published Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Erlanger at Hutcheson shooter charged with 2 counts of murder

Fort Oglethorpe Chief of Police David Eubanks points to a map of Erlanger at Hutcheson during a news conference Saturday. A Chattanooga man has been charged with two counts of murder after police said he fatally shot his estranged wife and her mother in a hospital waiting room Friday night.
Fort Oglethorpe Chief of Police David Eubanks points to a map of Erlanger at Hutcheson during a news conference Saturday. A Chattanooga man has been charged with two counts of murder after police said he fatally shot his estranged wife and her mother in a hospital waiting room Friday night.
Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse.

As dozens of police cars screeched toward Erlanger at Hutcheson on a report of shots fired in a crowded waiting room, James Benson calmly walked up to a detective at the Fort Oglethorpe police station with a soda in hand.

“I’m the guy you’re looking for,” the 59-year-old Chattanooga man told the officer. “I shot those two people.”

“Those two people” were Benson’s estranged wife, Mary Sue, 56, and her mother, Charlotte Johnson, 76, who were shot multiple times while sitting in the waiting room of the hospital’s intensive care unit Friday evening.

Benson has been charged with two counts of felony murder, said Fort Oglethorpe Police Chief David Eubanks.

A neighbor said James Benson and his estranged wife had a rocky relationship.

Mary Davis, who lives across the street from Johnson in Rossville, said he was harsh with Mary Sue Benson when she lived at the house with her mother and two sisters.

She remembers the couple arguing in the driveway several years ago when he would come to pick up their son.

“He would go off on her in a heartbeat,” Davis said.

Mary Sue eventually moved out and the neighbors didn’t hear from her anymore, Davis said. But the other three women kept to themselves. Sometimes grandchildren or children were seen coming and going from the home.

When Davis’ daughter Heather Boles heard the news Saturday of her neighbor’s death, she burst into tears and rocked back and forth on her front porch.

“Why would anyone want to hurt them?” Boles sobbed.

Living Nightmare

The second-floor ICU waiting room at Erlanger at Hutcheson bore no trace Saturday afternoon of the bloody night before.

The hospital’s halls were silent and unpeopled. Outside, a single Walden Security guard stood at the front door.

But one Hutcheson employee said people who were there still are shaken by the chaos Friday night.

Andrew Woods, a janitor, was working Friday night when he saw a police officer and nurse running through the halls. Everyone started yelling, “Get to the emergency room!” Woods said.

Altogether, 15 employees huddled in the room, listening over the police scanner to what sounded like gunshots and people yelling.

“I wouldn’t have thought it could get that crazy,” Woods said. “It’s a small hospital.”

Eubanks said Mary Sue Benson’s sister had been in ICU for the last week and her family spent a lot of time there.

James Benson barged in the door about 6 p.m. Friday and the two began arguing, police said.

According to Eubanks, Benson stormed from the room at one point, yelling, “You’ll be sorry.”

Benson then went to his car, parked in front of the hospital, and grabbed a .38-caliber Taurus revolver, Eubanks said.

Benson stuck the gun in his jacket pocket, went back inside and back up to the ICU waiting room, where he unloaded the gun’s five shots on Johnson and Mary Sue Benson, hitting both in the chest, he said.

Then Benson walked back down the stairs and out the main entrance and drove away, Eubanks said.

Mary Sue Benson died instantly, but Johnson was flown to Erlanger and died there, police said.

Hospital officials said only one security guard was at the hospital at the time of the shooting and he was unarmed — which is normal procedure.

Corky Jewell, chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees, said in a Saturday news conference that everyone acted quickly, but the hospital isn’t equipped to respond to such a violent outburst.

“We reacted as appropriately as we could,” Jewell said.

However, Benson had been asked to leave the hospital after arguing with his wife earlier in the week, Eubanks said. Both the Walker County Sheriff’s Office and Fort Oglethorpe police said they weren’t notified about the fight, but heard about it after the shooting during their investigation.

Hospital officials couldn’t confirm what day Benson was asked to leave and if anyone had been notified.

“We would hope we would take action,” Jewell said.

Saturday, Benson was charged with two counts of felony murder. His hands shook as he sat manacled in the small Walker County jail courtroom, wrapped in a thick “turtle suit” made to deter suicide attempts.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said the suit and a jail suicide watch are standard procedure in this type of crime.

Police said Saturday little is known about Benson, who has no known criminal history.

Eubanks told jail officials he was a security guard.

On Facebook, Benson is listed as married with three sons.

Under activities and interests, his first entry is “Being a Christian.” His last post, dated Dec. 8, includes video of a man singing “O Holy Night.”

“It touch [sic] my heart,” he wrote.

Chris Carroll contributed to this article.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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