Maryland State Police say the murder of Nicole Reiser Bennett was a crime of opportunity.
Bennett, 35 of Millsboro, rented a home in the Peninsula at Long Neck with her husband of 15 years, Kevin, and their three young daughters.
On June 14, she stayed home to take care of her 15-month-old, who was sick. During the early evening, Bennett decided to go into work at Bay Shore Community Church outside Gumboro to catch up on work she missed during the day.
Also working at the church that night was Matthew N. Burton, 28 of Dagsboro, a part-time custodian. Burton is now charged with first- and second-degree murder in the death of Bennett, whose body was discovered June 15 on Swamp Road, a rural road outside Whaleyville, Md.
Kevin Bennett called police to report Nicole missing about 8 a.m. June 15. A person walking on Swamp Road discovered her body at 9 a.m.
Maryland State Police Detective Sgt. Steve Hall said the three-week police investigation into Bennett's murder turned up no connections between Burton and Bennett, who worked in the church’s nursery.
"This was a good Christian woman, a wife and a mother," said Hall. "He wasn't stalking her. He wasn't following her. We didn't find any relationship between the two, except he was a custodian, and she worked there."
Burton, a Tier-1 registered sex offender, was arrested July 6 at 7:15 p.m. outside Rehoboth Beach.
A U.S. Marshal's warrant apprehension team placed Burton under surveillance during the day July 6, Hall said. Police wanted to keep an eye on him that day, Hall said, because they expected DNA evidence would come through.
When DNA found on Bennett's body was found to be a match for Burton, Hall said, police immediately sought a warrant.
While it was being approved by a Maryland judge, the warrant apprehension team followed Burton, his wife, Traci, and their two children as they drove to McDonald's outside Rehoboth. Once the family left the restaurant and drove south on Route 1, the team moved in and stopped the vehicle, Hall said.
Burton was taken into custody and driven to Delaware State Police Troop 4 in Georgetown, while Traci followed with the children in her car, Hall said.
He said police questioned Traci and released her. They also questioned Burton before committing him to Sussex Correctional Institution. Because he is fighting extradition, Burton faces a hearing at 10 am. Monday, Aug. 6, at Justice of the Peace Court No. 3 in Georgetown.
Burton's attorney, John Garey of Dover, was unavailable at press time.
Hall said Maryland and Delaware have worked together on past extraditions. He said once Burton is extradited, a Worcester County judge will determine bond. In first- and second-degree murder cases, bond is usually not allowed, he said. Hall said a team from Worcester County Detention Center would handle the transfer from Delaware to Maryland.
An autopsy conducted at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined Bennett was murdered and had been asphyxiated. Autopsy evidence also indicated she was already dead when her body was left on the embankment.
Hall declined to release details about the state of the body when it was discovered. He also declined to discuss how Bennett was asphyxiated.
State police homicide investigators executed search warrants and processed the homes and vehicles of both Bennett and Burton. Several interviews were conducted with numerous family members, friends, coworkers and acquaintances. Investigators sought video surveillance footage from area businesses and from the church, which is about six miles from where Bennett was found.
Investigators have not yet determined where Bennett was murdered. Police said a motive for the murder remains unclear.
Crime of opportunity
The rural area where Bennett’s body was found is mostly wooded, with no nearby homes. It is about six miles southeast of Bay Shore church.
"It looked like a quick dump job," said Hall. "There was no medical evidence of a sexual assault, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen because there isn't always going to be evidence."
Hall said he had worked the Sarah Foxwell case two years ago, when a young Maryland girl was abducted by a sexual predator. In that case, Hall said, the perpetrator realized he had to kill his victim so there would be no witness.
"Based on what I've seen, it does not look like [Burton's] intent was to kill," Hall said. "It doesn't seem premeditated."
Hall said Burton had the opportunity because he was alone with Bennett at the church. No evidence of a crime was found at the church, however, so Maryland courts continue to have jurisdiction over the case. Bennett's locked car and belongings were found at the church.
Burton had two previous arrests: The first in 2001 was for criminal mischief and conspiracy; the second in 2004 in which he pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child. Burton served one year probation for the 2004 charge, and he agreed to have no contact with two victims under the age of 16. He was also ordered to complete a sexual disorders counseling treatment program.
As part of his sentence in 2004, Burton also agreed to be listed on the Delaware sex-offender registry as a Tier 1 sex offender. According to Delaware State Police spokesman Paul Shavack, Tier 1 offenders are not listed on the online registry.
A church administrator notified police June 16 that Burton had been released from employment June 14. When Burton failed to register his change in employment, Delaware State Police Sex Offender Unit arrested him June 22. He was released on $5,000 secured bond June 23, according to Justice of the Peace Court 3 in Georgetown. That case has been transferred to the Court of Common Pleas.
Burton's mother, Bonnie Burton of Georgetown, was attempting to have Burton's 2004 sentence expunged. She approached Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown earlier this year. King said after researching his case she found the record was not eligible to be expunged until 2015. King also attends Bay Shore church.
King said she was not aware Matthew Burton was employed at Bay Shore church. King said she receives numerous requests of this kind each year.
Bob Bennett, Nicole’s father-in-law, said the Burton family has no connection to Nicole. Bennett said he and his wife, Mary, are also members of Bay Shore church, but they did not know the Burtons.
Hall said in other cases, low-level sexual offenders often do not escalate to murder, but citing the Foxwell case, he said it can happen. In that case, Foxwell was missing for three days before her body was found in a rural area near the Maryland-Delaware state line. Thomas J. Leggs Jr. was charged in Foxwell's murder. He previously had lesser criminal charges, Hall said.
"Every case is different," Hall said. "It's hard to say what any criminal is thinking."
Church releases statement
Bay Shore Community Church in Millsboro held a regular church service July 8. But the situation surrounding the church is anything but regular.
A live band performed Christian rock songs under colorful stage lights for a packed house. Student Pastor Matt Page received resounding applause after showing a video of young teenagers being baptized, which played on two large, plasma flat screens on either side of the stage.
Lead Pastor Danny Tice introduced his parents and led a down-to-earth sermon on how husbands and wives can compromise to make a marriage stronger.
No one stood before the congregation to make any mention of Burton’s arrest just two days prior to the Sunday service.
In a statement released by Bay Shore July 7, officials wrote, “We understand that Matthew Burton has been arrested and charged with the murder of Nicole Bennett. Mr. Burton worked as an independent contractor for a short time at Bay Shore cleaning the facility during evening hours. When we became aware that he had a criminal record, which had not been previously disclosed, he was informed that his contract would be terminated. Mr. Burton’s work for Bay Shore Community Church ended on June 14, 2012.
"Bay Shore continues to cooperate fully with the authorities with respect to this investigation while also supporting and ministering to Nicole’s family. We pray that justice will be done with respect to this tragic event.”
Hall said Burton had been given two weeks notice by Bay Shore Community Church. Burton's last day was June 14.
Family feels safer after arrest
Bob Bennett, Nicole's father-in-law, said the family is relieved and happy that an arrest has been made.
"We are ecstatic," Bennett said. "We want to go to trial, and we want justice for Nicole. We want Nicole back, but we can't have that."
He said Kevin and the three girls are coping with Nicole's murder, but that every day is difficult.
"Kevin is just in a daze," Bennett said. "We are trying to deal every day."
Nicole's family in Nebraska declined to comment at this time, said Rachel Reiser, Nicole's sister-in-law.
Bennett said all those who would like to support Nicole's family can donate to the Nicole Reiser Bennett Fund at WSFS Bank in Millsboro. A website will also be launching in the coming week, said Bennett.
To donate to the Bennett family, stop by a branch or send a check to Nicole Reiser Bennett Memorial Fund, WSFS Bank, Millsboro Branch, 26644 Center View Drive, Millsboro, DE 19966.
-Cape Gazette reporter Kara Nuzback contributed to this story.