By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
We've all had bad days, but Fullerton's Ernie Benefiel almost died trying to kill himself.
At about 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 30, 2004, Benefiel nailed his apartment bedroom door shut, swallowed handfuls of sleeping pills and sat in his recliner in front of his television. He believed he'd irreparably screwed up his life. Now he worried he'd botch his suicide, too.
A good man by all accounts, Benefiel must have understood he was cursed with bad luck. The 40-year-old construction foreman and heavy-equipment operator who was born at Camp Pendleton began the evening thinking he'd hit bottom only to later learn he was mistaken. As he plummeted into a deep sleep, he had no idea his night would end in an embarrassing public spectacle involving evacuations, explosions, gunfire and police SWAT teams.
Now, instead of existing over yonder, Benefiel remains stuck here with the rest of us. Worse, his home is the California State Prison at Vacaville. An Orange County Superior Court improperly sent him away for 27 years, a higher court announced on May 15.
* * *
What drove Benefiel to the brink wasn't anything bizarre. He'd never been in trouble with the law. Friends and coworkers admired him. Several called him "a trusted friend," "caring family man" and "nothing but a man of integrity."
But chronic pain from a series of nasty injuries changed Benefiel's life. A father who enjoyed taking his kids camping, bowling, skiing, motorbiking and to play softball found himself increasingly bedridden. He wasn't able to work at his $75,000-per-year job. Debt mounted. Family tension grew. He thought his wife and one of his teenage daughters resented him. Emotionally draining arguments became the norm.
A Dec. 30, 2004, bitter dispute with a daughter who'd told him to get out of her life, prompted Benefiel to hug his 86-year-old father, say he didn't want to live anymore and ask not to be rescued. If anybody attempted to break down his bedroom door before the sleeping pills did their trick, he'd planned a suicidal shortcut: a loaded Smith & Wesson .357 revolver in his lap.
Benefiel wrote a note with the words "no more pain," smoked some marijuana he kept for a severe back injury, closed his eyes and waited for his fatal sleep. His stereo played endless, loud loops of the blues song "Blue Drops of Rain."
Over and over as he passed out, Benefiel heard the lyrics "Do you feel the pain? Do you feel the pain the way I do? Are you that vain to think that it can't happen to you? Blue drops of rain."
Nearly four hours into his suicide attempt, Benefiel felt a very real pain—from a gun blast to his chest. He opened his eyes and saw blood. As the sad song still blared on the stereo, panic pierced the fog of his sedation.
"Who is trying to kill me?" he thought.
Benefiel crawled to his bedroom window (which had been shot out) and peeked out into intense spotlights. He was mumbling incoherently, witnesses later recalled. Then he made the worst mistake of his life. Thinking his home was under attack by a gang, he fired his gun. Cops unloaded a hail of bullets in return.
In the next seconds, Benefiel did something that police and prosecutors later ignored, but it's a critical piece of evidence. According to court records, he banged on the apartment wall and said, "Dad, get out of here. There is somebody shooting at me."
* * *
Ironically, it was Benefiel's father who had called paramedics as soon as his son barricaded himself in his bedroom. He said his son was suicidal and owned a gun. Fullerton police arrived, and from about 7 p.m. until 10:45 p.m., officers repeatedly used a public-address system to order his surrender.
At 8:30 p.m., police fired a flash-bang device near Benefiel's bedroom window. There was no movement. Inside—behind closed blinds—Benefiel's stereo blared the blues song through five speakers, and the man who suffered from medically documented hearing loss in his ears was in a trance from the sleeping pills.
At 10:45 p.m., SWAT officers shot 12 bean-bag rounds from a shotgun through Benefiel's window. One of the bags struck him in the chest. In the confusion, he went to the window, pointed his gun and shot. The bullet sailed above officers who were hiding behind vehicles. After returning fire, cops used the PA system to again identify themselves. Benefiel, who was not hit by their barrage, then complied with their demand to crawl out of his window.
According to police, Benefiel had assaulted four officers with his single shot. He was immediately arrested and taken to a hospital emergency room, where his wounds were treated. Red-eyed and incoherent, Benefiel kept falling asleep in the ER and barely awoke after a detective shook him. He repeatedly asked why police hadn't identified themselves before he fired the shot, court records show.
* * *
During the November-to-December 2005 trial, prosecutor Jeffrey L. Winter claimed Benefiel intentionally tried to assault the officers because "he knew there were people [outside of his bedroom] who were concerned about his safety."
Winter also urged the jury not to feel sorry for Benefiel's misfortunes on the night of his suicide attempt.
"In terms of sympathy, your job as jurors is not to base your verdict on sympathy," he said in his closing argument. "The fact that he got injured in 1998, the fact that his knee and his back had been injured, the fact that he didn't have a healthy relationship with his wife and daughter, the fact that he had a—and I'll use the term girlfriend—he said no, it wasn't a girlfriend, just a friend and then he acknowledged, 'well, okay, I had an intimate relationship with her.' And that apparently wasn't going well. Those are things that tell you, tug at your heart and go, feel sorry for me, things weren't going my way."
But the trial's pivotal moment occurred when Superior Court Judge Gregg L. Prickett approved Winter's plan to demonstrate the explosive sound emitted by flash-bang devices. Prickett ignored deputy public defender Joe Flohr's strenuous objections that a courthouse demonstration couldn't duplicate conditions at Benefiel's apartment.
Outside, in a paved, concrete-walled area where sheriff's deputies park at Orange County's central courthouse, the prosecution fired the flash-bang device. The space was essentially an echo chamber for the boom. The prosecutor was pleased by the result.
Afterward, the jury quickly convicted Benefiel of four felony counts of assaulting police officers. Never mind that one male juror fell asleep during the proceedings, Prickett sentenced Benefiel to 27 years and four months in state prison. He's there today with 6,000 other inmates.
* * *
Ernie Benefiel's luck finally might be changing. Last month, the Santa Ana-based state Court of Appeal tossed out his conviction and ordered a new trial. Prickett hadn't been a fair judge, justices Raymond J. Ikola, Kathleen O'Leary and Richard M. Aronson concluded.
"Because the court record reveals that the primary purpose of the [flash-bang demonstration] was to test the truthfulness of Benefiel's testimony he slept through the [explosion], the demonstration had to be conducted under conditions substantially similar to those surrounding Benefiel on the night in question," they wrote. Instead, the justices said Prickett permitted a demonstration under "entirely dissimilar" conditions.
After the introduction of the tainted evidence, "Benefiel's credibility was thereafter so tarnished in the jury's eyes that they doubted his entire testimony," the court ruled. Prickett's "error was prejudicial."
Benefiel remains locked in state prison. He's been incarcerated for 30 months. At some point, he'll likely be transferred back to Orange County. The district attorney's office has not announced if it will retry the case.
But for Benefiel's sake, you have to wonder if he's been punished enough.