Powell man put on probation for blackmail

Threatened to distribute embarrassing videos of teen

Posted 2/18/21

When a girl wouldn’t hang out with him last summer, a young Powell man turned to blackmail to draw an invitation. Then, after forcing the 17-year-old to spend time with him, Robert Benner …

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Powell man put on probation for blackmail

Threatened to distribute embarrassing videos of teen

Posted

When a girl wouldn’t hang out with him last summer, a young Powell man turned to blackmail to draw an invitation. Then, after forcing the 17-year-old to spend time with him, Robert Benner allegedly slapped, pinched and punched her.

Benner’s actions last June led to him spending roughly two-and-a-half months in jail and becoming a convicted felon.

“You realize the consequences that can happen with foolish behavior. It can escalate, and that’s what’s happened here,” District Court Judge Bill Simpson said at Benner’s Dec. 17 sentencing hearing.

“Step away from this kind of behavior; think twice before you do something, and I think you’ll be fine,” Simpson added, “but if not you’ll be back in this situation again, and next time you might not be so fortunate — [it] could be a prison term.”

As stipulated in a plea agreement, the 19-year-old is now serving three years of supervised probation, and is being allowed to serve it in Nevada.

“I just want to go down there so I can get another chance, prove to you guys that I’m not going to blow all this over and just work,” Benner said at his sentencing hearing.

Judge Simpson said he hoped the defendant would take advantage of the opportunity and “never have any issues where you encounter the law again.”

Benner had multiple encounters with law enforcement last year, with Park County prosecutors alleging that he blackmailed and battered the 17-year-old girl on a couple days in June.

According to statements that she and a friend made to the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Benner had threatened to disseminate two videos if she refused to hang out with him. One of the videos showed the girl smoking marijuana, and Benner warned he would send it to police; Benner also threatened to distribute another embarrassing video to various people, Deputy Clayton Creel summarized in an affidavit.

The 17-year-old told Creel that she allowed Benner to join her — at a City of Cody park and at an area near Beacon Hill — after he made the threats.

In court in December, Benner admitted threatening to send out the marijuana video if the girl did not allow him to hang out with her.

“And you understood … it was against her will — she did not want you to come hang out with her at that time?” asked Lindsey Krause Crandall, Benner’s defense attorney.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

According to what the girl and witnesses told police, Benner became violent both times he coerced her into getting together. In one instance, he reportedly became angry that the girl had talked with another male.

Deputy Creel was told by the girl and witnesses that Benner had slapped her, put her in a loose chokehold, pinched her, pulled her hair and hit her legs, leaving visible bruises.

“From [the girl’s] statements, it seems these events with Robert Benner happened more times than the two mentioned events,” Creel wrote. For instance, the girl told police that Benner had whipped her with a belt “a long time ago.”

Benner was charged with two misdemeanor counts of battery in connection with the two incidents in June, but the Park County Attorney’s Office agreed to drop them and an underage drinking charge from May as part of a deal that involved Benner pleading guilty to the count of blackmail. 

Early on in the hearing, Judge Simpson expressed some hesitancy about accepting the agreement, noting that it would make Benner a felon; the judge pointed out the many rights and privileges the young man would lose.

“I want you to think seriously about this, sir, because by pleading guilty to this felony, at 19 years of age, this felony will not go away,” Simpson said. “It will be forever on your record. We live in a digital world. It will be out there for everyone to see.”

However, Benner indicated he was eager to move forward and start work in Nevada.

“I feel if I get to go down there, working’s going to keep me out of trouble,” he told the judge, adding, “Every time I stopped [working], I started getting in trouble.”

(Crandall said all of Benner’s previous criminal offenses were handled in confidential juvenile court proceedings.)

Still, Simpson suggested delaying the sentencing and giving the defendant more time to think about the deal. For instance, the judge said the “very serious” blackmail conviction could make it “very difficult” for Benner to find any employment in the future.

Simpson said he could allow Benner — who’d been free on bond since September after serving 76 days in custody — to leave the state and work in Nevada; sentencing could then be held at a later date, he said, after a probation and parole officer wrote a standard pre-sentence report.

But Deputy Park County Attorney Jack Hatfield said his office “may or may not follow through with this deal if we have to come back and do this again.”

Hatfield added that he didn’t see the point of a pre-sentence investigation.

“... he’s getting quite a benefit of a deal here in a suspended sentence, and he’s also getting out from under three other criminal charges,” the prosecutor said of Benner. “And the state’s evidence is extremely compelling against him in this case — and [it] could have been charged as aggravated blackmail and additional offenses as well.”

Regardless, Simpson expressed displeasure with the plea deal being presented “only ... today,” saying he wants agreements presented in writing in advance. Particularly with not knowing the circumstances of the circuit court charges that were being dismissed, Simpson said he didn’t have the information he needed.

“When the court is not fully informed it concerns me — as I know it must concern you as his mother,” the judge told Linda Benner.

However, the Powell resident told Simpson that she believed it would be best for her son to move forward with his life as best he could and begin working with his father. 

The judge ultimately agreed to the deal. The case remained pending on Wednesday, as the court had yet to formalize the sentence and probation conditions in a final order.

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