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Ex-con denies role in 1988 Pontiac slaying

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Closing arguments are expected Wednesday in the trial of a Rochester Hills ex-con charged with the slaying of an elderly widow nearly three decades ago.

Billy Joe Bennett, now 55, is charged with murder and sexual assault of Elnora Barrager, 88, of Pontiac on April 2, 1988.

Investigators believe DNA — in the form of blood evidence found in Barrager’s bedroom — links Bennett to the crime. The case was revived last year by cold case investigators after the blood match was made by the Michigan State Police crime lab.

A jury of six men and eight women heard Bennett testify Tuesday in Oakland Circuit Court that he had done various jobs for Barrager, including one in which he cut his finger while changing a broken light bulb in her bedroom.

“I never harmed Ms. Barrager ever ... I had no reason to harm anyone,” Bennett testified.

Investigators believe Barrager suffered a fatal heart attack after Bennett allegedly kicked in her back door during a break-in and beat her. But Bennett said Barrager’s home had been burglarized three years earlier by two men he knew, pointing out she had been victimized previously.

Assistant prosecutor John Skryzynski brought up inconsistent statements Bennett provided to Pontiac Police detectives in 1988, 1990 and Oakland County Sheriff’s investigators this past December.

Defense attorney Richard Taylor had Bennett discuss how he cooperated several times with investigators. But Skrzynski noted Bennett also told detectives he had not seen Barrager in several years and had not been in Barrager’s house. He said he remembered cutting his finger while in the home only after investigators told him blood found in the victim’s bedroom matched Bennett’s DNA.

Bennett insisted investigators in 1988 and 1990 never asked him whether he had been in the home so they wouldn’t have had his explanations.

“It never came up,” testified Bennett, who said he stopped cooperating with investigators after they “bad-mouthed me” and implied he was responsible for Barrager’s death.

“They must have misinterpreted my answers,” he testified.

On cross examination by Skrzynski, Bennett recalled that about a week before Barrager’s death, she paid him and another man “between $40 or $60” after they removed some tree branches from her property and he performed other tasks — including pulling “macaroni” out of a plugged sink drain and repairing the bedroom light. Bennett also recalled that after he took her out to find a used lawnmower, and on another occasion she bought him a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner. She also showed off some antique tea cups to him, Bennett said.

Bennett, who has an extensive criminal history including break-ins, prison escape and car theft, was released from prison in 2012 and was set to complete his parole last year. He has been held in the Oakland County Jail without bond.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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