Arrest Shocks Family of Slaying Suspect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stunned relatives of Eric Wayne Bennett said Wednesday that the 23-year-old carpet installer they described as "mellow" could never have sodomized and bludgeoned to death a Laguna Hills woman, the crime for which he was arrested this week.

Bennett, arrested at his parents' home in Fallbrook late Monday, was taken to Orange County Jail in Santa Ana and will be arraigned today in Orange County Municipal Court in Laguna Niguel on a charge of murder with special circumstances, which could bring the death penalty if he is convicted, Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Kirkwood said Wednesday.

Kirkwood declined further comment on the case. Bennett's relatives say they are standing behind him.

Rita Bennett, the suspect's mother, said her son "is the most mellow person you could talk to. If there is any confrontation, he walks away from it."

Bennett said that before her son's arrest, he had been cooperating fully with the Orange County Sheriff's Department investigation into the killing of Marie Evans Powell, 50, whose body was found in her Laguna Hills townhouse on Oct. 14.

She said Bennett did not think it was unusual that investigators had taken his fingerprints, since he had installed linoleum flooring at Powell's home before her murder. "He said he had to be fingerprinted because his prints were in the house," the mother said. According to a sheriff's spokesman, Bennett made two visits to her residence in the 22400 block of Caminito Tecate.

Rita Bennett said her son also gave a sample of his blood to the homicide investigators and he and his wife, Karen, allowed authorities to search the house where they lived in Costa Mesa with their two sons, ages 4 and 9 months.

Bennett said she believes her son was arrested in part because he spent the night of the murder visiting bars in Newport Beach, while his wife was home watching their children, so it would be difficult to account for his whereabouts at all times. "It does not look good," she said. "He was just out."

Leah Bennett, 20, the suspect's sister who spoke with him Wednesday on the telephone, said he told her he went to three bars near the Newport Pier on the night of Oct. 13, the last night Powell was seen alive. She said her brother told her because he had just moved to Orange County a month before, he "wanted to check out the new scene."

His sister said he told her he left home about 6:30 p.m. and returned about 1 a.m., during which time he said his wife dropped by the bars three times to visit him. However, she said he told her the investigators said that his "story didn't wash."

Karen Bennett said she went to see her husband in the bars because she was frightened to be at home alone. "A lady next door had been raped a few days earlier, and I kept saying, 'Please come home,' " Karen Bennett recalled. She described her husband as "a super hard worker" and "a good guy."

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