“I said we should shoot him because I didn’t want to burn him alive,” said Mitchell Douglas Cheatham as he wiped away a tear from the witness stand in Tommy Lee Benton’s murder trial Thursday. Then, he said, “I lit the house on fire.”
Benton looked cool and calm at the defense table as the last witness for the state told how the fire didn’t catch until Benton poured more gasoline on it.
They killed Charles Bryant “CB” Smith, Cheatham said, to avoid leaving any evidence behind that would link them to the crime.
Finger prints, DNA and other forensic evidence perished in the flames that consumed Smith’s body the morning he was killed – but two key things survived unscathed: the word of two co-defendants who would turn on Benton and text messages between the defendants accused of killing Smith.
“I need some 9mm Ruger bullets … preferably hollow-point,” Benton reportedly told Cheatham in a text message hours before they broke into Smith’s home at 4605 U.S. Highway 501 in Aynor.
Benton, 24, Douglas Deshawn Thomas, 25, and Cheatham, 22, all of North Carolina, are accused of “terrorizing” Smith over a span of 11 days before burning him alive on April 29, 2014.
On three separate mornings that month, Smith was robbed at gunpoint; his business was broken into and set on fire; and, then, he was robbed again in a final attack that left him beaten, restrained, soaked in gasoline and left for dead as his attackers lit the blaze on their way out, according to testimony.
The first armed robbery was on the morning of April 18, 2014. Evidence presented in Benton’s murder trial Thursday showed he and Cheatham were preparing for the first attack as early as April 9.
“This is not a small job. A small job doesn’t involve people,” Lori Dudley of the Horry County Police Department read to the jury in a Facebook message from Cheatham’s cellphone to Benton.
“…It’s fast and easy bro,” Dudley read for Benton’s reply.
“I’m saying he has a gun. We don’t. We are stupid if we don’t fix that,” Cheatham reportedly said to Benton through Facebook Messenger on April 9, 2014. “…You are the one who always talks about having a smart plan.”
“Where you gonnna find a small job? Plus, if I get some steel by this weekend are you going?” Benton replied.
“I’m going either way. I’m just saying let’s not be stupid,” Cheatham typed back.
Benton, Cheatham and Thomas each had guns when Cheatham says they broke into Smith’s house to rob him on the morning of April 29, 2014. But witnesses said the first robbery happened nearly two weeks earlier.
Garland Rose was named as the second man who robbed Smith with Benton on the morning of April 18, 2014 in testimony Thursday.
Cheatham told the court that it was Rose, who first told them about Smith and how much money he carried.
“We spoke about robbing him and I was told that he had a lot of money that he didn’t keep in the bank,” Cheatham said.
Rose was charged with burglary after the first robbery, but the charge was dismissed in November 2014, the month he died.
Rose’s widow told the court that her late husband’s mother rented a home from Smith and they had seen him with wads of cash.
Smith awoke to Benton and Rose pointing a gun at him, demanding money on April 18, 2014, according to testimony. Benton and Rose are accused of stealing $27,000 in that break-in.
“I know Tommy and I got $9,000 apiece,” Cheatham said, telling the court that he stayed behind in the car that day when Benton and Rose broke in through a bedroom window in Smith’s home.
After returning to the car, Cheatham said the two reported that they woke Smith up, demanded money and, in anger, Tommy “started throwing stuff around the room” when Smith told them he had no money.
They returned to the car with an IGA bag full of cash and drove to a hotel where they split the money.
Cheatham said he used his portion to buy a laptop, a shotgun and a $1,500 ring for his girlfriend, among other things. Benton had used some of his share to buy an xBox, a ring for his girlfriend and a laptop, Cheatham said.
In the early hours of April 26, 2014, Cheatham said Benton, Thomas and another man he only knew as “J.T.” broke into Smith’s CBS Furniture Outlet looking for more money.
In testimony Tuesday, Thomas said they set the building on fire when they grew tired of waiting for Smith to come to work.
Then, around 1 a.m. on April 29, 2014, Thomas said they broke into Smith’s home in search of the $100,000 he was rumored to have tucked away somewhere.
Witnesses in the trial said Smith was handcuffed, tied, interrogated, beaten with a crowbar, soaked in gasoline and set on fire.
Cheatham said that Benton poured gasoline throughout the house and on Smith. He heard Smith make a sound, he said.
Cheatham said he recommended shooting Smith, but told the court that Thomas said, “let him burn.”
Cheatham lit a T-shirt on fire and threw it in the house as they neared the back door to escape, he told the court, but the fire didn’t catch until Benton poured more gasoline.
Thomas, told the court they only got about $600 that morning – aside from the $2,000 he pocketed when his partners weren’t looking.
Cheatham said they ended up with about $1,600 each.
The trial resumes Friday morning with closing arguments.