Carpet Installer Faces Murder, Rape Charges : Courts: Eric Wayne Bennett, 23, being held in Laguna Hills case, is also indicted in Costa Mesa incident.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A carpet installer jailed on suspicion of raping and murdering a Laguna Hills customer in October has also been charged in the rape and robbery of a Costa Mesa woman two weeks earlier, authorities said Thursday.

Eric Wayne Bennett, 23, was indicted Wednesday by the Orange County Grand Jury on charges stemming from both incidents after prosecutors presented two days of testimony.

Bennett has been held without bail since his arrest Oct. 31 on suspicion of sodomizing and fatally bludgeoning 50-year-old Marie Evans Powell in her Laguna Hills townhouse Oct. 14. He was later charged with murder with special circumstances of burglary and sodomy and could face the death penalty if convicted.

The grand jury handed down indictments charging Bennett with murder and sexual assault in the Evans case and with sexual assault and robbery in connection with a Sept. 27 attack on a 40-year-old woman who was robbed and raped at knifepoint in the bedroom of her Costa Mesa apartment. The woman was not identified by police.

Arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 18.

Police said DNA testing of evidence taken from both victims matched Bennett's blood samples.

"We have DNA on our side, so we're very confident. . . . That's a pretty good link," said Capt. Tom Lazar of the Costa Mesa Police Department.

Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty but said that decision would come soon after the arraignment. Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Kirkwood, the prosecutor in the case, declined to discuss the evidence.

Costa Mesa detectives began investigating Bennett as a possible suspect in the Sept. 27 rape and robbery in their city after the Orange County Sheriff Department reportedly linked him with the Laguna Hills murder, officials said.

Police said Bennett, who had recently moved to Costa Mesa with his wife and two young sons, got into the Costa Mesa woman's apartment through an open door and then robbed and raped her. He did not know the woman and had not worked for her, Lazar said. Police declined to say whether they were neighbors.

Bennett, who worked for Mike's Carpet Emporium in Costa Mesa, had installed linoleum flooring in Powell's home in the 22400 block of Caminito Tecate in Laguna Hills. He made two visits to the home before Powell was found dead Oct. 14 on the lower level of her two-floor townhouse, according to authorities.

A sales manager at the carpet firm said Thursday he had testified before the grand jury and was instructed not to discuss the case.

The suspect's mother, Rita Bennett, declined to speak with a reporter on Thursday. Earlier, Rita Bennett had defended her son as "the most mellow person," saying he had cooperated fully with Orange County Sheriff's Department investigators probing the Powell murder.

Before his arrest, Eric Bennett agreed to be fingerprinted, gave authorities a sample of his blood and, along with his wife, Karen, allowed investigators to search the Costa Mesa house where the couple lived with two sons, ages 4 and 9 months, Rita Bennett said.

Eric Bennett's sister has said he was arrested in part because he lacked an alibi. He said he had spent the night of Powell's murder visiting bars in Newport Beach by himself, so it was difficult to pinpoint his whereabouts. Karen Bennett supported her husband's account of his activities that night, saying she stopped at a bar to visit him out of fear of being alone because a neighbor had been raped days earlier.

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