
As reporter Richard Greer noted, the name of Robert
Lee Bennett Jr. was “meaningless to most Atlantans, his right to privacy
as great as any other little-known person’s.” What if Bennett was not
the Handcuff Man? By publishing his name, would the newspaper be
invading his privacy? Would it be subjecting an innocent man to an
unwarranted public notoriety? Some feared it would compromise the
privacy of innocent citizens in the future. Because of this concern,
previous stories on the Handcuff Man had not only refrained from
mentioning his name but had left out information that might lead readers
to identify him.
But some in the newsroom argued that public safety
was at stake. They pointed out that there were many documents connecting
the wealthy local attorney to the Handcuff Man’s cruel crimes against
gay hustlers. Bennett had been arrested for kidnapping an undercover
officer posing as a hustler. When his ex-wife sued him for divorce, her
lawyer and several men had accused him of being the Handcuff Man. And,
as Greer wrote, “State archives contained more than 400 pages of
documents providing solid links between Bennett and the sadistic acts of
the Handcuff Man.”
Editors at The Atlanta Journal Constitution,
however, still were not satisfied that publicly naming him as the
suspected torturer was justified. Then his most recent victim picked his
photograph out of a group of photos. And a victim of years previous also
fingered him. That did it.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a story
naming Robert Lee Bennett Jr. as the suspected Handcuff Man.
The next day, Tampa police requested information from
their Atlanta counterparts, and the later charged Bennett with an attack
on a Florida man, who had been doused in gasoline and lit on fire. The
victim had survived, but the injuries were so severe that both of his
legs had to be amputated.
“In retrospect I have no doubts,” Greer later said.
“Considering the information we had by the time we published Bennett’s
name, our natural fears should have been allayed. Our prime concern
should have been prodding the police to enhance the safety of the young
men who were at risk.”
Child of Privilege
Robert Lee Bennett Jr. was 22 months old when he was
adopted. Prior to the adoption, had the infant been abused, neglected or
traumatized in a way that might have turned him to violent crime? The
answer is not known.
The childless couple who took him into their home was
a successful attorney, Robert Bennett, and his homemaker wife, Annabelle
Maxwell Bennett. They had married in 1933 and set up housekeeping in
Towanda, Pa. In 1943, the elder Robert Bennett was appointed president
of Citizen and Northern Bank. Annabelle Bennett volunteered for the Red
Cross, and her husband was a tireless fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts.
The family did a great deal of traveling for pleasure.
“Bob” Bennett Jr. does not appear to fit the profile
of a serial predator. The background of such a vicious criminal is
frequently one of severe deprivation, either economic or psychological
or both. In many cases, there is a background of physical or sexual
abuse, or often emotional abuse by unstable, repressed, neurotic,
superstitious or alcoholic parents. None of this is known to have
occurred to Bennett.
Both parents appear to have loved him and were close
to him. As a little boy, Bobby was a Boy Scout and had a paper route.
“If the weather was inclement, his father would drive him around in his
Fleetwood Cadillac to deliver newspapers,” recalled Leon Wizelman, a
friend of the family who, as a car dealer, sold them cars. “Both parents
were very high-class people.”
Young Bob is remembered as an outgoing teenager,
involved in many organizations. Never an athlete, he was not among the
most popular boys in school, but neither was he the victim of bullying.
He belonged to the Glee Club, the chorus, was features editor of the
student newspaper, and was a member of the science club. He appears to
have had a lifelong love for botany. The Atlanta Journal Constitution
reported that, “He won second place in a science fair for a project
For his high school graduation, Bob’s father gave him
a picturesque $167,000 house located by Lake Wesauking.
Bennett appeared to have grown into a bright and
accomplished young man. He graduated from the University of Denver in
1969 and went on to earn a master’s degree in political science from the
University of Virginia. However, in 1971, while studying there, he was
charged with indecent exposure. Records about this case have been
In 1974 Bennett received his law degree from
Atlanta’s Emory University, took a job with his father’s law firm of
Davis, Murphy, and Bennett in Pennsylvania, and had another run-in with
the law. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bennett
allegedly observed a “plainclothes Atlanta officer who was working
undercover to catch male hustlers on Fifth Street near Cypress Street.”
Although the article does not report how successful the officer was at
arresting male prostitutes, he was apparently quite good at imitating
them since Bennett mistook him for one and kidnapped him. The undercover
cop was soon rescued, uninjured, by backup police.
Kidnapping charges had been dropped by the time
Bennett came to trial. His attorney cut an excellent deal by which Bob
pleaded no contest to the relatively minor offense of simple battery.
The millionaire lawyer got off with a meager $75 fine.
In 1976, Bob had another legal difficulty, and one
that led him to move away from Towanda. A young New Yorker was traveling
in Pennsylvania when, police believe, he met up with Bob Bennett. The
attorney paid the man to drink, and the two had sex in Bennett’s car.
They then headed for the lakeside cottage that had been the Bennett’s
high school graduation gift.
For some reason, the man from New York got scared. He
grabbed Bennett’s keys, jumped in his car, and drove off. But he quickly
The man refused to cooperate with police. Apparently,
like so many of Bennett’s victims, he wanted to keep his dealings with
Bennett private. Also, according to an article in The Atlanta Journal
Constitution, a Towanda police officer claimed that another officer
“discouraged the alleged victim from pushing an investigation.”
speculated that the officer did this because Robert Bennett Sr. “held a
seat on the Civil Service Board, which reviews police promotions.”
Another investigator seconded that opinion. “Nobody wanted to press
charges against him because of the influence of his father,” the
investigator said. “His father was gold.”
Guy Notte, an Atlanta lawyer who would eventually
handle both divorce and criminal matters for Bob Bennett Jr., recalled a
conversation he once had with a saddened Bennett Sr. about his son. “He
is my cross to bear,” the father said. “My wife loves him dearly and I
love my wife and that’s the only reason I put up with him.”
The Towanda police were, however, able to persuade
Bennett Jr. that it would be best for him if he left the area. He moved
The attorney soon found employment with the Atlanta
law firm of Kidd, Pickens and Tate. When not working at his chosen
vocation, he was apparently pursuing his other, crueler interests.
One victim, James Crowe, later described his
frightening encounter with The Handcuff Man. Crowe was just 19 years old.
“In the early part of the summer of 1977,” he testified in a deposition,
“I was on Buford highway and I was hitchhiking to Atlanta.” Friends had
told Crowe that gay men hung out in Piedmont Park so that was where the
slender, longhaired youth went.
At Piedmont Park he met a slim, tall fellow wearing
“Do you drink?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Crowe responded.
“Want to make some money?”
The man told Crowe that all he had to do was drink.
“The more shots you drink,” the man told him, “the more money I’ll give
Crowe stepped into the tall man’s blue Cadillac. The
older man gave his new friend some liquor and Crowe was soon feeling
tipsy. The man drove the pair to a trailer park and began playing with
Suddenly Crowe sensed something was wrong. He tried
to get out of the car, but the other man grabbed him by his long hair
and pulled hard. Still, James unlocked the car door and torpedoed out.
As he did so, he felt a sharp, stinging pain on his right shoulder. He
ran and his attacker ran after him. Crowe fell, then got up and started
screaming and throwing rocks at his assailant. Crowe got away but did
not seek medical attention for his wounds or report the attack to the
police. He gave as his reasons that he doesn’t “like doctors” and did
not want his sister to know he had been hustling.
A couple of weeks later, Crowe was back at Piedmont
Park, this time with another, more experienced hustler who was “trying
to show me some ropes,” he said. Crowe spotted the man who had plied him
with drinks and stabbed his shoulder. He pointed him out to the other
hustler, who instantly recognized the thin, dark-haired man. “He’s got a
bad reputation,” the hustler told Crowe. “They call him Handcuff Man.”
During roughly this time period, Bennett at age 29
began dating a female secretary, Sandra Powell, who worked at the law
firm. She was five years older and earned $17,000 per year. At first,
the two shared rides home from work, then began dating. Bennett proposed
to her in 1978 and Powell accepted. She agreed to marry him despite his
honest admission to her that they would not be husband and wife in the
complete sense. Bennett told her that he was impotent.
“The marriage was one of convenience for both parties.
They enjoyed each others’ company and he treated her like a princess,”
said Bennett’s lawyer Guy Notte.
Did Bennett’s bride see anything in him beside dollar
signs? Maybe. “He was an intelligent man,” Notte said. “He had a very
dry sense of humor at times.”
Shortly after their marriage, Bennett quit the law
firm and got a job as a jewelry salesman at Davison’s department store
in Columbia Mall. Then, for reasons unknown, he stopped working. He did
not need money, His father had died of heart failure and left his son a
great deal of money, including a portfolio of stocks, hundreds of
thousands of dollars, and the Bennetts’ elegant Towanda mansion.
According to Sandra Powell Bennett’s testimony at
their divorce trial, Bennett did not become much of a househusband. “He
would just hang around the house all day,” she claimed, “and he would be
in his robe when I got home.” She said that she worked at her paid job,
then went home to do all of the cooking and housecleaning. Bennett often
suffered from insomnia. The main pleasures in his life appeared to be
working in his garden and painting landscapes. The situation “was very
stressful,” she recalled, but she “kept it inside and tried not to let
it affect the relationship.” Despite their troubles, they discussed
adopting a child, but never followed through on their plans.
During his marriage, Bennett apparently pursued a
hobby other than painting and gardening -- torture, which his confused,
lonely wife knew nothing about.
In early 1982, young Cleveland Bubb was standing on
an Atlanta street corner. Bubb was a good-looking guy with a rather wide
nose and an oval face. A man in a blue car drove up to Bubb. “Would you
drink a bottle of vodka with me?” he asked. “I’ll give you $100 to do it.”
Bubb got in the car, and the two men drank together. The man wore
expensive clothes but seemed a bit sloppy. He had a gold chain around
his neck and the first three buttons of his shirt open. The pair also
went to a bar called The Texas Drilling Company and downed a few.
The next thing Bubb remembers is waking up in the
parking lot. He wore only his “parachute pants” and had two cigarette
burns, one on his belly and the other on an arm. Later Bubb would say
that he wanted to “take a bottle and break it over [his attacker’s]
In September 1982, something happened that shocked
Sandra Powell Bennett to the core and led her to leave her husband.
Bob Bennett Jr. was arrested for murder and armed
robbery. His wife was walking home from a bus stop when she saw her
handcuffed husband being led from their home by uniformed police
“What is it? What have you done?” she gasped.
“I don’t know,” he replied, apparently as baffled as
she was. “They won’t tell me anything.”
Bennett was charged with the murder of 24-year-old
James Lee Johnson, a dishwasher who had been shot. His body was found
with his wallet missing.
Although the charges were dropped two months later
because of insufficient evidence, Sandra Bennett did not return to her
husband. He contested her suit for divorce. According to Notte, his
lawyer, “He knew she was going to get out of the marriage, but he simply
contested it because of the money, because she wanted a fortune.”
Three gay male prostitutes testified at the divorce
trial that they believed Bennett to be the notorious Handcuff Man.
Sandra Bennett was granted a divorce and awarded $40,000 as a divorce
settlement; in addition, Bennett was ordered to pay $12,000 in lawyers’
1985: Attack on Max Shrader
In the years following his divorce, Bob Bennett
divided his time between Towanda and Florida, where he stayed with his
disabled mother in winter and spring. Annabelle Bennett had been in a
bad car accident while vacationing in Kenya and had been left paralyzed
as a result. Her major comfort was the devoted son who doted on her as
she had doted on him while he was growing up. While he spent much time
comforting his mother and keeping her company, Bennett “could be
verbally abusive to both his father and his mother,” Notte remembered.
An acquaintance of the Bennetts recalled that Bob Bennett “made comments
sometimes that she could irritate him to the point he wanted to scream.
We said, ‘Bob, you probably do a lot of things to make her scream.’”
In 1983, Bennett was banned from the Gallus, an
Atlanta bar and restaurant with a predominantly gay clientele. The ban
came about when a gay male prostitute complained to Sergeant J. D.
Kirkland that Bennett was known to pick hustlers up and injure them. On
Nov. 4, 1983, Bennett signed a document saying he understood he had
“been barred from the premises of the Gallus restaurant” and that he
could “be arrested without further notice and charged with Criminal
Trespass” if he returned to it.
In 1984, a young man named Myers Von Hirschsprung was
standing on a street corner near his home waiting for a bus to take him
downtown. A car approached him.
“Need a ride?” the driver asked.
The youth did. He got in the car and exchanged
introductions and pleasantries with the middle-aged man behind the wheel.
“I’m a professor at Georgia Tech,” the driver told
Von Hirschsprung. As Myers recalled, the man’s speech had a rather slow
cadence to it. “I’m doing a study about people’s drinking and their
tolerance levels for it. I’ll pay you $100 to drink whatever kind of
liquor you want to, Myers, if you’ll drink it as quickly as you can.
We’ll go somewhere and you’ll drink and then walk and if you’re walking
OK, you’ll drink some more.”
Von Hirschsprung was instantly suspicious. They were
near his destination, and the young man decided he did not want to earn
$100 that way. “Please just let me out,” he told the supposed professor.
The man did, and Myers escaped.
In 1985, a gay male prostitute who used the name
“Chico” was picked up in Atlanta by a dark-haired, bespectacled white
man. As he was driving, the customer showed Chico a pair of handcuffs.
“Try them on,” he urged. “I just want to see how they look on you.”
Chico was instantly wary. “Please stop the car,” he
“No,” was the reply.
Chico saw that the door lock had been removed and the
handle covered with duct-tape. The window was open, however, and the
terrified, and small, Chico dove out of it as the vehicle was moving.
He was badly bruised and scratched from his fall but
escaped without other injuries.
Others were not so fortunate.
Max Shrader was a handsome, slim and streetwise
Atlanta youth who sported small black tattoos on both forearms. One
sunny day in April 1985 he was hanging around the streets of Ponce de
Leon and Barnett and, in his own words, “looking for some money” when he
spotted a potential source.
A man in a car kept driving around the block The man
parked at a curb and motioned for Shrader to approach.
“Get a hard on for me,” the driver said. “I’ll drive
around the block and come back.” True to his word, he took off and
circled back to the same place. “Would you like a drink of vodka?” he
“Yeah,” the hustler replied.
The John handed him a brown drink.
“I mixed some coke in it,” the customer explained.
Shrader began drinking. Almost immediately he felt
woozy, then crumpled to the ground. He knew the drink had been laced
with something. Semi-conscious, he was pulled into the passenger seat
of the man’s car. “Don’t hurt me!” he begged. But the vehicle took off.
The stranger drove Shrader into a wooded area and
began taking Shrader’s clothes off. He pored a cold liquid over the
drowsy young man’s genitals.
Then he set Max Shrader’s genitals on fire.
The helpless man lay on the ground shrieking for help
as his attacker sped away.
Someone heard Shrader’s cries and called the police.
Shrader spent two months in the hospital, in pain and
often heavily sedated. He could not walk during much of his hospital
stay and had to wear a diaper-like gauze over his genital area.
But the Handcuff Man was not satisfied. On June 10,
1986, two Atlanta pals, Michael Johnson and Anthony “Tony” Poppilia,
were hanging out on Ponce De Leon between the Goofy Gofer and the
Pegasus. Poppilia was wearing a tight blue fishnet tank top, blue jeans,
cowboy boots, and a black hat.
A man called to Poppilia from a car, and Poppilia
approached him. The driver introduced himself as “Jim” and asked if
Poppilia wished to earn $50 by participating in an Emory University
study on the effects of given amounts of alcohol. Poppilia told Jim to
wait a minute.
Then Poppilia ran back to his friend Michael. The
two friends usually gave each other the license plate and description of
guys who picked them up, and Poppilia did so this time.
When Poppilia explained that he was going to drink
some alcohol for this “researcher” then walk a straight line, Michael
said, “You can do that if you want to, but remember you’ve got to be at
work tomorrow at seven.” He also warned his friend to be careful
because there was a weirdo around attacking guys.
Jim drove Poppilia around for awhile, serving him
vodka. Eventually, Jim stopped his car behind the Texas Drilling Company
bar. “Would you like to put on a pair of shorts so you’ll be more
comfortable?” Jim asked, holding a pair of cut-off jeans.
Poppilia agreed. Underneath the emergency stairs of
the bar, Poppilia peeled off his pants and put on the shorts. They had
no pockets, so he had to leave his wallet and other personal items in
his own pants.
The two men went into the bar and downed a few drinks.
Poppilia’s memory of the night is fuzzy after that. He recalled that,
when they left the bar, Jim seemed to want to get away from him, but
Poppilia followed him to the car because he needed his pants and wallet.
Poppilia was able to get into the passenger seat, but Jim took off and
pushed Poppilia out of the vehicle while it was moving.
Poppilia called to a man carrying a garbage can
nearby, and the man approached.
“I just got mugged,” Tony explained before losing
consciousness. He was wearing only his undershorts, and he had suffered
several abrasions and bruises. He was later unable to recall removing
his shirt or the shorts he had been loaned.
When he came to, three men were crowded around him.
“Where are you living?” one of the men asked.
Poppilia gave him his address and directions before
When he awoke, he was at a Dunkin’ Donuts with two
Atlanta police officers. “Could you identify the man who called himself
‘Jim’?” one asked.
“Yes,” Poppilia replied.
He didn’t have to wait long. “Jim” was standing in
the parking lot of the donut shop. Two men who had been alerted to the
crime had blocked his car with their own vehicles. One of those men was
Poppilia’s friend Charles Fallow, who had also been mugged by Jim.
About nine months earlier, Fallow said the two of them had been drinking
together and the man had handcuffed Fallow, then beat and robbed him.
Gary Clapp was unemployed in February 1991. Trained
as a carpenter, engaged to be married, and the father of a three-year-old
daughter, Clapp had left his home in Massachusetts for Florida on a
quest for work.
Needing a free meal one night, Clapp waited outside a
Salvation Army office in Tampa, not knowing that the area was frequented
by male prostitutes and their predators. As he waited, a man drove up in
a white Lincoln Town Car and beckoned to Clapp. The thin, dark-haired
driver wore a Fu Manchu-style mustache and large, gold-rimmed glasses.
He offered Clapp $50 to drink vodka as part of an experiment. “He was
well-spoken,” Clapp recalled. “He seemed like he was on the up and up.
I asked him his name, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
Clapp got into the car
and settled against the brown leather of the passenger seat. The
unemployed man accepted several shots of vodka from a plastic cup as the
two men conversed and shared cigarettes. The man had a notebook and pen
with him. He jotted down notes as Clapp guzzled drinks.
“You need to drink faster,” the “researcher” told
Gary. Gary Clapp began losing consciousness. He has said that he may
have visited a bar with the stranger but was not certain. He did not
recall the horrendous events that transpired immediately afterward.
A police officer driving on Tampa’s Courtney Campbell
Causeway spotted what looked like an out-of-control bonfire in a nearby
field. He stopped to investigate. It was the burning body of Gary
Nelson Garcia III was one of the firefighters on the
scene. He later testified, “I was surprised he lived. . . . we really
didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Clapp did pull through, although both his legs had to
be amputated above the knee. His fiancée broke off their engagement.
Sitting in a wheelchair in a state-run boarding home, a despairing Clapp
said, “Things fell apart when this happened. I don’t know why the guy
didn’t just finish me off. This is not going to be easy.”
When the cops eventually brought a series of
photographs and spread them before Clapp, he instantly recognized his
attacker. Clapp said, “It took me a minute to say something. I
couldn’t believe they got him so quick, and seeing his face again, I
went into shock.”
But police did not catch Bennett then, and he often
returned to Atlanta. In May 1991, a young man named Michael Jordan Jr.
was found severely burned.
Jordan was handsome and slightly built with wavy dark
brown hair. He sported a small beard and mustache. He was walking down
an Atlanta street when he saw a man in a white Lincoln motioning to him.
Michael noticed that the tag on the man’s car said “Pinellas County,
Florida.” Being from Florida himself and wanting to make conversation,
Jordan said to the stranger, “How you doing, Clearwater?”
“No, I’m from St. Pete,” the smiling driver replied.
“Do you want to make $50?”
“Well, what do I got to do to make $50?” Jordan asked.
“All you got to do is drink,” the man told him. “I
got three pints and if you drink it all, I’ll give you $50.”
“Drink, that’s it? Sure.”
“First, walk around the corner to Fifth Street and
Juniper. Then take your shirt off,” the driver instructed.
Jordan headed for Fifth and Juniper but didn’t remove
his shirt when he got there. The Lincoln tailed him, then went to a
nearby parking lot. Again the stranger motioned for Jordan, who went to
the parking lot and got in the car with the older man. Michael took his
shirt off, and the driver gave him a drink.
“You got a problem here,” Jordan jovially informed
him. “I come from a long line of alcoholics and I’m going to be able to
drink this with no problem.”
“If you get a bit drunk, don’t worry,” the man
assured him. “I’ll rent you a room and you’ll be alright.” Then he
asked Jordan to take his penis out and try to get it hard. Jordan
complied with that request as well. The stranger told Jordan he was
going to go to the store for a Coca Cola to mix in the drinks. He
handed the youth a $20 bill and Jordan stuck it in his moccasins, then
sat down in the parking lot and waited for the man to return.
He did and gave Jordan another drink.
That was all Jordan could remember before waking up
in the hospital in agony because of terrible burns over his genitals,
buttocks and legs.
He had been naked and unconscious when his assailant
dropped him behind an Atlanta hotel. For awhile, the badly injured man
could not be interviewed by authorities because he was either in
excruciating agony or heavily medicated.
He also had special fears because of where he had
been burned. “If I get an erection,” Jordan said, “it bleeds and they
don’t know if I’m going to be normal again there.”
May 1991 was apparently a busy month for Bennett. A
young man named Mathew “Red” Vernon told police that on the weekend of
May 17 he was picked up by a white male driving a Lincoln Continental.
The man gave him $20 for every pint of vodka he could drink. As they
drove around, Vernon realized who had picked him up.
“I’ll drink the next half pint if you give me the $20
now,” he told the man.
Bennett gave him the money.
The $20 securely in his palm, Vernon opened the door
and jumped out of the car, telling the driver, “I know you. You’re
Handcuff Man.” Once on the sidewalk, Vernon stuck his finger down his
throat and vomited up the vodka.
In the meantime, Jordan had recovered just enough for
a productive interview with police investigators. He could not remember
how he had been assaulted but he did recall Bennett being the last
person he had been with before losing consciousness. He had no trouble
picking his picture out of a group of photographs the police showed him.
Then Max Shrader picked out Bennett’s picture as that
of the man who had offered him money to drink five years before. “The
reason I didn’t forget it,” the wounded man said, “is that I thought
about it every day.”
It was after this second identification that The
Atlanta Journal Constitution made the difficult decision to name
Bennett as the suspect in the vicious Handcuff Man assaults.
A Plea Deal
After he was publicly fingered, Bennett issued
vociferous denials. “I am not the Handcuff Man!” he emphatically told
reporters. He alleged that an Atlanta detective led hustlers to
identify him. “I think that [the detective] wants desperately to put
this Handcuff Man behind bars,” Bennett said. “And he thinks I’m that
person. It doesn’t happen to be true.” Guy Notte, Bennett’s attorney
in the Atlanta cases, called it a “case of mistaken identity.”
Free on $300,000 bail, Bennett resided, as he had in
the past, with his disabled mother, Annabelle Bennett.
In September 1991, Notte suggested an alternative
culprit in the Florida attack on unemployed carpenter Gary Clapp.
“Witchcraft is definitely involved in this,” Notte said. The lawyer
went on to say that close to Clapp’s burning body there had been
“decapitated chickens, decapitated goats, which smacks of the cult
Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that combines
elements of Roman Catholicism with aspects of the West African religion
of the Yoruba. The religion, which has many adherents in Florida, is
controversial because animal sacrifice is one of its rituals.
In the Atlanta cases, Notte requested a change of
venue because he claimed that “the tenor and intensity of publicity
surrounding this case has severely prejudiced potential jurors.” Fulton
County prosecutor Dee Downs opposed the motion.
In June 1991, a tense and haggard-looking Bennett
appeared in an Atlanta courtroom to waive extradition to Florida. He
also complained bitterly about his conditions of incarceration. He said
he was given no breakfast and had to go five hours without a blanket,
pillow or cigarettes. He said other prisoners were threatening him.
“One . . . said he’d cut me,” Bennett claimed.
Speaking on his client’s behalf, Notte requested that
Bennett be separated from his fellow prisoners. “We’re not asking for
special favors,” Notte claimed. “We just want to ensure his safety.
He’s under a tremendous amount of pressure at the jail. He’s under
When Gary Clapp learned that his attacker was on his
way to trial in Florida, he was living in a tiny, government-subsidized
apartment. His trousers pinned up around his thighs, holding and petting
a black cat purring in his lap, he gave an interview to a reporter from
the St. Petersburg Times. The legless man was using a wheelchair
to get around and talking about the possibility of someday being fitted
with prosthetic legs. He fantasized about what he wished could happen
to Bennett: “Truthfully, I’d like to see the same thing happen to him
that happened to me.” He also said that he wanted to be in the court
when Bennett was tried though he knew it would be emotionally wrenching
to have to face the man who burned off his legs. “It can’t be any harder
than it’s already been,” Clapp said.
Before trial in Tampa, Clapp gave a deposition at the
district attorney’s office. Also present were Bennett, his lawyer Notte,
the prosecutor and a court reporter. One of Clapp’s leg stumps began to
bleed. Notte asked if he was OK and if he wanted to delay the
deposition. This solicitousness made Bennett angry. Notte recalled
Bennett as, “the coldest, most remorseless client I ever worked with.”
Bennett had at first been determined to fight the
charges. He spent $500,000 preparing his defense but lost his nerve at
the last moment. He knew there would be a parade of men to testify that
he had committed similar outrages against them. He also knew that the
Tampa fire department had a videotape of Clapp burning. It all added up
to enough evidence to get him a life sentence. As his attorney, Guy
Notte commented, “In Florida, life means life. We just could not take
Prosecutors in both Tampa and Atlanta negotiated with
Bennett’s lawyers for a deal. They hammered out an agreement whereby
Bennett would plead guilty to the attempted murder of Gary Clapp and two
counts of aggravated assault in Atlanta, and could serve a 17-year
sentence in Florida to run concurrently, rather than consecutively, with
his sentence for the Atlanta crimes. The result of the deal, as
Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slaton acknowledged,
would be that “he would serve no additional time for the Atlanta crimes.”
Many gay activists were outraged by what they
considered a lenient deal for a man who had terrorized their community
for decades. “Good citizens need to step forward,” urged Larry
Pellegrini, president of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter of the
American Civil Liberties Union. “This is horrendous.”
Lynn Cothren, co-chair of Queer Nation, said, “It’s a
sad situation when people can get away with torture, intimidation and
hate. There’s obviously a problem with the system.”
The Atlanta president of Parents and Friends of
Lesbians and Gays, Judy Colbs, remarked, “Setting people on fire is
setting people on fire, and it should not matter what the sexual
orientation is. It goes back to prejudice. It affects and invades all
parts of society.”
Jeff Graham, a member of ACT-UP, an AIDS activist
organization, also decried the plea bargain. “I think clearly if it
were a case involving heterosexuals, that if he had done this to a woman
[or] a straight man, that his sentence would be much greater than what
it is,” Graham speculated. “It has taken the Atlanta Police Department
dozens of years to seriously investigate and solve this case. I think
that clearly you’ve got a prejudiced judicial system in Atlanta, in
Fulton County. I’m happy Tampa was able to put together the case.”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution also
denounced the plea agreement in an editorial entitled “Reject ‘Handcuff
The outrage of those quoted above was shared by at
least one of Bennett’s victims. Max Shrader, who was burned by Bennett
in 1985, said that prosecutors never contacted him to discuss the
proposed plea bargain. “The judge has got to decide if the time fits
the crime,” Shrader observed. “I’m going to be there to tell him it
Despite objections, the deal went through. On
February 24, 1992, Bennett appeared in an Atlanta courtroom and pleaded
guilty to two counts of aggravated assault. The sentence was 17 years
in prison to run concurrently with the 17-year sentence that he was to
serve in Florida for the attempted murder of Gary Clapp. The 44-year-old
lawyer was also ordered to pay $65,000 in restitution for the medical
bills of the two Atlanta victims, was banned for life from ever being in
Fulton County, and was ordered to see a psychiatrist.
Fulton Superior Court Judge Isaac Jenrette asked the
defendant, “Did you pick up these two fellows?”
Bennett paused, then talked to his attorney.
“Did you pick up these two fellows?” Jenrette
“I’m pleading guilty to the two charges” was
At the time of the sentencing, Bennett was free on
$300,000 bond, under the conditions that he was not to leave the home he
shared with his mother except on approved business, such as seeing his
lawyers. He was to report on March 9, 1992, to begin serving his
But Bennett broke his agreement. He was spotted
cruising the same Tampa street where he had picked up Gary Clapp. Tampa
detective Bob Holland testified that he saw Bennett’s car and followed
it only to see the convicted torturer “talking with some guy leaning in
his car window . . . What was weird was it was about the same time of
day [that] he met Gary Clapp there. It was almost a year to [the]
Because of this offense, Bennett was sent to jail two
weeks earlier than scheduled.
The notorious Handcuff Man was initially put into
solitary confinement, partly because he feared other prisoners. Tom
Patterson, a supervisor at the North Florida Reception Center where
Bennett was initially kept, described him as “an average inmate” and
said, “he hasn’t caused any problems.” Bennett was later moved to
Liberty Correctional Institution, a “close custody” institution in west
What was behind the crimes of Robert Lee Bennett Jr.?
Because he was frequently described as a “gay basher,” his attacks were
assumed to be the result of a homophobic homosexual’s hatred for his own
preferences directed outward.
For several years, Bennett denied that he was gay.
“However, he eventually admitted to being gay,” Notte said. Was he, as
most people naturally suppose, a homophobic homosexual? Notte was not
able to say with certainty. “He never expressed any homophobic
sentiments to me,” the attorney related.
But the gay-basher label is incomplete. As far as is
known, Bennett never sought out homosexuals per se, but men he thought
were selling gay sexual services. Similar crimes occur in the
heterosexual community. Ted Bundy murdered young women. Joel Rifkin
murdered female prostitutes.
Of course, there are strategic reasons why someone
bent on robbery, rape or other violence might target prostitutes of
either sex. They are easy prey, being approachable and accustomed to
odd requests. Being paid to drink does not set off an alarm in someone
who may, as one hustler recalled, have been paid to urinate into a jar
by a fetishist. Since prostitution is illegal, its perpetrators are
less likely to report crimes against themselves to the authorities. All
of these may have been factors in the Handcuff Man’s choice of targets.
One of the victims, Michael Jordan, commented, “I
feel sorry for this guy. I don’t feel sorry for him in some ways but I
feel sorry for him because I don’t understand why he would do something
like this. It’s got to be something that [is] hurting him inside so bad
Bennett was not insane. The office of his attorney,
Guy Notte, had a team of psychiatrists in Florida examine him. “He was
completely sane,” Notte recalled. “He knew right from wrong. He had a
behavioral disorder. That’s an understatement.”
He is known to have suffered from chronic impotence,
which may have been a factor in his burning the genitals of male
prostitutes. “If you can do something I want to do and can’t,” Notte
speculated, “I might want to destroy your ability to do it.”
While the Handcuff Man’s sexual dysfunction may
explain his choice of victims, it does not explain his barbaric cruelty.
After all, there are millions of men who suffer from impotence, and very
few of them become violent.
Could sexual sadism have been behind his crimes?
There is no evidence that Bennett reached an orgasm while he was
torturing his victims. Still, it cannot be ruled out, since his victims
were usually unconscious. It is possible that, like a minority of other
sex offenders who are described as generally impotent in non-violent
situations, Bennett could only get erections or climaxes through
A contempt for those who sell sexual services is
common in our culture. After all, prostitution is a criminal offense
and “whore” a common term of derision. That feeling might have become
an exaggerated and obsessive fixation for Bennett.
He is not known to have expressed remorse for his
crimes or any concern for the damage done to his victims. Gary Clapp,
who saw Bennett in the Tampa courtroom during his plea, said, “I don’t
think he’ll ever feel sorry for anything he’s done. This guy’s a sick
Notte described Bennett as, “very cold and clinical.
He never would in so many words admit doing these things although he
Once during his imprisonment, in 1997, Bennett got a
disciplinary write-up for disorderly conduct. Other than that, he
appears to have been inoffensive as a prisoner. He did, however, break
with Notte. Bennett attempted to bring an “ineffective assistance of
counsel” claim against the lawyer because, according to Notte, “he
believed that we had told him he would get out in two or three years.”
No attorney would take Bennett’s case but he did find a lawyer who filed
a suit against Notte to get Bennett’s fee back.
That lawsuit was still pending when Bennett died of a
stroke on April Fool’s Day 1998. He took the reasons for his hatred of
male prostitutes, and the genesis of his extraordinary cruelty, with him
to his grave.
Robert Lee Bennett Jr. - The Handcuff Man
Bob Bennett Jr.
For the most part, Bob Bennett Jr. seemed to come
from a pretty normal, stable, loving family. His mother, Annabelle (a
homemaker) frequently volunteered for the red cross. His father, Bob Sr.
(an attorney) was rather successful at work and helped raise a lot of
money for the Boy Scouts. The family often traveled for pleasure.
Sometimes with serial predators, we find that their childhoods were
filled with physical or emotional neglect, economic hardships, and
physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Their parents are sometimes alcoholics or drug
addicts, unstable, neurotic, or superstitious. These arguments lead us
to believe that maybe a genetic component is responsible for the
predators behavior, or perhaps it is due to early childhood trauma
associated with these things.
However, with the case of Bob Bennett Jr. none of
these seem to apply. Bob Jr. was adopted when he was twenty-two months
old, so there is no way of knowing if he had been exposed to any abuse
during the first two years of his life.
The Bennett family seemed to be a close knit, loving
family. As a child, Bob Jr. (and his father) were very active with the
Boy Scouts, and had a paper route. When the weather was rough, the
father would help the son by driving his route in the family car. As a
teenager, Bob Jr. is remembered as being outgoing, involving himself
with many school organizations such as the Glee Club, the school chorus,
the science club, and the school newspaper. His college years were much
He received his Bachelor's Degree from the University
of Denver in 1969 before moving on to the University of Virginia where
he received his Master's Degree in Political Science. While at the
University of Virginia, he was arrested once for indecent exposure -
other than that, his record was spotless.
In 1974, he received his law degree from Emory
University in Atlanta, Georgia, and he began working with his father at
the law firm of Davis, Murphy, & Bennett. So far, there has been nothing
that would indicate Bob Jr. would ever become anything other than a
model citizen but that is about to change.
Bob Jr. forcefully picked up someone who he believed
was a male street hustler but who in reality was a police officer
working undercover trying to arrest those hustlers. Backup officers
quickly rescued their undercover officer and picked up Bob Jr. on a
kidnapping charge. By the time he came to trial he had pleaded to a
severely lesser charge of battery and received a relatively small fine.
His next major brush with the law would come not long
after. Bob Jr. picked up a man traveling from New York and offered to
pay the man to have a drink with him. The man did, and the two had sex
in Bob Jr's car. When the two went to Bob Jr's summer cottage, the man
panicked and after grabbing Bennet's keys got in his car and drove away.
He quickly crashed.
The man, however, refused to cooperate with the
police investigation, explaining that he wanted to keep his dealings
with Bob Bennett Jr. private. Other law enforcement personnel also
wanted the investigation dropped. According to the Journal Constitution
(Atlanta) this was because Bob Bennett Sr. was on the Civil Service
Board which handled police promotions. The police handled this situation
by convincing Bob Jr. to move away from that area. He moved to Atlanta
where he got a job at another prestigious law firm.
During that episode, Bob Bennett Sr. stated publicly
that the only reason he tolerates his son is because his wife loves him
(the son) so much, and he loves his wife.
The Drinking Game
Atlanta's Piedmont Park was known as a place where
gay men would hang out. This is where Bob Jr. met one of his victims, a
tall, slender man by the name of James Crowe. Bennett asked Crowe if he
ever drank alcohol and when the man replied in the affirmative, Bennett
told the guy he would pay the man fifty dollars for every shot he drank.
After the first drink, the man became tipsy. Bennett
drove the man to a nearby trailer park and began to play with him
sexually. Crowe managed to escape from Bennett, however he refused to
receive medical attention because he did not want his family to know he
had been hustling, and since he did not like doctors.
In retrospect, investigators now believe this was Bob
Bennett Jr's game. He would meet a gay male hustler and try to get him
to drink some vodka. He explained a few times that he was doing a
research project on the effects of alcohol. The alcohol was spiked and
the hustler would quickly loose consciousness.
Usually they awoke to find themselves handcuffed.
Sometimes he would try to have sex with his victims. Sometimes he would
put cigarettes out on them or try to burn them with flammable liquids.
Many of his victims received severe burns, often resulting with
The victims were usually reluctant to press charges,
not wanting to call attention to their sexual orientation or the fact
they were hustlers. This left them to usually deal with things on their
In the case of James Crowe, he returned to Piedmont
Park a few weeks after he was attacked, this time with another hustler
who had a lot more experience and was willing to help the guy out. At
one point, Crowe spotted Bennet's car and commented to his companion
about the man. The companion apparently told Crowe the man had a bad
reputation and called him The Handcuff Man.
The Handcuff Man
In 1978, Bennett proposed to Sandra Powell, a lady
who worked in the same law firm as him, and entered what amounts to a
marriage of convenience. He explained that he was impotent and therefore
couldn't have sexual relations with her. Before long, their marriage
started having problems. Bennett quit his job and would sit around the
house all day, she explained in court. She worked a full time paying job
and still had to come home and clean up after him, cook meals, and do
all the housework.
In the winter months of 1982, Bennett picked up a
hustler standing on a street corner and paid the hustler to have a few
drinks with him. They had a few drinks in Bennett's car before heading
off to a local gay bar to have a few more. The next thing the hustler
knew, he was coming to after somehow being knocked unconscious, wearing
only his pants, but now he had two cigarette burns - one on his belly,
the other on his arm.
In September of 1982, Bennett was arrested for the
armed robbery and murder of James Lee Johnson. The charges would later
be dropped because of insufficient evidence. Sandra, however, began
divorce proceedings. Even though her husband was let go, she pressed
forward with the divorce anyway. Three gay male hustlers appeared at the
divorce trial testifying that they believed Bennett was the man they
called The Handcuff Man, and the result of the trial ended
largely in Sandra's favor.
In 1983, Bennett was barred from a restaurant and bar
called the Gallus, which was known for its mostly gay clientele. He
signed a waiver saying he understood he was being kicked out and could
be arrested if he ever set foot on Gallus property again. This came
about after a local hustler fingered Bennett as a man who liked to pick
up and hurt male hustlers.
In 1984, Bennett picked up a young man standing on
the street corner (who was just waiting for the bus) and tried to play
the drinking game with him. Although the youth did not know what it was
exactly, he decided something was fishy and asked to be let out of
Bennet's car. Bennett let the guy out unharmed.
In 1985, Bennett picked up a hustler and asked him to
try on a pair of handcuffs. When the hustler refused, he demanded out of
the car, and noticed the car door's locking mechanism was missing and
the door handle was covered with duct tape. Somehow the hustler managed
to climb out through the window while the car was moving and managed to
received only a few minor injuries from the fall.
Also in 1985, Bennett approached a hustler named Max
Shrader. He asked Shrader to become aroused while he drove around the
block. Max did. Bennett asked him if he wanted a drink of vodka. Max
drank from the bottle which Bennett explained was vodka with a little
Coke in it.
Almost instantly, Max knew the vodka had been spiked
with something other than Coke, but was unsuccessful in defending off
Bennett's attempt to pull in into the passenger's seat. Bennett drove
Shrader to a secluded area where he took the hustler's clothes off,
doused his legs and genitals with a flammable liquid, and set him on
fire before driving off. Nearby, people heard Shrader's screams and
In June, 1986, the Handcuff Man struck again. Two
hustlers were standing outside on a street corner. He called to one of
them and asked if he wanted to play his drinking game. The man told him
to hold on a moment, while he said something to his friend. His friend
took down the driver's description and his license plate number.
The two males drank while driving around town before
stopping at a bar. The handcuff man persuaded the hustler to put on a
pair of shorts, insisting that he would be more comfortable. The shorts
didn't have any pockets so the hustler had to leave his wallet behind in
his own jeans.
The following memories the hustler has were quite
blurry. He remembers having a few drinks, and then his companion seemed
to want to get away from him. He followed the man out to the car and
tried to get his wallet back. He reached through the passenger door but
the car took off. He called to a nearby man that he had been mugged.
He couldn't remember removing the pocketless shorts
or his shirt. He passed out but woke up long enough to later give his
name, address, and directions to someone who had stopped to help the guy.
He woke up again at a doughnut shop and was able to identify the man who
had been apprehended by two guys who had been alerted to what had
happened, including another man who said the guy had mugged him.
February of 1991 found Gary Clapp sitting on the
sidewalk outside a Tampa Salvation Army waiting for a free dinner when a
man approached him and asked if he would help out with a drinking
experiment. Since there was money involved, and he was hard pressed for
cash, the man accepted. He doesn't remember what happened after he got
in the car and had a few drinks.
A Tampa police officer spotted what at first he
thought was an out of control bond fire, but proved to be the burning
body of Gary Clapp. Everybody was surprised when the guy lived - nobody
thought he was going to make it. He did live, although both of his legs
needed to be amputated above the knees. When shown a photo lineup, Clapp
quickly pointed out his attacker. However, the attacker was on his way
back to Atlanta.
In May of 1991, another young man, Michael Jordan Jr.,
was approached and asked if he would take part in a drinking experiment.
He couldn't remember very much when he woke up in the hospital with
severe burns on his genitals, buttox, and legs. He was found naked
behind an Atlanta hotel and the authorities could not interview him for
awhile because of the pain the man was in and the pain killers he was
given by doctors.
Also in May, Matthew Red Vernon was picked up
by a man who wanted to know if he would like to partake in a drinking
experiment. It wasn't until he had a few of the drinks that he realized
who had picked him up. He told the man he would take the next drink if
he gave him the money now, which the driver did. He escaped from the car
and stuck his finger down his throat to throw the tainted vodka up.
By now, Jordan was awake enough to tell police what
had happened. In a photo lineup, picked out Bob Bennett's photo. The
same photo was picked out (after five years) by Max Shrader, who
commented that he thought about the man every day since the event
A reporter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution made
the connection after both identifications and printed that the most
likely suspect in The Handcuff Man's case was Bob Lee Bennett Jr.
Bennett, of course, publicly denied this. He was arrested anyway.
His lawyers tried to present alternative theories,
stating that investigators must have coached the hustlers to finger
Bennett since they sincerely needed a conviction in this case. They
claimed that the burning of Gary Clapp was part of a Santaria ritual
since decapitated chickens and goats were found not too far away and
since Santaria was prominent in that part of the world. (Santaria is an
Afro-Cuban religion which combines Catholicism with Yoruba. Animal
sacrifice being one of its rituals is what makes Santaria so
controversial in the United States.)
In jail, Bennett complained about everything from
being denied meals to other prisoners attacking him for no reason, not
to mention his wrongful imprisonment. Bennett and his lawyer tried
everything they possibly could at first, and before long legal fees
exceeded five hundred thousand dollars.
In the end, prosecutors struck a deal that Bennett
would plead guilty to the attempted murder of Gary Clapp and to two
counts of aggravated assault in Atlanta. He could serve a seventeen year
sentence in Florida to run concurrently (not consecutively) with his
Atlanta Crimes. Georgia's Fulton County District Attorney publicly
stated that Bennett would serve no additional time for his Atlanta
Many gay activists were royally pissed off about such
a lenient sentence. Here's what a few of them had to say:
Good citizens need to step forward...This is an
president of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Chapter
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
It’s a sad situation when people can get away
with torture, intimidation and hate. There’s obviously a problem
with the system.
Setting people on fire is setting people on fire,
and it should not matter what the sexual orientation is. It goes
back to prejudice. It affects and invades all parts of society.
Atlanta's Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
I think clearly if it were a case involving
heterosexuals, that if he had done this to a woman [or] a straight
man, that his sentence would be much greater than what it is [...]
It has taken the Atlanta Police Department dozens of years to
seriously investigate and solve this case. I think that clearly
you’ve got a prejudiced judicial system in Atlanta, in Fulton County.
I’m happy Tampa was able to put together the case.
Bennett's victim Max Shrader also spoke up. The
judge has got to decide if the time fits the crime,he said. I'm
going to be there to tell him it does not.
Feb 24, 1992, Bennett pleaded guilty as was mandated
by his plea bargain. Since he was out on three hundred thousand dollars
bail, he was ordered by the judge to remain at home, except for times
when he needed to leave the house, such as lawyer visits. These the
courts needed to be informed about. His sentence was to begin March 9,
1992. He violated this order by trying to pick up a hustler at the same
place where he met victim Gary Clapp. He was sent to jail immediately -
two weeks before the arranged date.
On April 1, 1998, Robert Lee Bennett Jr. died in
prison of a stroke, taking with him the reason he did what he did.
Behavioral evidence just may provide us with a few clues.
Bennett was frequently described as a gay basher,
and his results were often assumed to be taken out because of his own
hatred of his own orientation directed outward. For the longest time, he
denied being gay but eventually recanted saying he was. If this could be
part of the explanation, it is unknown. Those people close to him state
he never made any outwardly homophobic comments or lead them to even
think he may be homophobic.
Strictly speaking, Bennett did not actively search
out homosexuals on their own criteria. Rahter, he searched out men who
were selling homosexual services. Perhaps there is a distinction there.
However, many serial killers throughout history have searched out
prostitutes and hustlers because they make easy victims - their bodies
may never be found or missed, their profession is not legally or morally
accepted, they are easy to be approached, they're accustomed to odd
Since prostitution is also illegal, the surviving
victims are often reluctant to report crimes against them. Also, since
prostitution and homosexuality are often considered as negative (espically
during the times this case occurred, it is possible he took out his
feelings on the gay hustlers. Any of these may have been factors.
Bennett is a fairly ok example of a sane, organized
offender. During the court process, his lawyers sent him to a
psychiatrist who came up with the same conclusion.
He is believed to have been impotent. This could have
a direct bearing on parts of what he did - namely setting his victims
genitals on fire. Essentially, since he could not attain an erection, he
made it so his victims could not either - displacing the tension away
from himself and placing within his victims.
A variation of sexual sadism cannot be completely
ruled out since his victims were unconscious during part of his crimes.
However, one of the reasons sexual sadists may decide to make their
victim wear a mask is so that they do not see them when they are the
most vulnerable. (This is similar to a theory of necrophalia as well.)
Perhaps the unconscious sexual partner was the only way this man could
achieve any level of sexual awareness...