Perhaps the most remarkable thing that happened at Charles Helem's sentencing for murder, last Friday — aside from the life sentence he received — was the revelation of his past criminal record.
In October, Helem, 34, of Manassas, was convicted of the April 2002 murder of Chantilly's Patricia Bentley, a 37-year-old single mother. She was strangled with a phone cord and an extension cord, as well as by hands or the crook of an arm around her neck.
It was revealed Friday that — not only does Helem have a violent criminal history dating back to his teens — but that, between 1997 and 2001, he served time in federal prison in Lompoc, Calif., for choking his wife.
Said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kim Pace: "The violence he committed against his wife in 1997 — choking her until she passed out — was strikingly similar to the [crime he committed] against Patricia Bentley."
A BROOKFIELD resident, Bentley was the parent of two boys, now 17 and 9, and drove a school bus in South Riding for Loudoun County Schools. She and friend Alesia Robinson planned to go shopping Saturday, April 6, 2002. But when Robinson couldn't reach her by phone, that morning, at her home, she became alarmed and called Bentley's mother Rose in Centreville, where the boys were spending the weekend.
She then drove to Centreville, picked up Bentley's older son Anthony and returned with him to Brookfield so he could unlock the door of his home and they could investigate. Tragically, they found Bentley's lifeless body, face down, on her bedroom floor.
Besides strangulation marks, she also had bruises on her arms, legs and lower chest, plus hemorrhaging inside her head that Northern Virginia medical examiner Frances Field later testified was caused by blunt-force trauma.
The murder occurred sometime between Friday night, April 5, and the next morning. Police arrested Helem, of 8100 Pointer Lane in Manassas, on Sept. 18, 2002, and charged him with the crime.
He'd lived with Bentley in her townhouse from November 2001 to January 2002; but their relationship was stormy, and Helem eventually left and moved in with another woman in Manassas. But he left some of his exercise clothes in Bentley's home and kept coming over to use her treadmill.
Helem still maintains his innocence. However, his DNA was found on Bentley's breasts and abdomen, and his cell-phone records placed him in Fairfax County, near her home, on April 5.
Although he'd seen Bentley nine days before her murder was discovered, he told police he hadn't seen her for three weeks. And a police officer testified that, a week before the murder, Helem had angrily accused Bentley of vandalizing his car by pouring paint on it while it was parked outside her home.
Helem's road to justice was a long and complicated one but, after two mistrials, the jury hearing his third trial, which ran from Sept. 29-Oct. 8, was able to reach a unanimous decision. The jurors found him guilty of first-degree murder and, on Oct. 9, recommended he be sentenced to life in prison.
PRIOR TO Helem's sentencing, Friday afternoon in Fairfax County Circuit Court, defense attorney Bill Reichhardt made a motion to have that verdict set aside. Said Reichhardt: "We contend, the evidence in its totality does not rise to the level of beyond a reasonable doubt."
But, countered Pace, "This defendant's credibility was at issue, and the jury just didn't believe [him]." Judge Stanley Klein concurred, saying, "There is simply no basis for me to overturn the jury's verdict. The motion is denied."
Then came the unveiling of Helem's prior troubles with the law — none of which the jury was allowed to hear during the case. And even Reichhardt noted that his client was just indicted in June for allegedly "shanking [knifing] another inmate" while at the Lompoc Correctional Facility on Aug. 28, 1999. Helem was indicted for assault with intent to commit murder and assault with intent to do bodily harm.
"This defendant is someone who can best serve society by being incarcerated the rest of his life," said Pace. "And [this belief] was solidified by the jury's verdict — even though they didn't know about his past history at the time. The jury was looking at this case in a vacuum."
She said Helem's criminal activities began at age 13 with assault and battery — "the first of many crimes against people in his life. He's been a career criminal for the past 20 years, and he got progressively worse and more violent as he got older. Patricia Bentley had the bad luck simply to exist in his circle of people. The only good thing about him is that he doesn't have children who'll suffer the pain and loss of his absence."
Pace noted that, after Helem's release from federal prison in 2001, he held nine jobs and was terminated from many of them for lying about his criminal record on his application. And in one instance, as a used-car salesman, he was fired for intimidating a customer.
"He has a complete lack of ability to be a law-abiding citizen or inmate," she said. To illustrate, Pace said Helem was charged in connection with fighting and destruction of property while in prison and in Fairfax County's jail.
MOST OF ALL, she said, because of Helem, Rose Bentley lost her daughter, and Bentley's two children — both of whom were at the courthouse Friday — lost their mother. Pace also described how a relative spoke of "the devastated look on [her son's] faces when they realize she'll never be able to hold them again."
"The focus of this trial has been on Charles Helem," said Pace. "The time has finally come when we consider Patricia Bentley and her friends and family. She was a hard-working [person] who had the horrible luck to know this defendant. I suggest that [he] is one of the most dangerous persons to walk into this courtroom. The jury's [recommendation] was appropriate, and it should be upheld."
Reichhardt said his client has been criticized for not showing remorse, but it would have been "for a crime he claims he didn't commit." And he noted that Helem's ex-wife, Denise — the basis of his 1997 domestic-violence charge — wrote a letter on his behalf, saying that when he was release from prison, he was "loving and devoted" to her.
"Sentencing is more than retribution," said Reichhardt to Judge Klein. "I ask you to deviate from the recommendation of the jury to something reasonable and fair."
Closely guarded by four bailiffs and six sheriff's deputies, Helem then stood and addressed Bentley's relatives inside the packed and emotionally charged courtroom. "I know the family thinks I killed Pat," he said. "I didn't commit this vicious assault. I was very saddened by her death — I will never forget her. At her funeral, I was heartbroken seeing her like that. I intend to clear my name."
Next, he told Klein, "The jury and family want me to die in the penitentiary and never walk free in this lifetime. I did my mistakes in the past, and I've paid for them. I feel that you should give me another chance to be free again and live a productive life."
BUT THE JUDGE was unmoved by Helem's words. "Patricia Bentley didn't deserve to die, and she didn't deserve to die the way she did — a horrible death," said Klein. Speaking directly to Helem, he said, "In 1997, you basically did the same thing to your wife. Luckily, she lived; Patricia Bentley wasn't so lucky."
"I have a responsibility to her family and to others who may find themselves in the position that Patricia Bentley found herself in," he continued. "And so that no one else will ever have to suffer at your hands, I'm imposing what I feel is absolutely a just sentence — life in prison."
The judge also sentenced Helem to an additional three years in prison, but suspended them all, adding that — if Helem is ever released from prison — he'll be placed on three years supervised probation. Afterward, outside the courtroom, most of Bentley's family declined comment, except for her nephew, Don Griffith of Chantilly. As for Helem's sentence, said Griffith, "He got just what he deserved."