Steven Odell Bennett had little to say Monday morning during his arraignment in Washington County General Sessions Court as he made his first court appearance on a murder charge in a friend’s death.
Bennett, 31, of Johnson City, is accused of killing 28-year-old Vonda Nichole Berry Marshall Donaldson and throwing her body off the Butler Bridge into Watauga Lake in Carter County.
He’s charged with second-degree murder and abuse of a corpse. Police have not said how Donaldson died, but Bennett told investigators he choked and beat her.
During the arraignment, Judge Robert Lincoln asked Bennett if he had any funds to hire his own attorney. Bennett, who had already filled out an affidavit of indigency, simply said, “No.” Lincoln appointed the Public Defender’s Office to represent Bennett then proceeded to read the warrant that detailed how Johnson City police investigators believe he killed Donaldson.
As Bennett listened to the reading, his expression changed little except to furrow his brow.
According to Donaldson’s family, she was last seen Sept. 29 leaving a wedding reception. A police report in the case indicates Donaldson talked on the phone to a family member around 11:30 p.m. that night and Donaldson told the woman Bennett was at her apartment.
The report also indicates that Bennett’s mother called police Sunday night to report a “murder,” and that her son told her Donaldson was dead. Norma Arnett told police her son told her he and Donaldson got into an argument and he choked and beat her when she called him names.
Early in the investigation, police said the two were boyfriend/girlfriend, but Donaldson’s mother, Rosie Jenkins, said Monday they were no longer dating.
“He was not her boyfriend. They were friends,” she said after Bennett’s arraignment. "Steven Odell Bennett took the only person who ever cared for him.”
Jenkins reported her daughter missing around 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 after hours of trying to contact her and then failed to show up to pick up her two daughters.
Jenkins had been looking for Donaldson since the morning after her daughter’s dog showed up at Jenkins’ house. When Jenkins returned the dog, Donaldson wasn’t home but her car was gone and her apartment door was partly open.
Jenkins initially thought her daughter was out looking for the dog but later, her attempts to contact Donaldson through the day were unsuccessful.
Bennett was arrested early Monday, Oct. 1, after police found Donaldson’s car at Leland Trailer Park. Investigators said there was blood in the trunk of the car and on Bennett’s shoes and pants. At that point, he was arrested on a parole violation, but held for questioning in Donaldson’s disappearance.
Later that day, Bennett was interviewed by Investigator Joe Harrah and Sgt. Billy Church. Harrah’s court affidavit states “Bennett stated he had choked Vonda, wrapped her body in a motorcycle tarp, weighted her down and threw her off the Butler Bridge.”
The Carter County Rescue Squad, Johnson City police and Carter County Sheriff Chris Mathes found Donaldson’s body in Watauga Lake near the bridge Wednesday afternoon.
Bennett is no stranger to the judicial and prison systems. He was paroled in June after serving nearly half of a 22-year sentence on multiple car thefts, traffic charges and an attempted aggravated kidnapping that happened in 2002.
Bennett has a preliminary hearing set Oct. 11 at 1:30 p.m. Lincoln set his bond at $100,000 on the charges, but he’s also being held without bond on the parole violation.