The city of Naples, on the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, is home to many rich families and has long been considered to be a thriving and very safe community. But that illusion of blissful wealth was shattered in the mid-80s when a vehicle belonging to the wealthy Benson family went up in flames.
The Benson family made their millions from tobacco — Margaret Benson was the daughter of Universal Leaf owner Harry Hitchcock, who was estimated to be worth over $100 million dollars. Despite the stereotype of rich families being distant from each other, the Benson clan was a tight-knit group.
In July 1985, Margaret, 63, her 41-year-old daughter, Carolyn Benson Kendall, her 33-year-old son Steven Benson, and her 21-year-old adopted son, Scott Benson, all got into a vehicle to go check out a plot of land in the city, where Margaret was planning to build another home for the family.
But the family never made it to the property.
As the family was entering the vehicle, it exploded, causing a massive blast heard five miles away. Margaret and Scott were killed instantly, while Caroline was rushed to the hospital with severe burn injuries. Steven, who hadn't gotten into the vehicle before it exploded, was safe.
“We had to preserve the scene because it was quite a large explosion. There were particles of bodies and materials, and it looked like a bomb had dropped on the Suburban," Harold Younga, a retired homicide lieutenant with the Collier County sheriff’s department, told producers of Oxygen's new series, "Florida Man Murders."
While searching the surrounding area, police found remnants of explosives, confirming it was a calculated attack. However, they were stumped: Was Margaret the target? Or Scott? Or the whole family?
"I couldn’t imagine anyone that would want to hurt them. Why would anyone want to hurt my family?" a Benson relative who wished to remain anonymous told producers.
Investigators turned to the survivors of the blast for possible leads, but they were shut down. Caroline said that she did not want to talk to authorities as she was recovering in a Massachusetts burn ward. Steven, meanwhile, seemed to be in a state of shock after the blast and having lost his family, so investigators didn't want to push him too hard.
After digging into the family's background, authorities theorized that it was Scott who was the focus of the attack. At 21, he had been arrested multiple times, had done plenty of recreational drugs, and partied hard with strippers.
"This was very unlike Naples, so it made people suspicious," Todd Kolzman, a retired Miami Herald crime reporter, explained to producers of the mood at the time.
They soon developed a theory that the attack may have been related to Scott's drug use. Perhaps he owed someone money, or was selling drugs himself, or maybe he had seen something he wasn't meant to see.
Investigators scoured Scott's social circle but were stymied. The theory was a dead end.
Then a tabloid scandal erupted when it was revealed that Scott was actually Caroline's son — she had secretly given birth and let her parents raise him as their adopted child. While police briefly considered that Scott may have wanted to die by suicide if he learned such a shocking family secret, they soon dismissed the idea. It didn't seem likely the young man had ever even known the truth about his biological mom.
A break in the investigation came, though, when police spoke with Steven's high school friends. While discussing him, they learned he knew how to make pipe bombs and tinkered with explosives.
Investigators were eager to speak with Steven again — but when they requested an interview, he refused, then hired one of the area's top defense attorneys. Authorities were shocked by the move, and of course, suspicious.
Luckily, another family member was finally ready to talk. Caroline agreed to speak with the police. And what she had to tell them was massive.
The morning of the explosion, she said, the family had all agreed to go see the plot of land — but at Steven's suggestion. He had driven over in his own car, but then said he would go out and grab doughnuts, taking the Suburban that later exploded, instead of his own vehicle. Then, when they were getting into the car, Caroline noted that Steven had made suggestions for where they should all sit. He then ran back inside to get a tape measure.
That was when the vehicle was rocked by the explosion — Caroline said she saw a giant fireball and realized she was on fire herself. She escaped from the vehicle, and as she rolled around on the grass trying to extinguish the flames that were engulfing her, she says that she saw Steven watching her. As she begged him for help, he just went back inside, leaving her there, she told investigators.
Police now had their number one suspect: Steven Benson. But why would he commit such a twisted crime?
Financial records soon made it obvious that he was continually taking money from his mother, using it to start a variety of businesses that would quickly go bankrupt. Margaret suspected Steven was embezzling from her and had been preparing to cut him off financially. Steven needed access to his mother's wealth — and he was prepared to kill for it.
However, police were still missing physical evidence to tie him into the explosion, so they turned their attention to tracing where the materials for the two pipe bombs that destroyed the car. Eventually, they found a store in Naples near Steven's office called Hugh's Supply that sold end caps matching the ones used to make the bomb. They confirmed someone had bought that end cap type days before the explosion, and staff provided police with both a description of the person and a receipt.
Steven was a match — and on the receipt, a partial thumbprint was discovered. It was also a match for Steven.
On August 22, 1985, Steven Benson was arrested for murdering Margaret Benson and Scott Benson and attempting to kill his sister. He refused to admit his guilt, and a high-profile trial ensued. While his lawyers were good, Carolyn's testimony on the stand shredded his defense, as she spoke of his odd behavior and refusal to come to her aid when she was on fire.
"I thought I was being electrocuted. I could remember calling for someone to help me," she says on the stand in footage seen in "Florida Man Murders."
Steven was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life in prison. In July 2015, he died in prison after a fellow inmate stabbed him in the head, Lancaster Online reported at the time. The extended Benson family is still reeling from his cruel and vicious attack on his own mother and siblings.
"I could never forgive Steven for what he did, no,” the anonymous relative confirmed to producers.
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