It's been more than five years since Debbie Higbee-Benton was found murdered in her Gladstone beauty salon, and Wednesday the trial against her estranged husband finally began.
Lynn Benton, a transgendered former Gladstone police sergeant, is accused of orchestrating a murder-for-hire plot in the case.
This is a highly-anticipated trial, years in the making, with prosecutors saying it involves not only a conspiracy to kill the Gladstone woman but also a cover-up when the murder didn't go according to plan.
The defense counters, though, that the reliable evidence just isn't there.
The former Gladstone police sergeant sat quietly with his lawyers as both sides laid out their cases to the jury.
"The decision to kill Debbie Higbee had been made long ago,” prosecutor John Wentworth said. “The decision was Lynn Edward Benton’s. He wanted Debbie dead for reasons we're going to discuss."
In opening statements, Wentworth said Benton hired his friend, Susan Campbell, to kill Higbee-Benton for $2,000.
Prosecutors contend Campbell shot Higbee-Benton in the back but hit her spine, paralyzing but not killing her.
Prosecutors say she only brought one bullet, so she called Benton, who came to the salon with Campbell’s son Jason Jaynes, who prosecutors say finished the job.
Wentworth described Higbee-Benton’s last moments in court Wednesday.
"She's then beaten and strangled to death and Sergeant Benton watches," he said.
Prosecutors believe that in 1999, Benton covered up a rape case in which Jaynes was accused, so he owed Benton a favor.
Defense attorney Patrick Sweeney said the state lacks reliable evidence, though, and the crime scene may have been contaminated from the beginning.
"They picked their conclusion, then investigated their case based on that conclusion," he said.
Sweeny spent much of his opening statements focused on jailhouse informant Travis Layman, who he said manipulated Benton and took a plea deal in exchange for testimony against him.
"They tell this story about how Mr. Benton's there while Jason Jayne finishes it off,” Sweeny said of the prosecution. “That's all from Travis Layman!"
The state called its first witnesses in the trial Wednesday afternoon, including two of the people who discovered Higbee-Benton's body.
Patricia Sholz testified that she got worried about Higbee-Benton when she didn't show up for dinner and went to her beauty salon to check on her.
She got help from an off-duty firefighter at the tavern next door. The man contacted Benton, who had a key to the salon, at the police department and the three went inside together.
"Lynn walked up, stepped into the doorway and shone the light down at some point,” Sholz said in court. “And I don't know who turned the light on, and Lynn says ‘Debbie, Debbie,’ and she started to bend down and came up, grabbed ahold of Randy and burst into tears."
After that testimony, both sides focused on whether Benton tried to perform CPR or other life-saving measures because he was a trained paramedic. Witnesses testified that he did not.
The jury is expected to hear from dozens of witnesses over the course of potentially two months.
Benton is facing eight charges, including aggravated murder, solicitation, conspiracy and attempted murder.
If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
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