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Enough Plot Twists to Keep Everyone In Suspense

Crime: It's a riveting story of revenge, obsession, attempted murder and alter egos. And on the edges of this true-life trial is mystery writer Patricia Cornwell.

February 10, 1997|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MANASSAS, Va. — If mystery writing phenom Patricia Cornwell offered up anything like the sordid little yarn playing out in a courtroom here, publishers would laugh her out of the Whodunit Hall of Fame.

But that isn't to say what's happening in this historic village won't sell her novels.

You have only a pale version of a good mystery here: A defrocked FBI agent--once on White House duty--tries to convince a jury of his innocence, by reason of insanity, for a grab bag full of felonies. Allegations of kidnapping, attempted murder, armed break-in and bomb possession all stem from Eugene Bennett's bizarre and barely fathomable scheme last summer to kill his ex-wife.

Prosecutors say the motive was hatred and revenge. The defense says he had to be crazy. The flash point for either theory was an illicit romance of Marguerite "Margo" Bennett, also ex-FBI, while she was still married to the defendant.

The secret lover was Patricia Cornwell.

Assistant Commonwealth Attorney James Willett told jurors at the trial's outset that Eugene Bennett "had in his mind a great reason to hate Margo Bennett. She left him. She broke up their marriage. She went into the bed of another woman. She humiliated him."

But defense psychiatrist Robert Bishop testified last week about Bennett's psychological desperation with his wife's lifestyle, how he felt she used him only as a means of siring the couple's two young daughters.

"He was beginning to think of himself as a sperm bank," Bishop said. "When he began to realize his wife was not interested in him sexually and was interested in another woman, he felt his white-picket-fence dream was dissolving."

The jury is expected to begin deliberations today. When it finally decides whether to trundle Eugene Bennett, 42, off to prison (for a maximum sentence of two consecutive life terms) or to a state hospital for the criminally insane, it will serve as end note to a truly seedy story: one rife with revenge, obsession, bungled hostage-taking, planted pipe bombs, gunplay in a minister's study, fish-hook shrapnel, "a plastic implement used in sexual acts," a commercial video of lesbian love scenes and the defendant's evil alter ego, "Ed." Bennett says Ed tells him to do bad things, such as not going to church on Sunday.

But the caper may also, intentionally or not, serve to burnish Cornwell's already eccentric image: that of the internationally successful author of nine crime novels; the former cop reporter obsessively steeped in forensic sciences; the creator of the corpse-cutting, crime-busting Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell's Virginia medical-examiner protagonist and heroine. (Her newest and ninth mystery, the Putnam-published "Hornet's Nest," tops The Times' bestseller list for fiction after only two weeks.)

It was, after all, Cornwell's studious devotion to accuracy and detail that led her to enroll at the FBI's Quantico training center in the early 1990s. This, in turn, sent her into the arms of an instructor there, Bennett's wife. The most widely hyped testimony of the trial came when Marguerite Bennett, 42, admitted that she made love to Cornwell--twice.

Eugene said it drove him nuts when he found out. He spied on his wife and Cornwell, filed for divorce and demanded custody of the children.

Marguerite fought back, ratting out Eugene for $17,000 in work-related reimbursement fraud (to which she was also a party). The FBI booted them both and Eugene went to prison for 12 months.

Released in January 1995, he plotted his kidnap and murder scheme, which involved kidnapping Margo's minister to lure Margo to certain death, framing someone else and scarfing up insurance payoffs.

The ruse got as far as taking the minister hostage in a Dale City, Va., church last June 23. Margo showed up, but with pepper spray and a revolver. She quarreled with the masked kidnapper, recognized the voice and when he rushed her, dived behind a desk in the preacher's study and opened fire. When one of her .38 slugs hit the door frame, Eugene skedaddled. Police picked him up at his home after he claimed to have locked "Ed" in the garage.

*

Now it was the media's turn to go bonkers; the Cornwell connection was irresistible.

"It could have been a plot from one of her very own thrillers," howled London's The Guardian.

"A tale of furtive lust and seduction, blame and betrayal, that has crept through the hallowed halls of the FBI and into the boudoir of a best-selling author," purred the New York Daily News.

It has "all the elements of a scene from one of Patricia Cornwell's gritty, grisly crime novels. Except that this scene really happened," squealed People.

Even the Washington Post was overcome by a little turgid, Mickey Spillane-speak: "The Bennetts' domestic contretemps has been playing out . . . spanked by a Washington radio reporter who broke open this story and hung on to it like a summer cold."

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