'Just doesn’t add up at all': Family wants answers in J. Reuben Long inmate death

Christopher Bennett
Christopher Bennett Submitted by the Bennett family

Christopher Bennett was dying in a hospital room two months ago. His eye blackened and face swollen as machines worked to keep his body alive. But his brother knew Bennett would not wake up.

“I knew he was already gone,” Emanuel Hills said.

Soon after J. Reuben Long jail staff say they found Bennett unresponsive in a jail cell, Hills drove five hours from Virginia to Myrtle Beach. When Hills arrived at the hospital, he couldn’t get inside Bennett’s room because of the law enforcement presence.

When Hills finally was allowed in the room, he saw his brother’s condition.

“It was very painful,” he said.

Hills said he spoke to his brother just hours before his arrest and described the 25-year-old as his usual self.

“Everything was fine. He was in good spirits, like always, happy,” Hill said.

Bennett’s family still doesn’t have a complete picture of how he went from a seemingly happy man to unresponsive in jail in a matter of hours.

Officials initially said Bennett suffered an "extremely serious" head injury, but the Horry County coroner said an autopsy showed no signs of trauma. The coroner could not determine a cause of death without further testing.

Horry County Coroner Robert Edge said his office received toxicology reports from the lab, but declined to discuss specifics. That information was given to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division for its investigation, he said.

A nurse told the family Bennett’s brain went without oxygen for 30 minutes. His initial injuries reportedly included head trauma, a ruptured spleen and a broken nose.

Hills said Bennet’s family knows he didn’t die of natural causes. They’ve heard multiple stories, but still don’t have the answer on what happened between his arrest and being found in the cell.

“It’s very frustrating,” Hills said. “It just doesn’t add up at all.”

Bennett 2.jpg
Christopher Bennett Submitted by the Bennett family

The stop

On March 22, Bennett and Antonio Wilson were stopped on S.C. 548 by Horry County Sheriff’s deputies and members of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit. During the stop, Bennett complied with the officers, but Wilson ran into a wooded area. Wilson quickly stopped and was arrested. Police said they could smell marijuana coming from the car and found a half gram of heroin under a rear seat.

That arrest occurred around 8:20 p.m., and Bennett was booked into the jail an hour later. At 10:15 p.m., jail staff said they found Bennett unresponsive.

Bennett faced a drug-related arrest before, Hills said, but he described Bennett’s criminal past as minor. Hills, who serves in the Navy, said he frequently encouraged his brother to leave South Carolina and move to Virginia.

A review of Bennett's criminal history in Horry County shows several arrests, though some charges were dismissed. He did plead guilty to first-degree assault and battery in 2015. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison, which was suspended to 60 days and two years probation. In 2016, police charged him with unlawful carrying of a pistol. Bennett pleaded guilty and was given credit for 76 days served.

SLED is handling the investigation into Bennett’s death, which spokesman Thom Berry said remains open. They haven’t released details of their findings — to the public or Bennett’s family.

“I would like to know what happened,” Hills said.

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