Penrod suspect had past brushes with the law

January 12, 2009
As an accounting student at Ball State University, Brandon J. Benker had a thirst for high-stakes gambling.

Former college friends say it was so strong that when he ran out of his own money, he found ways to use theirs. One incident led to criminal charges in Delaware County.

The case didn't keep Benker from landing a job with an Indianapolis accounting firm, or serving as treasurer of The Penrod Society, a local not-for-profit that now alleges he took every penny of the $380,000 in its account.

Benker, 27, was a junior auditor at Somerset CPAs. The firm near North Keystone Avenue and Interstate 465 has a long history of involvement in Penrod, which organizes a crowd-pleasing art fair every September on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Penrod named Benker treasurer in 2007. Last year, he played an unofficial role as "assistant treasurer," while one of his senior colleagues at Somerset, Gene Zoellner, held the treasurer's post.

Penrod's board members didn't know the money was missing until Benker's attorney, top criminal defender James Voyles, called to tell them about it in late November. Around the same time, Voyles also called in Benker's resignation to Somerset.

Penrod President Jimmy Art disclosed the theft in a Dec. 5 letter to the membership. In an interview late last month, he said he still wasn't sure how the money had been embezzled, but believed it was over the course of many months.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said it is investigating the disappearance of the money, but hasn't filed charges.

Hearing Benker's name in connection with such a bold heist didn't surprise Jeremy DeWinter, who was in Ball State's graduate accounting program with Benker.

"My guess is, he took all that money, hoping to make [more] money off of it," said DeWinter, who works at the accounting firm BGBC Partners LLP downtown. "He probably lost it all. I know he wouldn't take it and try to conceal it-he's not that stupid."

DeWinter based his speculation on firsthand experience. He told Muncie police in March 2004 that Benker had obtained the routing number to his checking account and used it to place a losing $500 wager with an off-shore sports betting house.

Delaware County prosecutors charged Benker in April 2004 with "identity deception," a felony, and "conversion," a misdemeanor.

Benker hired Muncie attorney Kelly Bryan, who negotiated him into a diversion program for first-time offenders. Typically, diversion means paying fines and completing community service or counseling. Benker was not convicted, nor did he enter a plea. A judge dismissed the case in July 2005.

Disturbing behavior

Although Benker borrowed money to quickly repay him, DeWinter found the incident disturbing. He said he decided to go to police after hearing that Benker pulled similar stunts with other friends.

"I just thought someone should know, since he was going to work for an accounting firm," DeWinter said.

At the time, Benker had an internship with Larry E. Nunn & Associates, based in Columbus, Ind. A principal at Nunn & Associates confirmed Benker was an intern and worked there for a short time after receiving a master's degree in 2004.

Somerset hired Benker in 2005. President Pat Early said Benker brought the case in Delaware County to the firm's attention.

"It was a misunderstanding with his roommate," Early said. "We had gotten that verified by both attorneys. We had to have a pretty detailed explanation of what happened."

Benker also arrived at Somerset with a misdemeanor on his record for drunken driving. He'd been charged in Marion County in August 2004.

Early said he knew Benker had a drinking-and-driving conviction.

"So does half the young population that went to school," he said irritably. "What we're really guilty of in this whole thing is encouraging our people to get involved in the community.

"We try to do the best we can to make sure the people working here are all upstanding, good young professionals. ... We missed this guy's personality."

Another alcohol charge

It's not clear whether Benker's bosses at Somerset knew he committed a second, felony drunken-driving offense after his hiring.

On the night of March 25, 2006, Carmel police officer Todd Case had just finished a traffic stop when he saw Benker's red Mitsubishi Galant zipping east on 96th Street.

Case noted in his affidavit that Benker passed within feet of the center median where another officer still was working. He clocked the Galant at 72 mph, twice the speed limit.

Case followed Benker into the parking lot of the Blu Martini club, where he "started racing up and down rows of cars" before the officer finally cornered him. Benker, who stands about 6-foot-4, later registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.14.

Benker pleaded guilty on July 3, 2007, to the felony charge of drunken driving and endangering a person.

Benker's personal problems extend beyond criminal charges, court records show. In June 2005, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing assets of $8,610 and liabilities of $78,570.

Benker could not be reached. The phone number at the Carmel address he shares with his mother was disconnected. His attorney, Voyles, did not return a call seeking comment. He said last month that he would not comment on the Penrod case.

Betting on sports

Several of Benker's friends and acquaintances from Ball State say they dabbled in online sports betting. "I'd make the occasional $20 or $25 wager," said Josh Hendrixson, who shared an apartment with Benker for the spring semester of 2004.

According to Hendrixson, Benker once obtained the password to his online gambling account, which linked directly to his checking account. "The bet he tried to make with my money was one of the most ridiculous things," he said.

Benker tried to place $500 on an eight-team parlay to win $70,000, Hendrixson said. "You have to get all eight teams right. If you miss one of them, you lose. It's like playing the Lotto."

Hendrixson said the attempted transaction, which his credit union blocked, occurred in February or March of 2004, around the same time that DeWinter complained to police.

DeWinter said he had handed Benker a voided check with the understanding that his fellow fan would set up an account at a betting site that offered cash for referrals. He said he soon realized Benker used the account to wager $500.

The betting house, Bodoglife.com, let DeWinter listen to a recording of the bet ordered in his name. He said he easily recognized Benker's voice laying out a six-team parlay.

"He knew I was going to find out, but I think he was just desperate and didn't care how he got the money," DeWinter said.

Benker's former attorney in Muncie, Kelly Bryan, didn't recall many details about the case.

"I just remember him because he's very polite and articulate, a nice young man," Bryan said.

DeWinter said he's learned that nice guys aren't necessarily trustworthy. "As I'm getting farther along in my life, I realize that doesn't mean anything."
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