ELKTON — The cop and the prosecutor were working together that day, preparing for a murder trial, when the phone buzzed.
It was August 2015, and in just a few days, Donald Ray Bennett was to stand trial for the killings of two teenagers whose disappearances a year earlier had gripped this northeastern Maryland town. Despite the crush of attention, the involvement of the FBI and hundreds of hours performing searches by land, air and water, the boys had never been found.
On the other side of the phone was Bennett's defense attorney, with an offer. Bennett was willing to plead guilty to both murders and serve 30 years. It was a light sentence for the cruel crimes, but Bennett had a powerful bargaining chip: He knew where the bodies were. The catch was that a year had gone by, and he couldn't be certain they were still there.
For the detective, Andy Tuer, and the prosecutor, Karl Fockler, it was an agonizing decision. They felt confident that the circumstantial evidence could convict Bennett in the deaths. And if found guilty at trial, Bennett would face a harsher penalty, as much as two life sentences.
But it was a gamble. At trial, they might lose. And Bennett could forever keep the locations of the bodies a secret.
The families, the community and the investigators wanted justice. They also wanted closure.
The case is among the rarest to hit any community: two teenagers kidnapped within hours, never to be seen again. Police say these so-called "no body" cases are among the toughest to solve and prosecute. This one unfolded in Cecil County, a mostly rural area that is an hour from Baltimore, yet where the rate of drug addiction is almost as bad as the city's. It's halfway between Philadelphia and Baltimore, which also makes it a midpoint for drugs shuttling along the corridor.
The drugs have brought crime, but nothing on the scale of the double murder two years ago.
"This case was all heroin-related, and it's a tremendous epidemic that we have in the county," Fockler, the prosecutor, said recently. "Heroin is tearing us apart."
The boys vanished 18 hours apart from each other, from a tiny neighborhood called Hollingsworth Manor in Elkton, the county seat. Built during World War II for thousands of workers at munitions plants, Hollingsworth Manor's rows of similar trailer-style homes line streets with uninspired names like "Road A" and "Road 12."
Jesse Veasey, 16, and Ricardo Levenberry, 19, saw an opportunity in the neighborhood, nicknamed "the Manor." Too poor and too young to afford cars, they pedaled around on bicycles selling Wilmington-imported heroin to an insatiable clientele. They were among the youngest marshals involved in what has become an epidemic.
The Manor is an affordable community for many families, but it also has its struggles. Ricardo's brother, Renard Levenberry, describes the area as a cheap place to live and a hotbed for drug dealing. The boys didn't use drugs, their families say, but fed others' habits and enjoyed making money. Ricardo also had a baby girl he was trying to support.
"There's a lot of zombies down there," Renard said, "and it's like one-stop shop for hustling."
Jesse was the first to vanish, on the evening of Aug. 18, 2014. He was seen climbing into a dark-colored vehicle driven by a woman, with a heavyset white man in the passenger seat. Within minutes, his cellphone sent its last transmission.
The next morning, Ricardo disappeared. He had been riding around the neighborhood when the same vehicle picked him up. Witnesses said he set down his bike near a park and asked someone nearby to keep an eye on it. It was the last time he was seen alive. His phone also stopped receiving calls around that time.
It was later that evening, while Tuer was on a routine check of a nearby school, that his sergeant assigned him the missing-person case for Ricardo. Tuer had grown up in Elkton in a law enforcement family, and after catching a purse snatcher in a grocery store at age 17, he'd decided to follow their path.
As a small-town detective working on a force of about 45 officers, Tuer, now 33, usually dealt with burglaries, robberies and child abuse cases. But he soon realized this wasn't a typical case.
First, Tuer met with Ricardo's girlfriend at the extended-stay motel where she was living. She said that Ricardo had been having problems with rival drug dealers in the neighborhood, serious enough that he had attempted to get a handgun for protection. She also heard about Jesse's disappearance, and speculated they could be related because both teens used the same "re-up man," or drug supplier.
Tuer was looking at a terrifying scenario: two teens, missing within a short period of time, both linked to one possible suspect. The link to drugs made it less likely it was just a runaway case, but they believed the teens could be found alive. He and other officers in the department chased leads.
The boys were well-known in the neighborhood, and as the case made the rounds in the Elkton area and beyond, police had no shortage of tips. Bad leads would consume countless hours. Some would tell police that the boys were being held for ransom in Baltimore, or on a 10-acre farm in the county where they were being forced to manufacture drugs. Another said they had been chopped up, their remains spread throughout a nearby rivershed.
At one point, a restaurant manager in Wyoming called saying he thought he had seen Ricardo there. Jesse's family even talked about getting ransom money ready.
For the first few days, Ricardo's mother, Tiffany Levenberry, felt that every day her son wasn't found was like finding out he had died. The Sunday after he vanished, she went to her Southeast Washington, D.C., church, and she felt his presence. "I didn't see him physically, but he sat next to me and said, 'Mommy, everything is OK, I'm home,'" she said.
Both boys were named after their fathers. Ricardo was born in Washington and grew up there and in Prince George's County. His parents were separated, and during high school, he followed his father to Elkton. That's where Ricardo met his girlfriend and had a daughter. As a D.C. native, he felt emboldened, a big fish in a small pond.
"Lil Jesse," as his family called him, grew up crabbing with his father and riding motorcycles. His mother, Rachel Robinson, said she began struggling with drugs after a failed pregnancy, when he was about 5. Jesse later found his way into dealing and dropped out of school. Both parents were locked up at the time of his disappearance.
Robinson was one week from being released from an eight-month sentence when she found out that her only son was missing. She screamed and dropped the phone.
"I started crying," she said. "I knew it wasn't right."
In those first days, as Tuer reviewed the missing person's report for Jesse, Don Bennett quickly emerged as a suspect. Witnesses reported that Jesse had last been seen with a man only identified as "Big Don," a large white man who lived in an apartment on Road 12.
The detective recognized this to be Bennett, 30, whom he was already searching for as a suspect in a burglary days earlier at a Napa Auto Parts store. Bennett had been arrested several times for break-ins. The struggling addict lived in and around Elkton, and at times slept in the woods or under bridges. But he had no record of violence.
Tuer tracked down Bennett and took him into custody over the burglary. In a windowless conference room in Elkton's municipal building, Bennett told Tuer he knew that people had been talking about the disappearance of the boys on Facebook and quickly admitted he relied on them for drugs.
The rest of the information also came out fast: Bennett said he had called Jesse looking to be hooked up with "a 10-bag bundle" of drugs. He said the two had parted ways after Bennett's girlfriend dropped them off. The next day, he said he contacted Ricardo Levenberry, whom people in the area referred to as "DC," and picked him up at a park. Again, he said that after the drug deal they went their own ways.
"Do you think it's weird," Tuer asked him, "that you were the last person to be seen with both of these kids?"
Still, the detective wasn't sure Bennett had a motive to harm the boys. Tuer went on to suggest that maybe Bennett had merely facilitated the killing. Maybe even unwittingly. If he cooperated, Tuer said, authorities might be able to offer him immunity.
"I didn't put my hands on nobody, dude, you gotta trust me," Bennett said. "I just know — I bought the drugs off of them and dropped them off."
Tuer had been working 20-hour days. He hit the table in front of him. "Will you listen to me?" the frustrated detective said. "I will figure this out. And if you have any involvement, I will have zero pity on you."
That's when Bennett began to open up about the drug feuds in the area. Jesse and Ricardo had been undercutting the competition by selling too cheap, which angered others, Bennett said.
"What if I was offered something?" Bennett continued. "What if I was offered something, to f—ing call somebody and let somebody know that somebody was going to be around, but I didn't know anything was gonna happen to them. Is that breaking the law?"
Other dealers were angry that the boys were able to so easily roam the Manor making sales, while "they get their doors kicked in," he said.
Bennett then began asking about immunity and told Tuer that he had been given a cellphone and was told to call a number programmed in the phone when he saw Ricardo. Bennett said he was paid five $20 crack rocks for making the call, and afterward, as directed, threw the phone back over the man's fence. He said that was the last he saw of Ricardo.
Bennett repeatedly denied having anything to do with Jesse's death.
At least one of the details that came from Bennett seemed to be true: his description of a black Cadillac with a lot of chrome, near the scene. A similar vehicle was spotted on area surveillance footage.
But so much remained unclear. With Bennett now locked up on the burglary charge, Tuer began to try to piece together the rest of the story.
In missing-persons cases, there is always a point when the approach shifts from finding that person alive, to recovering a body. With each passing day, Tuer's optimism faded. But he was resolved to bring the families closure.
"If my child was in this situation, and I didn't know what happened to them or where they were, that would be extremely agonizing," Tuer said later.
For weeks, Tuer and other members of the Elkton Police Department alternated between interviewing tipsters and pushing on area drug dealers for information, while trudging through streambeds and wooded areas in hopes of stumbling upon the bodies. They called on the National Guard for its aerial technology, which could spot freshly dug holes in the ground. Planes flew over the area's rivers and creeks. Officers with cadaver dogs scoured the land.
The boys' families and friends also were looking. Renard Levenberry, Ricardo's older brother, cobbled together a few hundred dollars and bought an off-road vehicle to search wooded areas.
"I felt like a lost soul, searching for nothing," Renard recalled. "You had all these people I know, but I don't really know, coming to me, telling me dumb stories. 'He's this place, he's that place, he's on a farm.'"
Meanwhile, at the Cecil County Detention Center, Bennett had stopped talking to investigators, but inmates said he couldn't keep quiet.
Amid the flurry of tips, one came in from a Cecil County jailhouse informant who said Bennett told him that both boys were dead, and specifically that one body had been hidden under a tree root in water and covered by rocks.
The informant said that Bennett did not implicate himself or anyone else with the killing but said the motive was drugs and that he worried about blood being found in his motel room.
There was reason to believe this tip was credible: Though investigators had not shared it with the public, six days after Jesse was last seen the motel manager alerted police that she had noticed a bloody T-shirt in Bennett's room. Tuer and FBI Special Agent Lance Griffin later found the shirt in a nearby dumpster, and tests showed blood on the right sleeve belonged to Bennett. Because of an unknown liquid on the shirt, lab technicians weren't able to do further testing.
Tenants who stayed in the room after Bennett also told police they had found a phone under the mattress. It belonged to Ricardo.
Text messages on the phone showed Bennett in communication with Ricardo shortly before he went missing. Bennett was begging for drugs — Ricardo's "Superman" product. Bennett enticed him with a video game console and Casio "G-shock" watch — the same type that Jesse owned.
At the detention center, 18 inmates were pulled from their cells and interviewed out of view of the other inmates. Six said Bennett had admitted either murdering or setting up Jesse and Ricardo. Three gave the same story — that Bennett had admitted to strangling them in a room at the West End Gardens, and taking a G-shock watch from one of their dead bodies. Bennett's alleged account was so disturbing, one inmate had told his mother, who told Tuer, that it kept him up at night.
There were also text messages from Bennett to his girlfriend that Tuer found peculiar. On the morning Ricardo went missing, Bennett messaged her "Park out back bring in all trash bags." That evening, he sent another: "The trash truck just emptyed [sic] all our trash, i love you baby girl."
And later, another one: "the trash is gone!"
The facts of the boys' disappearance were unclear, but everything was swirling around Bennett. So in March, seven months after they vanished, prosecutors went to a grand jury and obtained an indictment for Bennett on two counts of first-degree murder for the killings of Jesse and Ricardo. It was only the ninth time in Maryland history that someone had been charged in a killing without the victim's body.
Assistant State's Attorney Karl Fockler was assigned the high-profile case. He knew what he was facing: If Bennett was acquitted, he could not be tried for the same crime twice under the "double jeopardy" clause of the U.S. Constitution — even if a body and additional evidence were later discovered.
For Fockler, the case against Bennett was circumstantial, but strong enough to take to a jury. Still, each time he talked with Tuer, the conversation included, "Do we have any bodies yet?"
Tuer and Fockler were preparing for trial when Bennett's attorney called, saying his client was willing to tell them where he left the bodies. In exchange, he wanted a prison sentence of 20 years. The call was stunning, but reassuring.
"Even though I knew in my heart it was this guy," Tuer said, "it was validation."
Tuer phoned the mothers of Jesse and Ricardo.
"Whatever to bring the boys home," Robinson, Jesse's mother, told him. She hung up the phone and turned to his father. They both started crying.
"I have a feeling like Little Jesse's coming home," Jesse's father said.
Ricardo's family agreed.
So after talking with the families, investigators reluctantly made the decision: They would make a deal with Bennett.
His guilty plea to two counts of second-degree murder came on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Jesse's disappearance. Bennett admitted strangling and choking to death Veasey and Levenberry after picking them up in Hollingsworth Manor to buy drugs.
The plea agreement called for him to receive 30 years on the first count, followed by another 30 years that would be suspended. That meant that if Bennett were to violate the terms of his supervised release, he could be sentenced to any of the suspended time.
Still, the sentence struck many community members as light, especially given that, with good behavior, Bennett could be released in 20 years. People like Lisa Lucas, a longtime resident of the Manor, packed the courtroom for a later hearing when the families spoke. She didn't know Jesse or Ricardo, but she listened to their parents speak, and she cried for them. She also felt disgust that Bennett didn't get more time.
"A lot of people in the public thought: Thirty years is not enough if you kill someone, let alone two people," Tuer said recently. "But [Bennett] had an ace up his sleeve."
Finding the bodies
Before the plea hearing concluded, the attorneys and Bennett, who was escorted by a corrections officer, went into an adjoining jury room. Bennett was uncuffed. He sat across from Tuer, who took out his cellphone and pulled up a map. Bennett was direct and unemotional. He said Jesse's body had been left under rocks in the waters of Little Elk Creek, under the I-95 overpass off Blue Ball Road.
Tuer and Fockler had mixed emotions. Even if he placed Jesse's body there, what, if anything, would be there a year later? Tuer knew the creek was prone to flooding. Fockler had a pang of concern about whether prosecutors could get out of the plea agreement if their search turned up nothing.
Those feelings were compounded by Bennett's response about the location of Ricardo's body: Bennett said he had been stuffed into a dumpster at the West End Gardens motel. The detectives knew the trash was long gone from the motel, having been picked up the day after Ricardo's disappearance.
The conditions of the meeting stipulated that Tuer and Fockler couldn't quiz Bennett beyond where he left the bodies, including circumstances around the killings and how he moved them.
But Tuer couldn't resist asking one more question. He had been obsessed by the case, working extraordinarily long hours, answering his cellphone at all hours, even missing a family beach vacation and nightly bedtime stories for his children. He figured the most they could do was prevent Bennett from answering.
"Where's Jesse's watch?" Tuer blurted out.
Jesse's watch had never been found, and for Tuer, finding it represented something sentimental he could give back to the family.
That day, they went to find Jesse's body. Tuer summoned a Maryland State Police dive team, but he was so anxious he began the search at Little Elk Creek before they arrived. As he went under the I-95 overpass, he saw the first tree.
In the water beneath it was something unmistakable: a skull. The rest of the body, partially decomposed, was hidden under rocks.
Months earlier, based on proximity to a cellphone tower Bennett's phone had connected with, Tuer had searched this very embankment. Now, in hindsight, he saw a tree across the creek, its long branch pointing like a knowing arm over the waters toward the body.
Tuer wondered, how might things have played out in Bennett's criminal case if Tuer had found the body, eliminating Bennett's leverage and giving law enforcement the upper hand?
The detective usually didn't bring his work home with him. But that night, he sat on his couch stunned, almost catatonic, unable to process the emotions of 12 months of work. Even though he had long ago conceded the boys' deaths as inevitable, staring at Jesse's remains in the rocky, shallow waters was a grim conclusion.
A few days later, they all regrouped for Bennett's sentencing. Before the hearing, Tuer asked to meet in a side room with Jesse's parents. He handed them a manila envelope.
Earlier, when Bennett had finally revealed where he left the bodies, he admitted he had thrown Jesse's watch on the roof of the West End Gardens motel. Contractors had recently performed work on the roof, and there was no watch there. On a lark, the detective asked the hotel management to reach out to the contractor, and to his surprise, a sheepish roofer admitted taking the watch and returned it.
Robinson, with encouragement from Tuer, fastened the watch on her left arm, so she would have it on as she read her victim impact statement.
"I miss my son's voice. I miss the way he said, 'I love you, mom.' … He never gave up on me," Robinson said, sobbing.
In court, Bennett looked completely different from the "zombie" that Ricardo's brother, Renard Levenberry, remembered seeing around the neighborhood. Off drugs, "he looked so clean, like someone who was supposed to be a lawyer [rather] than a defendant in the case," Renard said.
In fact, Bennett grew up in an unstable home and wound up living on his own, addicted to drugs, at age 15, according to his mother. He had nowhere to live but under a bridge, not unlike the one where he would later rest the body of his young victim.
"It's sick and sad that jail had to change his life," Renard said, "but it's the only time a lot of people are able to clear their head."
Bennett's comments at sentencing gave the families no solace, however.
"Um, I can say I'm sorry, but it's not going to help anything at all. What's done has been done," Bennett said. "I gave up my information that I could, to detectives, to help as much as I could. They've lost two people. My family's lost me. I've lost my wife and kids. I have nobody now. I deserve time in prison, but I did as much as I possibly can to keep my family safe."
He was referring to a girlfriend and her two children, whom he considered family.
Turning to Jesse's father, he said: "I'm sorry, bro. I'm sure you understand. You know what's going on. That's all I got to say."
An open case
With those words, Bennett renewed all the lingering questions about the circumstances of the teens' disappearance. When he first spoke with Tuer, Bennett had implicated a neighborhood drug dealer, and on the man's property police had found a tantalizing clue: a charred cellphone, very possibly the one Bennett had described tossing over the fence after helping set up the boys.
But was his admission truthful, or a diversion? Police had nothing else to tie the crime to that dealer, or to the woman in Bennett's car, or to anyone else. And in that same conversation, Bennett said he didn't know what happened to the boys — now clearly a lie.
Through his family, Bennett indicated he wanted to speak to The Baltimore Sun. But then, silence.
Tuer believes others were involved in the deaths.
"The case may be closed by arrest, but … that doesn't mean anything to me. That doesn't mean I'll ever stop looking for more," he said.
In the months to follow, he would be promoted to sergeant and later honored by Maryland's governor, Larry Hogan, as the top municipal police officer in the state for his work on the case. But the toll on him was great. He and his wife wound up separating. She said he'd been changed by the case.
Meanwhile, Ricardo's family never got his body back — the whole reason they had agreed to the deal.
Tuer had dreaded this scenario when he first read Bennett's text, sent on the day Ricardo disappeared, referring to "taking out the trash." At that time, Tuer had traced the path of the garbage from the motel's dumpster. He cordoned off the spot of the Cecil County landfill, where the load had been left, in case it needed to be preserved. But his suspicions were nothing more than a hunch, too little to take on the herculean task of searching the vast field of debris.
By the time last August that Bennett revealed the details that got him the plea bargain, the trash fill where Ricardo's body was believed to be had grown to more than 120 feet across, 90 feet wide and 24 feet deep.
As Tuer and Fockler stood amid dump trucks and sea gulls picking at the piles, officials explained to them that even in a best-case scenario, the compacting process would have reduced the teen's remains to fragments indistinguishable from chicken bones.
Months earlier, a mother's intuition had led Tiffany Levenberry to the same place. When a bloody shirt was found in the dumpster where Bennett had been staying, she had a bad feeling. She called the local landfill, demanding that they let her family inside. She wanted to search the rotting trash herself.
She would have taken anything that was left of her son — a bone, a tooth. But it wasn't possible. Even though Bennett ultimately confirmed her fears, without something tangible, she is left questioning everything.
"In my mind, I still don't believe he's at the trash fill, because I don't have his remains," she said. She suffers from nightmares and recently called a psychic. "Is he really there? Or is he somewhere else?"
At the time, the deal seemed the right thing to do. Everyone thought it would bring closure. But even Jesse's mother, who got her son's body back, continues to be tormented a year after the sentencing.
She keeps his ashes in a box with his picture superimposed over a serene landscape of deer by a creek. Hospice workers made her a keepsake bear using the shirt Jesse was wearing when he died. On the bear's right arm is the G-shock watch. "Look at that," she says after bringing out the bear for a visitor recently. "The battery finally died."
Jesse had once talked about joining the Army, and when it hurts too much, his family pretends he's off serving with the military. His mother admits to catching herself looking out of her second-floor window, gazing down the street and hoping he might climb out of a car and walk up the driveway.
"Am I ever going out to find out all of it?" she said. "I don't think I ever will."