Benkelman pleads guilty to sex charges

Forty-eight-year-old arborist James Carlton Benkelman of Amissville pleaded guilty to 11 charges of possessing and reproducing child pornography in circuit court Monday (Feb. 13), and will likely be sentenced to 101 years in prison. The former Rappahannock Lakes resident, described by a  neighbor shortly after his July 1 arrest as “an asset to our community,” will be sentenced May 7.

Rappahannock County Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff said that in exchange for guilty pleas to just 11 of 73 felony indictments (which included numerous counts of aggravated sexual assault on two male victims under the age of 13), the prosecution will recommend a 101-year prison sentence with a mandatory minimum of 30 years of active incarceration.

If the court accepts recommendation at the May 7 sentencing, Goff said, the other 62 charges will be dropped. The first charge of first-offense possession of child pornography carried a minimu of a one-year suspended jail sentence; the remaining 10 charges, involving reproduction of child pornography, carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in a state prison, six of those with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.

“He’ll be in his late 70s when and if he gets out,” Goff said Monday afternoon, expressing relief at being a step closer to closing out what he described as a heartbreaking case involving innocent victims. He added that Benkelman will likely also be indicted in Page County on charges of forcible sodomy and other sexual assault charges – several of which can lead to a life sentence. Benkelman allegedly took one of the victims to a Page County RV park, where the boy was molested.

The mothers of both victims attended Monday’s plea hearing, and Goff said that he made sure the families of the two victims were agreeable to the terms of the plea agreement. An advantage to approaching Benkelman’s case in this fashion, Goff said, is that it will save the victims from having to testify to the aggravated sexual assault charges in court.

As recommended by Goff in the plea agreement, the sentences for each of the 11 charges – carrying a maximum of 101 years of incarceration – will run consecutively to (back-to-back), and not concurrently with each other. If released from incarceration, the prosecutor will recommend that the Benkelman be placed on supervised probation for 20 years. He will be allowed no contact with any child under the age of 18 unless permitted by further court order. Benkelman will remain until sentencing at the Rappahannock Jail, where he has been since July.

The first child pornography charges (of the 11 to which he pleaded guilty Monday) emerged after a July 1 search of Benkelman’s home in Amissville by Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office and Northern Virginia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force investigators. The serach allegedly turned up pornographic images of children on disks at Benkelman’s basement desk.

Goff described the recovered images presented to him by investigators as “sickening.”

The investigation that followed the search led to 62 new felony child pornography and molestation charges against Benkelman, after two juveniles came forward to accuse the Amissville arborist.

“Often times, people who are delving into child pornography are also hands-on offenders,” Lt. David Beckner of the Virginia State Police’s High Tech Crimes Unit said in September, shortly after the juveniles alleged that Benkelman had sexually assaulted them. Then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Peter Luke added that in such cases involving child pornography, early information turned up in the investigation is “often just the tip of the iceberg. As you move further and further into the investigation, things get clearer.”

“I’m glad it’s basically over, and that Benkelman stepped up and admitted his guilt,” Sheriff Connie Smith said this week. “Now, hopefully the families and the young victims can start to move past this. They’ll never forget, but hopefully now they can have some peace of mind in knowing [Benkelman’s] going away for a long time.”

Stealing, bad checks, and bad driving

In several recent Rappahannock County Circuit Court sessions:

Forty-seven-year-old Sandra Anne Knott of Stanley – dressed in a jail issued black-and-white jumpsuit and in leg shackles – pleaded guilty Feb. 2 to charges of writing five bad checks totalling more than $900 made payable to Hillsdale Country Store between Jan. 24 and Jan. 26, and to a felony eluding police charge from Jan. 28.

Goff said in court last Thursday (Feb. 9) that on Jan. 28, Trooper Johnson clocked Knott at 71 mph on U.S. 211 and pulled her over. When he got out of the car, Knott sped away. Johnson followed her for a mile and a half at high speed before she turned onto Route 729, Ben Venue Road leading toward Flint Hill. Johnson pursued Knott at speeds up to 70 mph, Goff said, until she struck an oncoming vehicle head on and then hit a tree. She then gave a false name to the officer, leading to the misdemeanor identity theft charge. Knott pleaded guilty to all charges, and will be sentenced May 3.

Goff said that Knott and the driver of the other vehicle are lucky to have survived the collision, which occurred on what he referred to as “the highway of death” – Route 729, a secondary county backroad that has accounted for eight traffic related deaths in the last 20 years. Goff intends to play the high-speed chase video footage recorded from Johnson’s police cruiser – with Knott exceeding 70 mph on a winding 35-mph road, before hitting another driver head on – at her sentencing hearing.

Hannah Marie Besecker, 23, of Front Royal pleaded guilty Thursday (Feb. 2) to three misdemeanors and one felony, after allegedly breaking and entering the Chester Gap home of Susan Karnes on three occasions between March 28 and April 5 – accompanied by accomplice Amy Lee Fincham – with intent to committ larceny. She will be sentenced May 3. Goff said in court that Besecker and another female entered Karnes’ house looking for jewelry to sell for prescription pills. Besecker’s accomplice allegedly sold Karnes’ jewelry to a Front Royal pawn shop for $1,700. Goff said that at the time of the break-ins, Besecker had permission from Karnes to enter the house to take showers upstairs, but that on those three occasions, she and Fincham entered the house to steal jewelry for drugs.

On Monday (Feb. 13), Fincham was served arrest warrants for eight charges of grand larceny, breaking-and-entering with intent to commit grand larceny and conspiracy to commit a felony. These charges involve conspiring with Besecker to steal and resell Karnes’ jewelry.

Khiem Trong Pham, 35, of Annandale pleaded guilty Thursday to an amended charge of reckless driving: 76 mph in a 45 mph zone. According to Goff, Virginia State Police Trooper Philip Thomas clocked Pham on U.S. 211 driving at speeds between 70 and 80 mph in the 35- and 45-mph zones leading up to the Shenandoah National Park. Pham received a suspended 30-day jail sentence, a $750 fine and 12 months of unsupervised probation – and during that 12 months is not allowed to commit any traffic violations. “You’re getting off very easy here,” Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey W. Parker said. “Your driving record is a problem. You have a lead foot, and you better lay off the accelerator. I’ll remember this, and you better hope to not come before me again, because next time I’ll come down much harder than I did today.”

Patricia Denise Diachenko, 55, of Timberville pleaded guilty to a DWI charge and received a 90-day suspended jail sentence, $500 fine ($250 suspended), one year loss of license, one year of VASAP probation and must pay court costs. According to Goff, on Aug. 11, Trooper Thomas pulled Diachenko on U.S. 211 for driving 74 mph and having an expired inspection sticker. When speaking with Diachenko, Goff said that Thomas detected the odor of alcohol, and she said she’d been to two wine tastings that day. Diachenko’s blood alcohol content was recorded as a .09.