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Trial begins for grisly '07 murder

COVINGTON - The murder trial against Franklin Elliot Benson began Tuesday with state prosecutors arguing that he killed his girlfriend over a money dispute, then cut up her body and disposed of the remains in rural Newton County in 2007.

Benson, 48, faces charges of murder, removal of a body from a scene of death or dismemberment and concealing the death of another in connection with the slaying of 49-year-old DeKalb County resident Leslyan Williams.

Brandy Snellgrove testified she called Newton County authorities on Oct. 30, 2007, after she discovered her dogs were fighting over the victim's foot at her house off of Ga. Highway 212. Investigators with the Newton County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation eventually found the victim's other severed foot, legs, arms and hands near an adjacent house.

Investigators connected Benson to the house after discovering he held a quit claim deed to the property.

In opening statements, Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon told jurors that evidence showed Benson killed Williams and then went to great lengths to cover up the crime. She said Benson towed the victim's car to a motel parking lot in Chattanooga, Tenn., to bolster a story he told investigators that Williams had traveled alone to visit family in Michigan to celebrate her birthday.

Also, Zon said investigators became suspicious of Benson in his initial interview when he told them he knew someone who was missing.

"The sheer chance of him knowing someone missing was slim to none," she said. "He said he talked to DeKalb police about her, but he never reported her missing. Her family were the ones who reported her missing."

Defense attorneys Leah and Terance Madden said in opening statements the state had no direct evidence that Benson killed Williams and there would be no murder weapon presented during the trial. Terance Madden told jurors the state's case, at best, only connected Benson with Williams and they would have a hard time convicting Benson "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"They will ask you to convict him of murder, but they cannot tell you how it was done," Madden said. "The state will throw circumstantial evidence, theories and possibilities against the wall to see what sticks."

In testimony, investigators and NCSO deputies discussed what they did that day when the victim's foot was discovered. A massive search on Oct. 30, 2007, turned up other body parts around a house owned by Terance Leaks. Despite their best efforts in the search that extended into two lakes on the property and the banks of the South River, Williams' head and torso were not recovered.

Leaks said he worked at Benson's auto repair business in Decatur and that Benson loaned him $2,500 to make payments to keep the house out of foreclosure. Leaks added that Benson brought a "light-skinned black woman" to the property at times as Benson attempted to sell the house to get his money back.

NCSO Investigator Jason Griffin testified that he and a GBI agent interviewed Benson as one of hundreds of leads investigators were following up. In the interview that was taped and played in court, Benson told investigators he knew Williams was missing after learning of why they had come to talk to him.

During the interview, Benson sounded shocked as investigators talked about their murder investigation. Griffin said Benson's reaction made him suspicious.

"It was really a hunch, but he was very theatrical; acting as if it was her, but we didn't know it was her at the time," Griffin said. "We kept having to calm him down saying that it might not be her, but he kept laying down these comments that it was her."

Leah Madden pointed out in her cross-examination that Griffin would not have had any knowledge that Benson had already talked to DeKalb County Police about Williams' missing person investigation. "Can you call that theatrics after all the talks he's had with DeKalb Police?" she asked.

At the end, Zon presented a DeKalb County Police incident report from Oct. 28, 2007, involving a domestic dispute between Benson and Williams. The DeKalb police officer who filed the report told the court Benson had called the police because Williams had taken his car keys. They were arguing over the repayment terms of a $10,000 loan Williams made to Benson after Benson sought to borrow another $4,500 from her.

The police officer said no one was arrested, and he did not get the keys away from Williams. He left the scene after noting there was no evidence of violence at the time of the dispute.

Testimony continues today at the Newton County Judicial Center before Newton Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson.