BERLIN — The family of a woman found murdered along a rural road in northern Worcester County last August has filed a wrongful death civil suit against the church where she worked and its pastor.< ?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office">
Last August, a Worcester County grand jury indicted Matthew N. Burton, 29, of Dagsboro, on eight counts including first-degree murder and first-degree rape in the death of Nicole Bennett, 35, of Millsboro, whose body was found on a roadside embankment in Whaleyville in Worcester County on the morning of June 15 last year.
On April 17, the victim’s husband, Kevin Bennett, and his family filed a wrongful death suit in Delaware Superior Court against the Bay Shore Community Church in Millsboro and Pastor Danny Tice, alleging the defendants were aware of Burton’s rape convictions and violent past and allowed him to work alone at the church with Nicole Bennett on the night she was murdered.
According to the suit, Tice learned that Burton was a registered sex offender and was on probation for multiple sex crimes. Burton was a registered Tier I sex offender, having been charged with 22 felony counts of rape against a child. Burton had reached a plea deal in those cases that required him to register as a sex offender in Delaware prior to his employment as a custodian at the Bay Shore Church in Millsboro.
After Tice and the Bay Shore Church learned of Burton’s sexual predator past, they gave Burton two weeks to find another job. On the last day of his employment with the church, Nicole Bennett disappeared and her body was found the next day in northern Worcester County.
In the wrongful death suit, the victim’s husband asserts Tice should be held partly responsible because he failed to warn his wife and presumably others in the church that a violent sexual predator was in their midst.
“The death of Nicole Bennett was a direct and proximate cause of the negligent actions of Tice, who was acting in the scope of his employment when he failed to adequately warn Nicole Bennett of the risk presented by fellow employee Burton, and this failure led to Nicole Bennett’s death,” the suit reads.
On or about June 14, 2012, Nicole Bennett was working late in order to complete a mailing for Bay Shore Child Care, which she was the director, and she told her family she would be late. Burton was also working as a custodian at the church that night. Shortly before 9 a.m. the next day, June 15, Worcester Central received a 911 call reporting the discovery of the body of a deceased woman in an embankment off Swamp Rd., a dirt road east of Nelson Rd. near Whaleyville.
DNA evidence gathered by crime scene technicians from the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division ultimately connected Burton to the crime. An autopsy conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined Bennett was murdered and had been asphyxiated. Autopsy evidence also indicated Bennett was already dead when her body was left in the embankment off the dirt road in Whaleyville.
Only after the grand jury indictment in Worcester County last August did it come to light she had also been allegedly sexually assaulted and raped by the suspect. According to the suit filed by Bennett family attorney Bart Dalton on April 17, Tice and church officials should be held partly responsible for Nicole Bennett’s death because they were aware of Burton’s violent past and allowed him to continue to work at the church for another two weeks including the night of June 14 when he was left alone with Bennett.
“It had become known to the defendants approximately two weeks earlier that Burton had been previously charged with multiple rape counts and had pled guilty, was on probation and registered as a sex offender,” the complaint reads. “Nicole Bennett and Burton were left alone at Bay Shore that evening. Although the defendants knew of Burton’s dangerous proclivities and had, in fact, terminated Burton’s employment because of this information, Bay Shore did not in any way notify any of their employees about Burton.”
The complaint paints a grim picture of Bennett being left alone at night at the church with the defendant, a convicted and registered sexual predator.
“They actually gave Burton two additional weeks of employment,” the complaint reads. “On the last day of those two additional weeks, Burton was left alone at night with Nicole Bennett. Nicole Bennett was unaware, because of the actions and inactions of the defendants, that she was alone with a sex offender. Nicole Bennett was murdered that night.”
According to the complaint, Bennett and other employees at the church were never made aware of the dangerous predator in their midst.
“At all relevant times, the defendants had actual knowledge of Burton’s violent history and nevertheless failed to warn Nicole Bennett about his dangerous propensities while simultaneously allowing Nicole Bennett to be left alone with Burton while both were engaged in their duties at Bay Shore,” the complaint reads. “All defendants are jointly and severally liable for the death of Nicole Bennett.”
After the investigation and DNA evidence connected Burton to Bennett’s murder, detectives consulted with the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office and a warrant for his arrest was obtained. Around 7:15 p.m. on July 7, 2012, the U.S. Marshal’s Task Force, a warrant apprehension team, located Burton driving on Route 1 near Rehoboth Beach. Burton was apprehended on a subsequent traffic stop and was taken into custody. He was eventually extradicted to Worcester from Sussex County.
In February, the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office filed a notice of intent to seek a sentence of death for Burton in the case. However, about two weeks later the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation abolishing the death penalty in the state and the notice was withdrawn. Instead, prosecutors will likely seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Motions hearings in the case were set in for this week. Among the motions on the table was whether or not to allow the testimony of a jailhouse witness with whom Burton presumably discussed the case. The jury trial has been set in for five days starting June 6.