The family of Nicole Bennett, a 35-year-old mother of three from Long Neck who was murdered last summer, has filed suit against her accused murderer and the church where she and the man accused of killing her both worked.
The suit, filed April 19 by Bennett's husband, Kevin Bennett and their three daughters, names accused murderer Matthew Burton and Nicole's employer at the time of her death, Bay Shore Community Church and Bay Shore Community Church Inc. Also named as a defendant is the Rev. Danny Tice, who is listed individually and as pastor of the church.
Wilmington attorney Bartholemew Dalton of Wilmington represents the family.
Bennett was last heard from June 14, 2012, when she called her husband from the Dagsboro church. She never returned home that night; her body was found along a rural road outside Whaleyville, Md., June 15. The Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office ruled she died from asphyxiation.
Police linked Burton, 29, a part-time church custodian, to Bennett's death and arrested him July 6. Burton of Dagsboro is in Worcester County Jail awaiting a June trial on charges of first- and second-degree murder, first- and second-degree rape, sexual offense, kidnapping and assault.
The wrongful death suit states “It had become known to the defendants, approximately two weeks earlier, that Burton had been previously charged with multiple rape counts and had pled guilty, was on probation and registered as a sex offender.”
Even though church officials and Tice knew about Burton's past, they allowed Burton to continue working in the same areas as other employees and children, the suit states.
“Although the defendants knew of Burton's dangerous proclivities and had, in fact, terminated Burton's employment because of this information, Bay Shore did not, in any way, notify any of their employees about Burton,” the suit continues. “They actually gave Burton two additional weeks of employment.”
“On the last day of those additional two weeks, Burton was left alone, at night with Nicole Bennett.”
Bennett did not know she was alone with a sex offender, the suit states.
“Nicole Bennett was murdered that night. The police found her car still at Bay Shore,” the suit states.
The murder investigation, conducted by both Delaware State Police and Maryland police, found Bennett was already dead when her body was left in Maryland; investigators also said Bennett had been sexually abused.
The suit states, “Burton was a Tier One sex offender, having previously been charged with 22 felony counts of rape against a child.”
According to Sussex County Superior Court documents acquired by the Cape Gazette, Burton was charged with raping two girls under the age of 10 in 2004. Charges included 12 counts of felony rape in the second degree, rape by a person in a position of trust, continual sexual abuse of a child, indecent exposure and eight counts of unlawful sexual contact.
Documents show Burton pleaded guilty; he completed the state's sexual disorders counseling program and registered as a sex offender. Burton was ordered to have no contact with the two minor girls.
By hiring Burton, the wrongful death suit charges, the defendants were responsible for the death of Bennett; Burton's hiring and retention as an employee were negligent, the suit states. The suit also notes Kevin Bennett has been deprived of his wife's life, love and income.
In a statement from Bay Shore church, released May 1, church officials say, “The implication that Bay Shore Community Church and Pastor Tice were aware that Matthew Burton was a danger is simply inaccurate.”
Bay Shore officials say a background check was performed on Burton, and the church concluded that he was not a risk to church employees or others at the church.
“The church and Pastor Tice have not yet been formally served with the civil action complaint and decline formal comment,” said church officials in the statement, expressing sadness in the loss of Nicole Bennett.
“We continue to grieve the loss of Nicole as she was a dear friend and loved by our staff and church,” said officials.
Tice declined requests for comment.
Murder trial hearings begin
Matthew Burton appeared in court in Snow Hill, Md. May 1 for a criminal motions hearing.
During the hearing, Burton attorney Kay Beehler, Maryland assistant public defender, presented motions to suppress a jailhouse witness who is being called to testify by prosecutor Beau Oglesby.
The witness is an inmate at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown. No further information on the basis of his testimony was available at press time.
The defense presented other motions to suppress items and photographs.
Beehler said the hearing lasted most of the day, but she declined to comment on the proceeding. Calls to Katy O'Donnell, who is also representing Burton, were not returned at press time.
Calls to Maryland State Attorney Beau Oglesby's office were not returned at press time.
No date for a future hearing has been set. The trial, currently set for June, will likely be postponed to September due to availability of law enforcement officials key to the case.
Nicole Bennett's father-in-law Bob Bennett said the hearing is the next step in finding justice for Nicole. Bennett, his wife and Nicole's husband, Kevin, attended the hearing.
"It was a long and hard day," Bennett said. "All we want is justice."