By Rob Ollikainen / Sequim Gazette
Benjamin G. Bonner was committed to a state psychiatric hospital on April 9 after killing a 71-year-old Sequim woman and her pet dog in May 2017.
The 20-year-old was acquitted of second-degree murder, first-degree animal cruelty and first-degree robbery on the grounds that he was legally insane when he bludgeoned Cynthia Little to death with a fireplace poker in her Sunland home, killed her dog and drove her car to his Bainbridge Island residence.
Clallam County Superior Court Judge Lauren Erickson found that Bonner committed the crimes but was legally insane on May 4, 2017 and therefore not guilty by reason of insanity under state law.
Bonner was committed to Western State Hospital in Lakewood, where he will remain until a Department of Social and Health Services Public Safety Review Panel determines that he is no longer a risk to himself or others.
“If the mental health professionals see fit at some point in the future to release him, I am charging this court and his family to ensure that this never happens again,” said Vicky Battistelli, one of Little’s sisters, in a victim impact statement.
State psychiatrist Barry Ward concluded in a November report that Bonner had paranoid schizophrenia, marijuana use disorder and was “acutely psychotic” at the time of Little’s killing.
Little was a grandmother figure to Bonner, who knew her as Aunt Cynthia, according to family.
“We as a family grieve for Cynthia, and I know other do as well,” said Ursula Rosin, Bonner’s mother.
“Please know that my family shares this sorrow, and we are truly sorry for the pain and grief that has been caused by the actions on the part of our son.”
Based on Ward’s report, Erickson found that Bonner was “unable to perceive the nature and the quality” of his crimes or was “unable to tell right from wrong.”
“I also find that based on Dr. Ward’s report that the defendant is a risk of substantial danger to other persons unless he is kept under control by the court or institutions,” Erickson added.
“It is not in the best interest of the defendant and others that the defendant be placed in treatment that is less restrictive than detention in a state mental hospital.”
Bonner, who was adopted from Russia as an infant, declined to make a formal statement to the court. He apologized to Battistelli during her statement and blew a kiss to his mother after an emotionally-charged sentencing hearing that revolved around gaps in the mental health delivery system.
“This was in fact an epic failure of our mental health system,” said defense attorney John Hayden of Clallam Public Defender.
Clallam County Chief Criminal Deputy Michele Devlin said Bonner’s paranoia began a few years ago and escalated in the weeks that preceded Little’s killing.
Bonner’s friends said he believed he was a shape-shifter, wizard, dragon-rider and mermaid, according to Ward’s report.
“He would talk about things coming out of his mirror and it being a portal to other dimensions,” Devlin said.
“He would use holy water on it to keep the demons away.”
“He was paranoid all the time, and he believed that someone was after him,” she added.
Little was killed one day after Bonner was released from a Kitsap County hospital, where he had been admitted under the Involuntary Treatment Act for threatening his mother with a pencil and for torturing a cat to the point that its “eyes were about to pop out,” Devlin said.
Rosin, who had pleaded with the hospital to keep her son in treatment, said she was told to ask a judge for a mandatory hold and evaluation.
“This was the intent, but this opportunity would never come to pass as the tragedy struck on that Wednesday,” Rosin said.
“They kick him to the curb, and a few hours later this tragedy occurs,” Hayden said.
“You will not see a more dramatic and horrific illustration of a system failure. That system failed Ben Bonner. That system failed his parents. Most of all, that system failed Ms. Little.”
The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office said Bonner beat Little with a fireplace poker 15 times as Little repeatedly told him “I love you.”
“I cannot stop thinking about how horrifying it was for her,” Battistelli said.
Battistelli turned to her sister’s killer and said: “If Cynthia was here now, I think that she would say: ‘Ben, it’s not your fault. You never got the help that you so clearly needed and let’s hope you do now. Let’s hope that by killing me, you’ll never get the chance to hurt anyone else.’”
“Sorry,” Bonner said while sobbing at the defendant’s chair.
Investigators said Little’s dog, Jack, tried to stop Bonner as he beat Little.
Bonner choked the small dog until it lay still, and struck it with the metal instrument when it roused, Detective Sgt. Brian Knutson said in court papers.
Devlin, who wore purple to the hearing in honor of Little’s favorite color, said Little graduated from high school in New Jersey and became a nun with the Dominican Order.
Little left the ministry in her late 20s, enrolled at Loyola Marymount University and “excelled” as a middle school and high school math teacher for 30 years in Los Angeles, Devlin said.
“She taught in the toughest high school in downtown L.A., in the inner city,” Devlin said.
“She dealt with the toughest and the most difficult youth, and they liked her and they learned from her. She retired and moved to Washington, but she just kept going.”
In retirement, Little was an active member of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Sequim, a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program volunteer, a substitute teacher at Queen of Angels School in Port Angeles and a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the Sunland pool, Devlin said.
“She opened her heart and her home to anybody, including strangers,” Devlin added.
“She had no biological children of her own, but she was an aunt, a grandmother and a friend to many. She loved children. She taught children. She fought for children.”
Devlin agreed to the finding that Bonner is not guilty by reason of insanity after consulting with Little’s family, sheriff’s detectives, mental health professionals and others.
“It’s not a decision that was made lightly by our office,” Devlin said.
“We brainstormed it throughout our office and most importantly, we discussed it with the family, the survivors of this tragedy.”
Battistelli described the finding as the only “correct move.”
“Clearly, there needs to be major improvements in the delivery of mental health services,” Battistelli said.
“There needs to be effective outreach and education in the field of mental health. There needs to be changes in our laws. People who are insane should not be able to call the shots.”
This story originally appeared in the Sequim Gazette, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.