It was like a macabre Halloween prank when Brandy Snellgrove came home to her secluded house at around 2:45 a.m. Oct. 30, 2007, and found that her dog Foxy had brought a human foot on her porch. But within the hour she would find out that what she thought may be a joke was anything but funny.
After several weeks of investigation, DeKalb County resident Franklin Benson was arrested and charged with the murder and dismemberment of his alleged girlfriend, Leslyan Williams. Now, nearly two years later the trial has begun, just two weeks shy of what would have been her 51st birthday.
In opening statements, Chief Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon told jurors that Williams had come to Georgia from Michigan for a better life in the late 90s.
"She thought Franklin loved her," she said. "He killed her, dismembered her body and tossed and dumped her remains in Newton County… Before we dehumanize her, let’s remember who this woman was before he barbarously cut her up and left her in the woods for a dog to find the day before Halloween."
Defense attorney Terrence Madden spoke next to the panel of jurors, saying that Williams’ death was a tragedy, but one their client was not guilty of killing.
"We acknowledge that a beautiful woman is no longer with us. It is a tragedy and we sincerely regret that it happened… The real reason that we’re here today is because when Mr. Benson became a suspect, they [investigators] stopped following leads… She [Zon] is throwing everything she has up against a wall to see what sticks, but she won’t be able to prove it. She has no direct evidence that Mr. Benson committed this crime… She has no direct evidence and she’s gonna’ hand you reasonable doubt."
Williams’ only child, her 34-year-old son Charles took the stand first as a witness for the state. He, along with other members of Williams’ family wore purple roses in her memory.
"My mother was my best friend," he said.
The next witness was Snellgrove, who testified that when she first noticed the foot on her porch, she brought into the house her six dogs who were fighting over the limb, called her cousin who lived close by and was a deputy with Rockdale County, and hid in her closet.
"I was scared," she admitted. "I didn’t want to call 911 and give a false report. I wanted to make sure it was real before I called 911."
Investigators converged on Snellgrove’s home and, when light broke, began looking for evidence. NCSO Deputy James Fountain testified that he found a human arm — from the shoulder to the wrist — while searching the general area near what was referred to as the "glass house," a vacant home that had several large windows. Another deputy, James Stephenson, told jurors that while searching that area he located another arm, a leg — from mid-thigh to ankle — a foot and a hand.
Coroner Tommy Davis spoke to the jurors as well, telling them that a homicide involving dismemberment was "very rare" and believed that Williams was dead before her body was cut up, though he was unable to give a cause of death since the torso and head have never been found. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as homicide by violence of an unknown etiology.
The way that Benson’s name came in to play in the case was through Warren Leaks, a man who had lived in the "glass house" in 2006 and into 2007. He worked for Benson at his auto body shop at one point and Benson had loaned him and his wife money to keep their house out of foreclosure at one point.
Leaks testified that he gave Benson a key to the home so that he could help show it to potential buyers and, when it sold, get the money he had loaned Leaks — $2,500 — back. According to Leaks, Benson came there several times with a light-skinned black female. Although he had not been shown Williams’ picture prior to testifying, he was shown it in court and identified her as the woman Benson had brought with him to the home on occasion.
NCSO Investigator Jason Griffin and an agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation went to Benson’s business in Decatur to interview him about the glass house. Griffin testified that initially Benson was not a suspect and they were merely following up with anyone who had a connection with that home.
At one point in the interview Benson says "this is really messed up because there’s a female I know whose missing." He told investigators that Williams had been heading to Michigan to celebrate her birthday by visiting her family and going to a casino. According to the tape, Benson said that Williams called him in Tennessee, telling him she had a flat tire but had it fixed and was headed on to Michigan. He said the last he saw her was the morning of Oct. 29 at about 5 a.m. right before she left in her car and didn’t know she was missing until a friend of hers called him looking for her.
"I don’t have any reason to hurt anybody," Benson said. "None whatsoever."
Although he reportedly lived, at least part-time, with Williams, he did not report her missing. A family member of Williams called the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office and filed a missing persons report. He also said on the tape that she did not currently have a job but made her money by selling drugs. Williams’ son was asked if he ever knew his mother to sell drugs when he first took the stand and he said that he had no knowledge of his mother being involved in that activity.
Griffin told jurors that while he didn’t go into the interview suspecting Benson, he began to as the conversation wore on. He said that Benson was "theatrical" and that he was so sure the victim was Williams that it began to raise his suspicions, although under cross examination, he admitted that people react differently to situations.
Zon questioned Griffin once more before he left the stand.
"What tense did he refer to her," she asked Griffin, of the interview with Benson.
"In the past tense," he replied.
On Oct. 28, the day before Williams reportedly left to head to Michigan, DeKalb County Police Officer Mirsad Zeric was called to Williams' home by Benson. When he arrived he told jurors that Benson met him in the driveway of the home angry because Williams refused to give him his keys.
Zeric said that Benson told him the two had argued because Williams wanted him to sign a promissory note and that he had stopped paying on loans that she had given him. He refused to sign the note and she refused to give him the keys until he did so, according to Zeric. He also told jurors that there had been no signs of violence and that nothing was resolved that evening.
“He seemed unsatisfied with the results,” Zeric recalled.