Friday, January 30, 2009

Back from the Dead

by Donna Weaver

Bennie Harden Wint was declared dead nearly 20 years ago when he disappeared while swimming off Daytona Beach, FL on September 25, 1989. Wint and his then-fiancee, Patricia Lynn Hollingsworth, had left their home in South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo, and talked of their wedding plans while staying in Daytona, according to the original police report. He also left behind a grieving mother and 4-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

Wint's body was just found—alive—during a routine traffic stop in North Carolina where he has been living with his common-law wife and teenage son under an assumed name.

Last Saturday, when a patrol officer pulled him over for having a broken light on his license plate in Weaverville, North Carolina, the man said his name was James Sweet, but could produce nothing to prove his identity. Weaverville police Sgt. Stacy Wyatt became suspicious when Sweet's name did not show up in any official databases, and arrested and booked him under the name "John Doe" for suspicion of driving without a license and giving false information.

Under questioning, the man admitted he faked his own death in 1989, and that he was in fact Bennie Wint. Wint explained to Wyatt how easily he made his getaway. "He told me he swam to the shore in knee deep water, walked off and never looked back."

Wyatt was skeptical at first, and did a little research on the Internet. What he found was a post on from a woman named Christi McKnight who said she was Wint's daughter. In the posting, dated February 5, 2007, McKnight said she was four years old at the time of her father's disappearance and that she was searching for her father in hopes of helping her dying grandmother.

"Doctors say she should have been dead a year ago, but they say she's holding on to one thing, and we believe that she is holding on to my father," McKnight wrote. "Benny is believed to have been seen in Florida back in '89 - '90 and some have said they've seen him in Hartsville, South Carolina, where his family is from."

Evidently, Wint's family members were not the only ones who had doubts about his death. Volusia County Beach Patrol Officer Scott Petersohn stated, "Even back then, it struck everybody as odd that we didn't recover the victim," he said. "That almost never happens." Drowning victims who aren't immediately found by the patrol, he said, typically are located floating in the water by the sheriff's helicopter or are washed up by the tide days later.

Wint's story was confirmed when he was positively identified through fingerprints taken when he was arrested on the current traffic violations. His reason for perpetrating his "disappearing act"? Wint was "paranoid" because he believed he was wanted on charges stemming from his involvement in a large-scale drug trafficking ring in South Carolina and he also feared for his life. Authorities confirmed there are no outstanding warrants for Wint.

At this time, officials say Wint in not facing any charges for faking his own death.

News reports do not say whether or not Wint has made contact with his dying mother or daughter who have been going through a living hell these past 20 years. Having a loved one myself missing for over 25 years, I understand their agony all too well. What I can't imagine doing is reconciling in my mind both being grateful he is alive and the pain of realizing he knowingly, callously, and selfishly put us through all we have suffered.


FleaStiff said...

Missing persons cases can involve a difficult juggling act between the right of an adult go missing at any time for any reason and the desires of friends and family for a thorough search. Searches are not without risk to professionals as well as volunteers.

In the disappearance of David Boone in Orange County (CA) the search area was a rugged wilderness area wherin the missing person was known to habitually go off trail in search of snakes. Yet there were some indications that he may not have even gone hiking that day. His friends all felt he was not the type to voluntarily go missing and impose undue hardship on his relatives or friends but they hoped that he had in fact gone missing rather than fallen victim to the wilderness areas many perils which included mountain lions as well as low temperatures. Sometimes people do desire a "do-over" in life. Regretably, there can be consequences to such decisions.

In Bennie Wint's case, it seems to be 'the wicked fleeith when no man pursueth'. In David Boone's case: we simply don't know. Yet. However, in each case there are burdens imposed on police, friend, family, volunteers and the general taxpayers. There are, however, fundamental freedoms involved also. If an adult wishes to walk out of one situation he is free to do so irrespective of whether his destination is Walden Pond or Sin City.

Donna Weaver said...

Very well stated, Flea Stiff. And you are correct, there is no law against anyone over the age of 18 choosing to disappear if they so choose--as long as it is not with the intent to defraud, flee prosecution, or in the commission of some other crime.In this case, it appears Wint was declared dead a little to easily, and certainly prematurely, given the circumstances. I know from experience it is definitely not that easy to have a missing person declared dead. The whole thing just doesn't add up for me. There very well may be more to Bennie Wint's story, but he's stated to the media that he is not talking unless he's paid. Or then again, maybe there isn't anymore to it, and he really did keep his nose clean for the last 20 years. Somehow, I highly doubt that.

Delilah said...

Quite an interesting tale! As Flea Stiff says above, the balancing act with missing adults is a fine line, especially with family members who only wish some peace of mind and some law enforcement agencies who don't want to expend themselves.

I'm sure Bennie has more to tell....for a price!

FleaStiff said...

Sometimes it really is a police agency that simply does not want to expend itself but more often its simply a lack of agreement as to how much time and effort is properly allocatable and for how long. Some missing hikers have been found a week after the search was called off as futile. In some situations there is real conflict: in Spitzbergen polar bears are protected by law, but one of the most strongly enforced laws requires everyone, citizen and tourist alike, to carry a rifle when wandering around. Balance of risks to the police and the searchers with conserving resources for other cases is important. Family members may indeed suffer emotionally as well as financially, but that does not vitiate the right of a person to simply go missing. Freedom is important in our society and the RIGHT to go missing is not limited to those souls who are free of vices and considerate of those they leave behind. Parents and children of those who go missing do NOT have a right to know the truth; they merely have the right to discover the truth at their own expense and risk.

Anonymous said...

It was easy enough for Steve Fossett's wife to have him declared dead when he hadn't even been missing a year and he had done things like that before.

FleaStiff said...

>done things like that before ?????
A formal determination by the Probate Court that he was dead was appropriate under the circumstances.
Searchers gave too much weight to the ranchhand who thought he observed the plane when he climbed a hill to talk to his girlfriend on a cell phone. Not enough weight was given to his intended route and his known intentions to climb additional California mountains.
Now I know some weirdos out there think he is still alive but both his thigh bones were found near the crash scene and the force of the impact is such that no one could have survived.

Anonymous said...

done things like this before = he is a known risk taker

It is my understanding that SF didn't file a flight plan [which is common] and nobody knew where to look for him. In fact, searchers were looking in Nevada for him but he was found in Calif. It use to be that a person had to be missing for 7 years before they could be declared dead - under any circumstance. It is much easier to do that now before 7 years has passed.

FleaStiff said...

No, no,,, not at all. Seven years was the presumption of death but a prior determination was available if there were indicia of violence or likliness of having perished. The period in California is 11 years, by the way, unless there are indications of violence in which it is 7 years.

Just as most people going out for a Sunday Drive don't leave detailed route plans, so too was Steve Fosset just tooling around enjoying himself. He said he was going to follow a particular road in California and apparently he did and only made a slight detour to view one of the mountains he had not climbed in accord with his plans to climb all twenty of the highest mountains in California.