Charles Bryant “CB” Smith was handcuffed, pistol-whipped, beat with a crowbar, doused in gasoline, set on fire and left to die inside his Aynor home in the early hours of April 29, 2014, and prosecutors blame it all on greed.
Tommy Lee Benton, of Chadbourn, North Carolina, and two others are accused of “terrorizing” Smith over a span of 11 days before burning him alive on April 29, 2014, prosecutors said.
“I can’t say for sure when greed started to run Tommy Benton’s life, but I can tell you when it ruined CB Smith’s life,” said Thomas Terrell, of the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, on Monday, the first day of Benton’s murder trial.
But Benton’s attorney said his client had an alibi the morning Smith was slain.
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Benton’s first trial in the case ended an hour after it began in July when the court learned that the alibi witnesses mentioned in the defense’s opening statements were not listed in records prior to trial. But the witness list was set Monday and by 4 p.m. so was a jury of five men and seven women.
Andrew Preston Brittain, one of Benton’s attorneys, told the jury the state’s case lacks evidence often heard in murder trials.
“A fingerprint, a footprint, a tire track — you will not have these things presented to you in this case,” Brittain said, telling the jury that they would hear from “two arsonists and murderers” who solicitors wouldn’t even trust to walk their dog.
Smith was terrorized three times in the last 11 days of his life, Terrell said.
He awoke to Benton and another man standing over him, demanding money at gunpoint on April 18, 2014, the prosecutor said. The men robbed him of $27,000 they found in a grocery bag that morning, he added.
“But greed reared its ugly head. It wasn’t enough,” he said.
Eight days later, the men broke into his store, CBS Furniture Company, looking to steal more money, but set it on fire when they grew tired of waiting for Smith to arrive, Terrell said.
Then, on April 29, 2014, prosecutors say, the men broke into Smith’s mobile home, near the store, disarmed Smith, tied him up, handcuffed him and demanded money. They hit him with fists, a crowbar and a gun, Terrell said, demanding with each blow to know where Smith’s money was kept.
“No matter how hard they try, he is not giving it up,” Terrell said. “The guy (Benton) sitting at that table grabs gasoline and starts pouring it on the ground around him. ‘Where’s the money at old man?’ … When he pours gasoline directly onto CB Smith, CB still doesn’t say anything.”
Terrell said the men lit the fire on their way out, leaving an injured, handcuffed and helpless Smith on the floor.
“He was completely consumed by the flames, and he was burned alive,” Terrell said.
Smith died in the blaze, not far from the front door, authorities said at the time. He was 68 years old.
The first witness called in the trial, Robert Gray Lawson Jr., told the court he was working for Smith and was renting the mobile home behind him when he awoke that morning to dogs barking outside.
Lawson said he went outside and used a flashlight to scan the area behind his home, but he didn’t see any movement so he went back inside and back to bed as he heard the wheels of a vehicle “spinning out of the trailer park.”
His 8-year-old son woke him up about five minutes later, yelling “Daddy, Daddy, CB’s trailer is on fire!”
Lawson’s girlfriend called 911 as he tried to get Smith out of the home, he said, but the flames were too high.
Horry County Fire Rescue responded to the fire around 3 a.m. Smith’s mobile home was fully engulfed in flames when rescue crews arrived.
Lawson said Smith always carried cash with him and paid his workers in cash at the end of every day.
But prosecutors say Smith also liked to keep to himself and didn’t want to report the last few attacks to police, which made him an easier target, Terrell said.
Smith, who had been accused of selling stolen air-conditioners, was on home detention awaiting trial when he was killed.
Benton is charged with murder, first-degree arson, third-degree arson and two counts of first-degree burglary.
Benton faces a sentence of life without parole, if convicted on the murder charge.
Two others face charges of murder and arson: Douglas Deshawn Thomas, 25, of Shallotte, North Carolina, and Mitchel Douglas Cheatham, 22, of Council, North Carolina. The dates of their trials have not been set.
Benton’s trial is expected to last all week.