"I feel very sorry for him that all this had to happen," Leona Bennett said. "He is a wonderful person. He is a brilliant person . . . I think my husband cared for all the kids, but he just couldn't bring himself to say he was wrong."
Her husband, Lee C. Bennett, 62, was convicted of murder in Prince George's County Circuit Court Tuesday in the death of their 17-year-old son, John.
The events that led to the shooting death of John Bennett last April had their beginning in a seemingly minor incident four years ago, when John was 13, according to interviews with family members. The boy decided, against his father's wishes, to let his hair grow.
Bennett's response was to stop talking to his son.
For four years father and son continued to live in the same house at 5903 Shashone Dr., Forest Heights, communicating only through Leona Bennett, who is Bennett's wife and John's mother.
Over the years Bennett, an accountant who had an admitted drinking problem, had difficulties in relating to his other children, according to Leona Bennett. And over the years there were warning signs and efforts to seek help, and the family clung to hope that somehow things would work out.
When the Bennett's daughter Betty was a teen-ager, Bennett placed her in a foster home for a year, and another daughter went to live with a teacher in her senior year of high school because of her father, Leona Bennett said.
"He found fault with all the children," Leona Bennett said yesterday. "He could never give anyone any praise, no matter what they did."
Except for "Johnny," his sister Betty Richards, 28, said yesterday. At one time, before he let is hair grow, she said, "John was his pride and joy. John was everything to him."
Lee Bennett had always insisted on crewcuts. At age 13, John Bennett, the youngest of four children, rebelled.
That's basically when it all began," Richards said.
After that, Richards said, their father refused even to sit at the same table with his son. "He would wait until Johnny finished eating," she said. "If my father was eating and Johnny sat down, my father would stop and get up and leave . . .
"Johnny was hurt, deeply hurt," his sister said. "We talked a great deal about it. My father continually said he was a punk and he didn't want him around the house. Johnny tried many times to talk to may father, to iron things out."
Leona Bennett sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous. "They taught that the family should be preserved, so they continued to live in the home and try to cope," John's sister said.
In April 1975 the situation exploded when Lee Bennett, according to testimony at this week's trial, fired a handgun at his son. Leona Bennett stepped in the way, was wounded, recovered and refused to press charges. "At the times I thought it was an accident," she said yesterday.
"We talked to the state's attorney," Richards said. "They said it would be considered a domestic situation and at best my father would get probation." They talked to their family doctor about psychiatric help for Lee Bennett but nothing came of it.
"I called every agency in the county, everyone I could think of," Richards said, "nothing could be done. They said he had a legal right to be in the house and we had no recourse except to leave him or live with him."
For six months after the shooting, John went to live with his sister Betty, but then he returned to his parents' Forest Heights duplex.
"As long as my father didn't see him, it was okay," Betty Richards said. "If my father was downstairs, Johnny tried to stay upstairs."
Upstairs, after coming home from school and his job as an usher at the Oxon Hill Theater, john would tell his mother about his day. They were intimate, mother-son talks that Leona Bennetts says she believes her husband deeply resented.
Then, last April 20, John was upstairs taking a shower. Downstairs, according to trial testimony, Lee and Leona were arguing about him, as they often did. Lee Bennett called his wife a name and complained of his son. "That punk is making too much noise up there."
JOhn Bennett came downstairs and began berating his father for calling his mother names and asserting, "I am not a punk," according to trial testimony. What happen then is in dispute. According to the mother, an eyewitness, Lee Bennett shot his son in the back while John was on the telephone. Lee Bennett testified his son was "all over him" and he shot only in self-defense.
Circuit Court Judge Jacob Levin, who found Bennett guilty of second-degree murder, use of a handgun in a violent crime and threatening a witness, called it "the most tragic case in my three years on the bench." Sentencing is scheduled for March 10.
Two days before the fatal shooting, Richards said yesterday, her brother John had had his shoulder length hair cut.