By Kate Howard
The Defender Foundation’s chairman, Dan Benedict, has a stated mission to defend the defenseless and those lost in darkness. But Benedict’s own criminal history has dealt a blow to his agency and pits his claim of rehabilitation against the need for caution.
Benedict was featured in a Times-Union story on Nov. 12 as part of a growing movement in Jacksonville to combat human trafficking. The newspaper learned after publication that Benedict has a felony conviction stemming from a 2002 sexual incident with his then 16-year-old stepdaughter. Newspaper archives and court records also show evidence of past involvement in the stockpiling of stolen military weapons by a white separatist movement.
Benedict, a military veteran who often jokes he has a hero complex, said the Defender Foundation’s board members know all about his past, and he’s not the same person he once was. But those outside of his inner circle had no idea that the man speaking so passionately about victims had once victimized a child and was associated with a hate group leader.
Benedict sat on the community portion of the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of law enforcement and nonprofit agencies that seek to fight human trafficking and organize resources for victims. Members of the task force said they didn’t know about Benedict’s past and the lack of disclosure was serious enough to raise questions.
Chairwoman Robin Rossmanith said the task force is temporarily disbanding while it establishes a formal process to vet current and new members as a result.
Benedict’s victim and her family fear that he will have contact with victimized and vulnerable girls.
“If you have someone with a drinking problem, don’t drop them off at the bar and tell them not to drink,” said Holly, Benedict’s former stepdaughter. “Don’t put that temptation in your life. In my mind, it’s common sense.”
The Times-Union does not identify sex crime victims, but Benedict’s stepdaughter allowed her first name to be used. Now 24, Holly said she is worried he will use his position to gain another girl’s confidence and put that girl through the same thing she’s lived with for eight years.
Benedict said those worries are unfounded because he’s a changed man who has accepted Jesus into his heart. He said he will never be alone with a victim, and his agency has strict boundaries to protect everyone it sets out to help.
“My ex-family hasn’t seen what I’ve tried to do with my life,” Benedict said. “It sounds cliche, but every day I wake up and try to be the best man I can be. The people who support me know who I am.”
Felony pastThe chairman of the new nonprofit agency established himself as an authority on human trafficking, passing out fliers at awareness events and attending task force meetings. Benedict assembled ex-military and current law enforcement volunteers for the team he wants to turn into a licensed security force. Already, the agency assisted in two rescue attempts, one successful.
At a recent Defender Foundation meeting that drew about 40 current and prospective volunteers, Benedict stood at the podium and gave the crowd a retooled introduction.
He detailed much of his past – ex-military, bounty hunter, scuba diving instructor, critical care nurse – and then gave a shortened version of his biggest regret. In a measured, soft voice that belies his large frame, he explained his moment of “drunken stupidity.”
When asked to explain the incident to a reporter, Benedict said he had a “pity party” at home in March 2002 while his wife was on a cruise. He got drunk and gave his stepdaughter Holly a few wine coolers the day after her 16th birthday.
She was a hellion, Benedict said, always getting in trouble.
He admitted there was “inappropriate touching,” and said he won’t blame the alcohol. He claimed that Holly protested the next morning when he suggested telling her mother about the incident.
“I was supposed to be the one in charge,” he said, echoing the same phrase he told Pinellas Park police in 2004. “It shouldn’t have mattered if she came back like a Victoria’s Secret model.”
The police investigation drew different conclusions.
Sick to her stomachHolly told police she suspected the whole ordeal was planned because she never saw Benedict drink before that night. The alcohol made her vomit, and her stepfather helped her to bed and removed her clothes.
Holly didn’t realize she was naked until she felt her stepfather kissing her body. She was intoxicated, unsure if her words of protest came out, but he told her to relax. He stopped performing oral sex on her only after she started dry-heaving, she told police.
Holly still remembers what he said to her the next morning: “Do you feel like a woman now?”
Once she was 17, Holly said she told Benedict that she couldn’t keep quiet any longer. She felt trapped and contemplated suicide. She decided to tell what happened when she saw the way he looked at her younger sister.
Her mother divorced Benedict, and Holly got married and moved out of state. He begged forgiveness from them, but did not receive it.
During the Defender Foundation meeting, there was no visible reaction to his brief explanation of his past; longtime friends already knew about it, and if new volunteers were curious, it didn’t show. Benedict never mentioned that his stepdaughter went to the police or that the incident resulted in a felony child abuse conviction.
The agency is not about redemption for his mistake, he told the crowd. But his message was mixed.
“Since I can’t have interaction with my family,” he said next, “I will do my best to help other people’s daughters.”
‘Small role’ with groupBenedict also didn’t mention he was arrested in 1991 and served a year in federal prison on a charge of possessing an unregistered firearm. The conviction stemmed from a plot, led by former Green Beret Michael Tubbs, to stockpile weapons and explosives stolen from military bases in Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Campbell, Ky.
According to federal records and newspaper stories, Benedict went with two other men to Tubbs’ Clarksville, Tenn., home and brought weapons back to Jacksonville. He denies he was helping Tubbs stash the weapons.
What Tubbs planned to do, newspaper stories and federal records show, was target government offices, media outlets and businesses owned by black and Jewish people, with explosives and other weapons. Federal prosecutors said Tubbs, who was sentenced to five years in prison, formed a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan called the Knights of the New Order.
“Tubbs was the person with the grand design, and he was essentially an early Timothy McVeigh,” said Charles Truncale, who prosecuted the case. “Candidly, Benedict had a small role, as did [the others].”
Benedict said he had no idea what Tubbs’ plans were.
“It’s one thing for someone to talk, another thing for someone to do,” Benedict said. “I never saw plans for any of those things.”
Benedict denied ever being a racist or a white supremacist – “I’m half Apache Indian,” he said – but admits that statistics on the crime rates among blacks and men in his military unit who “pulled the race card” left him with “doubts.” But he now knows, he said, that God’s grace is for everyone.
Board defends himBenedict retains the support of his board, which includes self-identified victims of abuse, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office homicide detective and Christian ministers.
All are members of Celebration Church, one of the fastest-growing churches in Jacksonville. Celebration emphasizes on its website that all sinners can have a fresh start with God. Board members interviewed said they believe Benedict has had that fresh start and deserves forgiveness.
Jill Dykstra, a Defender Foundation board member, said everyone has a testimony about mistakes they’ve made. The heart of the foundation, she said, is the story of God’s grace and the power of forgiveness.
They were brought together because “we are all broken and put back together Christians who are passionate about making a difference in this world,” Dykstra said.
Lee Vartanian, another board member and minister at Celebration, was not available for comment. Brett Hougland, the homicide detective who also sits on the board, declined to be interviewed.
The group let Benedict be the front man because he had the passion and time to put into it, said board member Dave Vartanian, Lee Vartanian’s father. He said someone else will probably step up now, and he blames Benedict’s former family for the trouble.
Everything was fine until they decided to get back at Benedict, he said, and it’s not right because the foundation is trying to save lives.
“It’s not like this is another angle for him to molest kids,” Vartanian said. “This is his heart.”
But members of Benedict’s former family feel like he is skating by again.
His ex-wife Victoria, whose last name is being withheld to avoid identifying her daughter, wondered why Benedict would dive into charity work that seems inappropriate given the nature of his felony conviction.
“If you want to make a difference, start a soup kitchen,” she said. Because the agreed-upon deal to avoid a trial was to plead guilty to felony child abuse, Benedict served three years on probation for the 2005 conviction and was not forced to register as a sex offender.
Holly is somewhat offended that Benedict’s supporters have seemingly brushed off what she went through. But she said she won’t bottle up her feelings, nor will she hate anyone.
“He was my father since I was little,” she said. “I have a lot of good memories of the man who attacked me. That is a complicated thing.”
Holly is moving on. She is a mother now, with her own little one to think about. But she is not interested in forgetting – any more than she plans to forgive.
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Dan Benedict: A felony past- 2010: Founded and became chairman of the Defender Foundation, an agency featured in a Nov. 12 Times-Union story that aims to rescue victims of human trafficking from abuse and addiction
– 2005: Convicted of the lesser charge of felony child abuse related to a sexual incident involving his stepdaughter, then 16
– 1991: Arraigned on federal weapons charge related to his role in the largest weapons cache discovered in Florida to date