A pathologist’s findings revealed a gruesome end to the life of 68-year-old Charles Bryant “CB” Smith, who prosecutors say was robbed, tortured, handcuffed and burned alive on the morning of April 29, 2014.
Multiple ribs on his right side were broken from “blunt force trauma.” His skull was battered and exposed, and his body was “badly burned,” Dr. Edward Leroy Proctor testified on Wednesday.
Proctor said a pair of handcuffs was still attached to Smith’s left hand, when his charred remains were brought in for Proctor’s exam.
Tommy Lee Benton, 24, is accused of working in concert with two other men in a three-day crime spree that targeted Smith in the last 11 days of his life. On that final morning, prosecutors say, Benton and his co-defendants went to rob Smith, who was known to carry a lot of cash.
Witnesses in Benton’s trial have said Smith was handcuffed, interrogated, beaten with a crowbar and a pistol, doused in gasoline and set on fire.
“He was breathing at the time of the fire,” Proctor told the court. “This gentleman died as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation and burning.”
Benton is charged with murder, first-degree arson, third-degree arson and two counts of first-degree burglary for his alleged attacks on Smith.
His co-defendants, Douglas Deshawn Thomas, 25, of Whiteville, North Carolina, and Mitchell Douglas Cheatham, 22, of Council, North Carolina. Their cases have not been set for trial yet. They are each charged with murder and arson. Cheatham also faces a charge of burglary.
The three defendants were no stranger to law enforcement in their home state of North Carolina, according to court records.
Benton, Cheatham and Thomas were each convicted of an armed robbery at a Tabor City McDonald’s on the early morning of April 28, 2014 – the day before Smith was killed.
The three were eventually sentenced to a year and six months for the heist. Benton and Cheatham were released from prison in January 2016. Thomas was released that following March.
Benton’s fiancée, Heather Ashley Faircloth, 28, of Tabor City was also convicted of armed robbery in the McDonald’s heist. She was ordered to perform community service and given probation.
Faircloth was a former employee of the McDonald’s and provided the robbers with information on the layout of the store, the Fayetteville Observer reported in 2014.
Benton’s criminal history, however, dates back to 2011 when records show he was arrested twice for breaking and entering and damaging property. He was 18 years old, then, and was ordered to serve 90 days in jail and two years of probation after his conviction.
According to The News Reporter in Benton’s hometown of Whiteville, North Carolina, the first 2011 break-in was at a storage building where police say Benton stole electronic items valued at $4,760. The second break-in was at a billiards hall in November, 2011, according to The News Reporter.
Prosecutors have said “greed” was the motive that led to Smith’s attacks.
Smith owned a lot of land and rented properties in his mobile home park off of U.S. Highway 501 in Aynor. He ran a produce stand near his furniture outlet store not far from his home and witnesses say he conducted most of his business in cash.
“He carried quite a bit of money on him most of the time,” Smith’s son, Sammy Smith, told the court. “He put enough money in the bank to cover bills and that’s about it.”
Thomas, one of three defendants charged with Smith’s murder, said that he was under the impression Smith had $100,000 or more hidden in his mobile home.
Smith was 68 years old, kept mostly to himself and was in failing health when he became the target of thieves in 2014.
On three separate mornings between April 18 and April 29, thieves robbed Smith at gunpoint, broke into his business and set it on fire, prosecutors said. The trio returned to finish Smith off in a final robbery that left him beaten, restrained, soaked in gasoline and left for dead as his attackers lit the blaze on their way out, prosecutors said.
Smith’s charred remains were found near the front door inside his home.
Thomas told the court that he pocketed $2,000 in the robbery and that Benton and Cheatham found $1,600. The three of them split the $1,600 at a hotel in White Oak, North Carolina after the robbery.
Sammy Smith paced in between the pews of the courtroom Wednesday morning waiting for the trial to resume.
The cellphone records, which revealed a dialogue between Benton’s cellphone and one of his co-defendant’s about the attacks on Smith, claimed most of the morning’s debates outside of the jury’s presence.
Benton’s attorney, Tommy Brittain, challenged the evidence, questioning the way it was collected, its validity, its accuracy and failure rates of the software used to pull it. And since no fingerprints were collected from the cellphone when it was turned into police, Brittain challenged the idea that no one but Benton could have sent those texts.
The text messages have not been shown to the jury yet, but appear to be damaging to Benton’s defense. One text in particular, allegedly sent during an exchange about police interviews, carried the haunting phrase of “they know.”
Other text messages allegedly validate some of the testimony given by Thomas, who told the jury he met Benton through another man in a Wal-Mart parking lot where a plan was hatched to rob Smith. Thomas was directed by Benton to steal a truck used as a getaway vehicle for the robberies, he said.
He also testified to witnessing and participating in Benton’s beatings, which he said prompted him to leave the house before the fire was set.