“He had a lot of money so we was gonna rob him,” said one of three men accused of robbing, beating and burning Charles Bryant “CB” Smith alive in what prosecutors described as an end to a reign of terror.
Twenty-five-year-old Douglas Thomas of Shallotte, North Carolina, took the stand Tuesday to testify against his alleged partner in crime, 24-year-old Tommy Lee Benton.
Both men face charges of murder and arson, but prosecutors say the reign of terror that consumed the last 11 days of Smith’s life started with Benton and another man robbing him at gunpoint on the morning of April 18, 2014.
Sammy Smith said his father was worried about being robbed again after two men broke into his home that morning. Prosecutors say the men made off with $27,000 in cash in the heist.
“He was very upset and distraught. He just was really nervous and wanted me to stay right there with him every minute,” Sammy Smith said.
But in the early hours of April 25 and April 29, 2014 – when Sammy Smith wasn’t home with his father – the thieves struck again, according to testimony.
Smith becomes a target
Thomas told the court that he met Benton through another man, who was never charged in the case. They met in a Wal-Mart parking lot where they talked about a way to earn some money on a robbery job, he testified.
Thomas didn’t say who mentioned him first, but did say Smith was named as the target.
Sammy Smith said his father always had cash on him, only putting enough in the bank to cover the bills. He paid his workers in cash everyday and had a safe hidden in his home, he said.
“He didn’t really get around all that well. He wasn’t in good health, really, but you couldn’t get him to go to the doctor,” Smith said of his father.
“I told him … you need to get out of that trailer at least for a little while until we can find out who’s doing this,” he said, but his father, who was stubborn about banks and doctors and police involvement, wouldn’t leave.
As they made plans, Thomas told the court that Benton directed him to steal a truck they would use as a getaway vehicle the morning Smith’s business was burned and a few mornings later when he was killed.
Thomas said Benton walked him to the truck and told him the keys would be in the ignition.
Gregory Scott Page said he had a bad habit of leaving his keys in the ignition of his 1997 Dodge Ram. Page’s sister was married to a man who later became Benton’s stepfather, Page told the court.
The first fire
On the morning of April 26, 2014, Benton, Thomas and Justin “J.T.” Moore, the man Thomas said introduced him to Benton, piled into the truck and headed to Smith’s CBS Furniture Outlet near Smith’s home, Thomas said.
Twenty-two-year-old Mitchel Cheatham, of Council, North Carolina, who is also charged with arson, murder and burglary in the case, stayed in another getaway car nearby, Thomas said.
Benton, Thomas and Moore broke into the old store, which had become more of a warehouse, and searched the building for money, he told the court.
“We decided to go to the front and wait on CB to get there,” Thomas said. “It would be a lot easier if he just told us where the money was.”
Thomas testified that Benton told him Smith had about $100,000 tucked away, somewhere.
They were going to “take it from him,” Thomas said. But as time ticked away, he said, they realized it was Saturday morning and “nobody was going to show on Saturday morning.”
He told the court that they had a “spontaneous idea to burn the place” before they left.
Firefighters were called to the outlet store at 6:17 a.m. April 26, 2014.
When they arrived, they found a large commercial building “with heavy smoke showing,” Kenneth Todd, a battalion chief with Horry County Fire-Rescue told the court. Although fire had damaged the building, the structure wasn’t a total loss.
In the wee hours of April 29, 2014, Thomas said, he and Cheatham drove the truck to a dirt road near Smith’s home where Benton met them in his car. The three men then piled into the truck and headed out to rob Smith, according to his testimony.
Thomas said he, Cheatham and Benton arrived at Smith’s home around 12:45 or 1 a.m.
Benton used a crowbar to break in through the back door, he told the court, adding that Cheatham and he followed Benton inside.
Thomas said he walked towards the front of the home where he found Smith getting up from a chair with a shotgun in his hand.
“I had a pistol,” Thomas said. “I told him to put the gun down. … I see Tommy (Benton) rush by me. He rushes CB and takes the gun from him.”
Thomas said he took the shotgun outside.
When Thomas returned, he told the court he saw Benton asking Smith, “Where’s the money at?” but Smith wasn’t talking.
“I hit him across the head with the pistol and he told me to back off,” Thomas said. “So I went about my business looking for the money in different places.”
Thomas told the court he searched the trailer from “one end to the other” before grabbing a pair of Smith’s pants where he found and pocketed $2,000.
While Smith is allegedly being beaten on the floor to reveal his hidden money, Thomas said Smith finally told them he had cash in a trailer next door.
They didn’t find anything next door, according to testimony.
Smith was handcuffed behind his back and his feet were later tied after Thomas returned to Smith’s home to continue his search, he said.
“I see Tommy beating CB with a crowbar … (on) his torso and his legs,” Thomas said, as Benton shook his head from the defense table. “I’m sitting there thinking, this is not my scene.”
Thomas said he took a big pile of change off of the table and headed back to the truck.
He told the court he started driving when Benton and Cheatham returned to the vehicle.
Thomas said he never saw the trailer on fire, but did say they picked up the other car and drove the getaway truck to a “field” where they soaked it in gasoline and set it ablaze.
The home was fully involved with flames when firefighters arrived, authorities said at the time. Smith’s lifeless body was found inside near the door.
From there, he said, they headed back to a hotel in White Oak, North Carolina where they “split the money up.”
Thomas said the state didn’t promise him anything for his testimony – a statement challenged by defense attorneys under cross examination.
Benton faces life in prison if convicted of murder.