It took three trials, a slew of witnesses and three separate juries, but the April 2002 murder of Chantilly's Patricia Bentley has finally been resolved. A Fairfax County Circuit Court jury last week convicted her former boyfriend, Charles Helem of Manassas, of first-degree murder and recommended he be sentenced to life in prison.
Sentencing will be in early December. Meanwhile, Helem, 34 — who's been in jail since police arrested him in September 2002 — will remain behind bars.
Bentley, 37, was a single mother of two boys, now 17 and 9, and drove a school bus in South Riding for Loudoun County Schools. She and her sons lived in a townhouse in Brookfield facing a tranquil, tree-shaded courtyard where children play happily and things are usually peaceful.
SHE'D PLANNED on shopping Saturday, April 6, 2002, with her friend Alesia Robinson. 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. Tragically, they found Bentley's lifeless body, face down, on her bedroom floor.
Northern Virginia medical examiner Frances Field determined she'd been strangled two ways — with a phone cord and an extension cord, and also by someone's hands or crook of an arm around her neck. Bentley also had bruises on her arms, legs and lower chest, plus hemorrhaging inside her head that 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, and charged him with the crime.
He'd lived with Bentley in her townhouse from November 2001 to January 2002, and defense attorney Bill Reichhardt called their relationship "tumultuous." Helem eventually left and moved in with a woman in Manassas. But some of his exercise clothes remained at Bentley's, and he kept coming over to use her treadmill.
Helem continually maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty in court. After a 4 1/2-day trial and 3 1/2 days of deliberating, a jury trying his case in late June was hopelessly deadlocked and Circuit Court Judge Stanley Klein declared a mistrial.
THE COMMONWEALTH gave it a second try, Sept. 2. But when a prosecution witness accidentally blurted out to the jury that Helem had a prior criminal record, a second mistrial was declared. His third trial began Sept. 29 and, this time, a jury of nine men and four women reached a unanimous decision. Several factors played a role:
* Helem's DNA was found on Bentley's breasts and abdomen, and Dr. James McClintock, owner of a DNA consulting firm, testified for the defense that Helem's DNA would still be in the home from when he'd lived there and could have transferred to Bentley's body when she came into contact with his exercise clothes on her floor or from an exercise shirt of his that she was wearing when she died.
However, forensic biologist Kelly Ledbetter testified for Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kim Pace, prosecuting Helem, that it would have been "impossible" for his DNA to transfer through the clothing or carpet — through Bentley's bra — to her breast.
* McClintock excluded Helem as a DNA contributor on the phone cord and said DNA from an unknown person was found on it. But Ledbetter testified that the phone cord contained Bentley's fingerprints, plus prints that couldn't be identified. Furthermore, Pace made McClintock acknowledge that his company doesn't have its own lab; he didn't examine the physical evidence himself, but instead relied on others' written conclusions; and he didn't perform any additional tests on the evidence extracted from the crime scene.
* Helem's cell-phone records placed him in Fairfax County on April 5, near Bentley's home. Yet, although he'd seen her nine days before her murder was discovered, he told police he hadn't seen Bentley for three weeks. And under cross-examination from Pace, he admitted not being completely honest with the authorities.
* PACE NOTED a record of a cell-phone call Helem made April 5 at 11:55 p.m. to Bentley and which experts testified had come from Chantilly.
"Do you recall telling Det. [John] Wallace [that] the last time you talked to Patricia Bentley was the last Tuesday or Wednesday [before then] when she called you on her cell phone?" she asked Helem. "Yes," he replied. "But I was still in shock about what happened."
* He also admitted having keys to Bentley's house, although he'd initially denied it to the police.
* On March 31, Helem awoke to find that someone had vandalized his car by pouring paint on it while it was parked outside Bentley's home. He called police and then Bentley. "Were you angry with her?" asked Pace. "I was angry about [what happened]," he answered.
"Did you accuse her of it?" asked Pace. "I asked her did she do it?" said Helem. "She said no, she didn't have no reason to do something like that. I suspected she'd [done it]; I didn't know for sure." Pace then reminded Helem of a police officer's testimony that Helem had told him, "[Bentley's] *@#% crazy — she did it." But Helem denied making such a statement.
In her closing argument to the jury, last Wednesday, Oct. 8, Pace reiterated all of Helem's lies and inconsistent statements and asked the jury to find him guilty as charged. The next day, the jurors returned a guilty verdict and recommended Helem spend the rest of his life behind bars. Judge Klein will pronounce sentence Dec. 5.