LAS VEGAS — A federal conspiracy trial has begun for three family members accused of collecting more than $300,000 in death benefits in the strange tale of a Marine who faked his own death in 1994 near Lake Mead.
The Marine, Staff Sgt. Arthur Bennett, committed suicide in jail in 1999 — three months after a federal grand jury indicted him, his mother, two of his brothers and his ex-wife in the faked death case.
Bennett also was facing murder and sexual assault charges when he hung himself with a bedsheet at the Clark County Detention Center. He was 45.
His ex-wife, Amelia, pleaded guilty in December to concealing her knowledge of a felony without admitting she participated in it.
Trial started Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas for Bennett's mother, Ellen, and two of his brothers, Scott and David. All three admit they knew about the staged death, but deny trying to defraud the government.
Arthur Bennett had said he was involved in covert military operations, and the three relatives said they believed him when he claimed military officials were faking his death to help him assume a new identity.
Defense lawyer Karen Connolly, representing Ellen Bennett, said the military's actions gave the story credence.
Connolly said the military allowed Arthur Bennett to go free while he was facing sexual assault charges in Arizona. During that leave, a charred body was found in Bennett's burned-out trailer on Feb. 3, 1994, near Lake Mead.
The military identified the remains as those of Arthur Bennett, told Ellen Bennett her son had died, conducted a burial with full military honors and denied relatives an opportunity to see the body.
Connolly said Ellen Bennett, 69, admits she received $200,000 in proceeds from her son's life insurance policy, though she knew he was alive.
Connolly said Arthur Bennett told his mother the military wanted him to have the money to start his new life. He told her his family would be killed if they revealed his secret, the attorney said.
Defense lawyer Paul Wommer, representing Scott Bennett, 41, described Arthur Bennett as "the family member from hell."
Wommer said Arthur Bennett molested young girls in Japan, Arizona and Utah.
Defense lawyer Thomas Naylor, representing David Bennett, 43, said representatives of the Clark County coroner's office should have noticed several red flags before they incorrectly identified the man who died in the trailer fire.
Authorities discovered the ruse in the fall of 1997, after Arthur Bennett was arrested in Hurricane, Utah, under the name Joseph Benson.