Murder case goes to grand jury

Becky Campbell • Oct 30, 2012 at 10:53 PM

A Johnson City police detective’s testimony at a murder defendant’s preliminary hearing Tuesday supported what the man claimed in a letter about the killing that he wrote from jail.

Steven Odell Bennett, 31, is charged with second-degree murder and abuse of a corpse in the Sept. 29 death of Vonda Donaldson. He’s also accused of throwing her body off the Butler Bridge in Carter County. Donaldson’s body was found in Watauga Lake near the bridge three days after her family reported her missing.

Judge James Nidiffer heard testimony during a preliminary hearing in Sessions Court Tuesday and determined there was probable cause to send the case to a grand jury.

In the hearing, Johnson City Police Investigator Joe Harrah testified that Bennett told him he killed Donaldson while they were having sex.

“He told me, ‘I killed her,’ ” Harrah said on the witness stand. “He said it occurred in sexual activity with Ms. Donaldson ... she liked to be choked during sex.”

That was what Bennett told the Johnson City Press in a letter he wrote from his jail cell after his arrest for Donaldson’s death.

Harrah also said Bennett told him he noticed Donaldson had gone limp. When he realized she was dead, he wrapped her in a tarp, weighed her down with chains and threw her off the bridge.

Prior to Harrah’s testimony, Assistant District Attorney General Michael Rasnake called Bennett’s mother, Norma Arnett, to the stand to testify about a conversation she and her son had just before she called 911 to report a murder.

In the phone call, which was played during the hearing, Arnett told the dispatcher Donaldson had picked her son up from work the previous night and that he had choked and beaten her after she called him names. She also said her son stated he was taking Donaldson’s body to Chuckey to get rid of it.

Arnett clarified one statement she made to the dispatcher regarding the alleged beating.

“He didn’t say he had beaten her. I just came up with that,” Arnett said.

On cross examination, defense attorney Phillip Ratliff asked Arnett about the statement she made about Donaldson picking Bennett up from work. Arnett acknowledged that Bennett never told her that.

“I just assumed she had because she did that a lot,” Arnett testified.

In his letter to the Press, Bennett said that a friend picked him up from work and took him to Donaldson’s apartment and she asked him to stay there.

Police arrested Bennett early Sept. 30 at Leland Trailer Park. Harrah testified Bennett was wearing sweatpants at the time, but officers retrieved a pair of pants Bennett was wearing at the time of Donaldson’s death.

In a court document, Harrah indicated there was blood on those pants, but there was no testimony about the clothing during Tuesday’s hearing.

Bennett remains jailed on a $100,000 bond, but he’s also being held on a parole violation. He is scheduled to appear in Washington County Criminal Court Jan. 22.

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