More than a year has passed since a quiet Chantilly community was rocked by the murder of a 37-year-old, single mother of two. Now the man who police believe killed her is standing trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court.
He's Charles Wesley Helem, 33, of 8100 Pointer Lane, Manassas, and he was arrested Sept. 18 and charged with the murder of Patricia Bentley of Beaujolais Court in Brookfield. His jury trial began Monday and is expected to go into Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
Sometime between April 5 and 6, 2002, someone strangled Bentley to death with a phone cord and an extension cord, leaving her face down on her bedroom floor. Her older son discovered her body, and the tragedy devastated her family and friends.
Besides her sons, she left a mother, three sisters and seven brothers. But whether Helem did the deed that took her from them has yet to be determined.
"You'll hear evidence [leading you to the conclusion that] Mr. Helem is the perpetrator of this crime," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kimberly Pace told the jury Monday in her opening statement. "This evidence speaks for Patricia Bentley because Patricia Bentley can no longer speak for herself."
Pace said Helem told police he hadn't been with her for three weeks and was in Prince William County when she was killed. But, she said, police found things that contradicted his statements.
"Evidence matching his DNA profile was found on her body," she said. "And his cell-phone records put him in Fairfax County on April 5 — close to the victim's house."
But defense attorney William Reichhardt told the jurors the evidence in this "extremely tragic case" will not prove his client guilty. Said Reichhardt: "You'll learn that the evidence in this case is inconsistent and inconclusive and that there was a rush to judgment against Charles Helem."
He said the DNA is "not disputed," but he cast aspersions on police decisions to test some crime-scene evidence, but not things such as a hair found on the victim's hand. "It's a complex case," he told the jury. "But when you do the job you took the oath to do, you cannot find this defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
After the murder, neighbors described Bentley — a school-bus driver for Loudoun County schools — as a quiet person who kept to herself, was a good mother and had an immaculate home. And for a short while, Helem, a truck driver, lived there with her. They'd met in July 2001 and, early that November, he moved into the townhouse she shared with her two sons, now 9 and 17.
"Patricia and Charles had a tumultuous relationship, and he moved to Sterling in January 2002," said Reichhardt. "He left some things behind because they continued to see each other. Then in April 2002, he moved to Manassas and lived with a woman there named June Stokeley."
On Friday night, April 5, 2002, Bentley was home alone; her boys were spending the weekend with her mother, Rose Bentley, in Centreville. She called, around 10:15 p.m., to check on them — and that was the last conversation she and her mother ever had.
Bentley had also spoken, about an hour earlier, to her best friend Alesia Robinson. They worked together as Loudoun County bus drivers and planned to go shopping together, the next day, in Manassas. Robinson testified Monday that she began phoning Bentley at home, Saturday, April 6, around 7:30 a.m., but became alarmed when she got no answer.
"I went to her place in Chantilly and knocked on her door, but no one answered," she said. "I tried the doorknob. The bottom lock was unlocked — she usually locked both top and bottom locks. But the deadbolt was locked."
However, Bentley's red Blazer was parked outside. So Robinson went to Rose Bentley's home and asked Patricia Bentley's older son Anthony if he had a key to the deadbolt. He did, so the two of them returned to his home in Chantilly, arriving around 9 a.m., and he unlocked the door.
"The house was dark," said Robinson. "Anthony yelled to his mother, and we went up the steps. The bedroom door was locked; he put in his key and opened it. We found Patricia on the floor. I saw blood — she was face down. I told him to call 911."
Robinson's eyes then brimmed with tears as she identified for Pace a photo of her friend's lifeless body lying on the floor of her bedroom. She said Bentley tried to change both locks on her front door, about three weeks earlier, but was only able to change the bottom one, not the deadbolt.
She said Anthony used a phone downstairs to call the police because the phone in his mother's room had no dialtone. Said Robinson: "The plug wasn't in the phone."
Then Anthony testified about what he saw that day: "I found my mother laying on the floor." Then, when Pace asked him if he could identify the defendant, he pointed to Helem and said, "He was dating my mother."
Next, several police officers, detectives and a fire department paramedic described what they saw when they responded to Bentley's home that day. Providing the most detail was the lead crime-scene detective, Richard Netherton. He said Bentley's right arm and left hand were both tucked under her body, and she was fully clothed, although her shirt was pulled up slightly.
"The back of her neck had several linear abrasions that appeared to come from the front to the back of her neck, where it meets the shoulders," he said. "A small spot of blood was on her left torso; there were no signs of trauma to her lower body. I could see impressions leading from both sides of her mouth, along her cheeks, toward the back."
Netherton said a black telephone was on the bed, but "the extension cord appeared to have been pulled out of the wall. The phone jack was still in the wall, but not the cord." He said a cell phone was under the comforter; he recovered the black phone's cord and extension cord for forensic testing.
Under grilling from Reichhardt, Netherton said certain things were collected from the home for evidentiary testing, but not others. For example, clothing items underneath Bentley's body were taken, said Netherton, "because we thought they bore ... hair and fibers and possible biological evidence."
But they've not yet been tested, he said, because "we have limited manpower. We examine [the main] evidence initially, and then other evidence if it's later determined that it's necessary. We analyze that evidence which appears will give the most information about what happened at the scene."
In this case, saId Netherton, "We had the most likely sources of evidence — swabs from [Bentley's] chest and abdomen — tested first." He also said fingerprints were found at the scene and, although fingerprints weren't taken from the black phone, those on the phone cords were submitted for analysis. Following further testimony, the jury should get the case next week.