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Thriller Thursday: Murder in Southeast Iowa

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

Southeastern Iowa, where I grew up, is a farming community with lots of little towns scattered between cornfields. High schools are small, everyone knows your business, and a person usually has to travel ten miles or more to go to the “big” grocery store.


Murder doesn’t happen in the Villages of Van Buren County. But on October 14, 2006, five members of the prominent Bentler family (father Micheal, 53; mother Sandra, 47; and daughters Sheena, 17; Shelby, 15; Shayne, 14) were killed in their Bonaparte home.

A chilling 911 call from Shayne Bentler painted eldest son Shawn Bentler as a suspect. During the call, Shayne said her brother “was going to do something.” In the background were other horrifying sounds: a voice saying, “Shawn, don’t,” followed by a gunshot, and Shayne screaming, “Shawn, no!”

The line went dead after that, and call backs went unanswered. A second 911 call came from Sandra Bentler’s cell phone and went unanswered. Again, the dispatcher called back, but no one picked up.

When police arrived minutes later, all five victims were found dead along with spent shell casings scattered throughout the home. Immediately, the question everyone had was, why?

The answer seems to be money, although the reasoning is murky. Known to be affluent, The Bentlers owned a grain elevator and lumber company in Mount Hammil, and the businesses served much of Southeastern Iowa. The family also attended St. Boniface Catholic Church in Farmington, were regulars at sporting events and well-liked by neighbors.

Growing up, Shawn was never in trouble. He was considered a nice kid, and friends at John Wood Community college, which he attended for a few months, remembered him as a friendly guy. At one time, Shawn worked with his father at the family business, but at the time of the murders, he was living in Quincy, Illinois, about sixty miles away.

Michael and Sandra Bentler, 17 year old Sheene, 15 year old Shelby and 14 year old Shayne.

It seems that Shawn Bentler was the son who never lived up to his families expectations. After moving to Quincy, he floated from job to job and had money problems. Keith Gratz grew up with Shawn and lived with him in Quincy until just a few weeks before the murders. According to Gratz, Shawn was consistently behind in his bills and child support for his two young daughters.

During their time as roommates, Shawn often traveled to Iowa and returned with suspicious items like jewelry to pawn. After the murders, Gratz realized Shawn must have been taking it from the family’s home.

Gratz heard of the murders from his mother, and knowing his friend was the prime suspect, Gratz visited the residence he’d moved out of just a few weeks before. He found Shawn Bentler sleeping peacefully on the couch.

“I was sort of freaking out. I asked Shawn when the last time he’d talked to his family was, and he said it it had been the day before. I told him to call, but he said he’d lef this cell phone in his mother’s car. —Keith Gratz.

Bentler was arrested that morning and eventually charged with five counts of first-degree murder. His trial began in June, 2007, with Shawn waiving his right to a jury.

On the stand, Bentler was said to show very little emotion as he talked about his family, especially his father, calling him the best provider. He did admit his father often gave him money or paid for things he needed, and confessed to pawning his mother’s jewelry, as well as stealing money and gasoline from his parents.

A witness for the prosecution claimed Shawn often spoke ill of his father. Cornell Williams worked at Shottenkirk Chevy in Quincy with Shawn (until Bentler was fired).

“He didn’t like his father at all. He’d say he (his father) would be dead soon and that he would eventually inherit his money.” –Cornell Williams.

The mother of one of Shawn’s daughters also testified that Shawn claimed he would soon have plenty of money, specifically mentioning his parents death. But The 911 call detailed  above proved to be the State’s best evidence.

The State also had forensic evidence–the white ankle socks Shawn was wearing when he was arrested contained small amounts of Sandra Bentler’s blood. A DNA analyst claimed an impact would be needed to make the blood spatter on the socks.

It’s believed that his father was Shawn’s biggest threat, so he attacked him first, hitting him with the butt of a Remington .22 and then shooting him in the leg and head. Shawn then went after the rest of his family, and the State insisted the murderer had to be someone familiar with the house because of its unique design.

“How do we know that? From the accuracy of the shots. They were shot in the head. Someone would have to know their way around the property, to the house, and their way in that house to know how to get up to the upper bedrooms. Someone had to know where lights were located to turn them on and off.”
–Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown.

Shawn Bentler was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. I believe Shawn is guilty, and the motive was the nearly 3 million he stood to inherit from his family’s estate (his daughters ultimately inherited it after a judge’s ruling), but Shawn seems to have jumped from petty thief to murderer so suddenly. What made him snap?

What do you think? Is this just a case of monetary greed? Could something have happened that’s never come to light?

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