Police search lake for body of Johnson City woman

Becky Campbell • Oct 3, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Johnson City police investigators are hesitant to say a missing woman is the victim of a homicide, but a report in the case indicates her boyfriend told a family member he had killed her.

Vonda Berry Marshall Donaldson, 28, was reported missing by her family on Sunday after she couldn’t be found, didn’t answer her cell phone and didn’t show up to pick up her children from their father.

Steven Odell Bennett, 31, is the sole suspect in Donaldson’s disappearance.

According to a police report, Bennett called a family member Sunday night and said he had killed Donaldson and was going to dispose of her body. Apparently Bennett and Donaldson got into an argument and he strangled her after she called him names.

He was arrested Monday on a parole violation but has not been charged with Donaldson’s death, according to JCPD Capt. Mike Street.

“We have conferred with the Attorney General’s Office and charges are forthcoming but after conferring with them, we have decided not to place any charges at this point in time,” Street said. “I think after talking with the District Attorney’s Office we would very much like to locate the body before we actually place any formal charges.”

That search has centered on the area of Butler Bridge in Carter County. Investigators spent part of the day there with officials from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office and Carter County Rescue Squad.

Squad members launched a rescue boat equipped with sonar and began making broad sweeps of the section of the lake downstream from the bridge.

Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes said the search would continue until dark on Tuesday, then resume this morning.

Investigators think Donaldson’s body was dropped off the bridge into Watauga Lake.

Chief Deputy Ron Street was aboard the boat during the early part of the search. Although it was a windy day, the boat appeared to be having no problems in searching the mountain rimmed lake.

After conducting the broad sweep, Street left the boat and the rescue squad continued making more localized searches of the lake. Street said the sonar is a more effective and less labor intensive method of searching for a body than the old dragging operations.

The squad continued to search throughout the afternoon under favorable weather conditions, but did not locate Donaldson’s body.

A family member last heard from Donaldson at 11:20 p.m. Saturday. By 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Donaldson was nowhere to be found.

Her mother, Rosie Jenkins, went to Donaldson’s apartment after her daughter’s dog showed up at her house. She said Donaldson’s apartment door was unlocked and slightly open, but she thought her daughter was out looking for the dog.

When she couldn’t reach her through the day and when Donaldson didn’t show up to pick up her two daughters from their father by 7:30 p.m., Jenkins knew something was wrong.

After getting information about Donaldson’s disappearance, police officers located her car at Leeland Trailer Park. Bennett was inside the car, according to Street.

This isn’t Bennett’s first encounter with Johnson City police. He has a string of convictions in Washington County, including evading arrest, multiple auto thefts, assault on a police officer and aggravated kidnapping.

That incident happened in November 2002 when Bennett — then 21 years old — forced a woman into a vehicle in the parking lot of The Planet, which was located at 820 W. Walnut St.

The 18-year-old victim told police she and friends were leaving the nightclub around 3 a.m. when Bennett approached them to ask for directions.

The teenager said she asked Bennett if he had a cell phone she could borrow and was standing only inches from his vehicle when he grabbed her, pulled her across his lap in the driver’s seat and began driving, attempting several times to slam the door shut and threatening to cut her throat if she continued to resist.

The teen said she hit and kicked Bennett several times as he held her in the car and kept fighting until she broke free, fell out of the car, then got up and ran back into the nightclub.

The vehicle Bennett was driving was stolen and an officer spotted it driving more than 100 mph on University Parkway. He tried to pull the driver over, but Bennett wouldn’t stop. Unicoi County officers later stopped Bennett and arrested him after he ran into some woods on the south side of Erwin, according to reports of the incident.

Bennett apparently gave a videotaped statement the following morning in which he first confessed to stealing his mother’s 1994 Ford Taurus in Nashville several days earlier, driving it to Johnson City and wrecking the car at West Market Street and Perma R Road.

According to reports on the 2002 incident, Bennett said he stole a second car from a West Market Street convenience market but later abandoned that car at a North Johnson City package store where he took a 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse that had been left running in the store’s parking lot.

Finally, Bennett admitted to driving the Mitsubishi to King George County, Va., where he stole the Grand Am he was driving on the night of the alleged abduction.

Bennett has been in and out of the Washington County Detention Center more than half a dozen times since 2001. He was most recently sentenced to 12 years in 2004 on the kidnapping and various theft convictions.

He also had an existing 10-year sentence from previous convictions tacked onto the 12 years, for a total 22-year prison sentence.

The violation of his parole — which only started when he was released from prison June 27 — is unrelated to Donaldson’s disappearance, but Street did not know what Bennett had done to be violated.

Staff writer John Thompson contributed to this report.

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