published Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Richard Bennett stumbled on verge of success

Thaddius Twitty embraces his father figure, Richard Bennett, as Bennett is released from the Southeast Tennessee State Correctional Facility in Pikeville, Tenn., in August 2008 after serving four and a half years.
Thaddius Twitty embraces his father figure, Richard Bennett, as Bennett is released from the Southeast Tennessee State Correctional Facility in Pikeville, Tenn., in August 2008 after serving four and a half years.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Richard Bennett would lift up his shirt and show where the bullets struck him. He told how he graduated high school still illiterate. How he sold drugs to get by.

He was exactly the kind of person who could reach troubled teens and gang members turning away from that life.

He had been them. He had the street scars to prove it. And you can’t reach kids, Bennett would say, unless you’ve experienced what they have.

Now Bennett’s mugshot is splayed across the evening news. And from his recent arrest, it appears that his greatest attribute — his ability to relate with the underworld of drugs, guns and poverty — turned out to be his downfall.

It’s a constant battle not to slip back into that world and to keep your personal life separate, said Skip Eberhardt, a former gang member and drug dealer turned community activist.

In the eyes of the public we’ve changed, Eberhardt said.

But, “we struggle every day with our ways,” he said.

Bennett was on the verge of his greatest success. The mayor’s office was about to offer his nonprofit a contract valued at more than $300,000 and extend his role in the Chattanooga Violence Reduction Initiative. His role: to lead efforts to connect felons and gang members to the jobs, education, counseling and other things needed to induce them to leave the violent life.

To a small nonprofit like his — existing on the fringe, surviving on miscellaneous grants and small donations — a city contract and full entree into the VRI would have meant the world. Security. Influence. Opportunity.

He was already friends with judges, pastors, city and county officials who held him in high regard for turning his life around and for making a difference. Then the mayor was mentioning his name in conjunction with the VRI, the media calling to ask Bennett how the program was going.

Some believe he couldn't handle the pressure, the attention that his new visibility invited.

Others say there is more to the story.

On June 6, a police officer found Bennett in a minivan in East Lake Park with hydrocodone pills, a small baggie of marijuana, two open beers, a bottle of tequila and a woman who was not his wife. Bennett's pants were unzipped.

Upon learning of the arrest, Mayor Andy Berke immediately cut ties with Bennett.

City Councilman Moses Freeman said community leaders are conflicted about the decision. Some believe the mayor's office did the right thing, that Bennett's reputation is in question and he can't be in that leadership role because trust is key in that position.

Yet others think the city moved too quickly and didn't give Bennett his day in court before acting.

Bennett, 48, maintains his innocence. On the front lawn of his home off Highway 58, he holds up a prescription pill bottle for hydrocodone, says this was all a misunderstanding. He declines to talk further.

Friends said it was typical for him to work late nights to talk with sources to get information on gang members. His wife, Jessica, explains away the rest on Facebook.

"His pants were not unzipped," she wrote online, "but his belt buckle was broken."

•••

Ask 21-year-old Jamaal Reynolds and he'll tell you that Bennett changed his life.

Reynolds met Bennett when school officials sent the eighth-grader to Washington Alternative School after he tried to sell crack cocaine in his middle school hallway.

When Bennett first visited his class as a partner with the alternative school, Reynolds questioned his motives. Reynolds didn't listen when other adults tried to offer advice. But Bennett kept coming back, day after day. He gave out his cellphone number. He would ask: "What type of leader would you be?"

"He came from the same lifestyle I was coming from," Reynolds said. "I didn't have a father figure in my life. For a man to really care and say 'I love you,' that really let me know he cared to take the time to mold me."

Now Reynolds is studying to be a pastor at Tennessee Temple.

What made Bennett exceptional was that he never quibbled with the truth, said Jennifer Woods, a retired teacher from Washington Alternative School.

When he spoke to the teens in the school cafeteria and across the city he told them about his past, she said. He was honest, sometimes too much so for higher-ups.

He would tell the kids how he grew up on the Westside, sold drugs, got shot three times.

In 1989 Bennett was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to sell. That's the only offense listed in his criminal record.

Kevin Adams, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, met Bennett before he started his nonprofit in 2001. Adams gave him a Bible.

When Adams found out that Bennett couldn't read, he bought an audio Bible on cassette. Bennett taught himself what the words meant by following along in the Bible as he listened to the tape.

"I watched him grow and watched his whole language change," Adams said.

•••

Bennett built his nonprofit, A Better Tomorrow, on the strength of his reputation.

Friends say he sank his own money into the organization and obtained nonprofit status by 2004.

Tea party members gave to him. So did teachers at Washington Alternative School. Last year, Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck, a friend of Bennett, gave him $12,000 from his discretionary fund.

Bennett raised about $150,000 each year.

He said his reach extended into church youth groups, civic centers, surrounding schools, where he would give out his cellphone number. He would answer any time, even at night, his friends said, and he would rush to the hospital or jail if he was needed. In an after-school program last summer, he got 50 students to volunteer with local nonprofits, such as the Ronald McDonald House and Chattanooga Food Bank.

At Washington Alternative School he taught more than 60 students in his after-school program and hundreds inside the classroom. In Woods' class, Bennett taught life skills.

Woods remembered what he used to say to the teens: "Trouble is easy to get into and hard to get out of."

One lesson turned into nine weeks during which teens lived as parents in the classroom. They had to pay child support, carry dolls with them and go to court if they didn't pay on time.

By the end of the class, Woods recalls that several teens wrote letters to their parents telling them they were sorry for the heartache they had caused. Some were reconciled with their fathers.

"I was actually the student under him," Woods said. "I learned how to relate to my students on a level much beyond teacher. Because of the things he did in my classroom I learned from my students about the world they lived in."

After Berke took office last April, Bennett said, he studied the crime initiative that was modeled after High Point and he was excited that city officials shared his vision: "the business of life changing."

"There's going to be a change in this city, because God's going to get the glory," he said in an interview two months ago.

Councilman Larry Grohn has known Bennett for years.

Grohn said Bennett fit the role the city needed; he could convince gang members to listen. His reputation preceded him and he could walk into any situation in any part of town and command attention, Grohn said.

The mayor's office has issued a request for new proposals for another agency to take the place of Bennett's A Better Tomorrow. The deadline to submit bids falls a week before Bennett heads to his first court hearing on July 1.

But community leaders wonder who can do what Bennett did.

"He will be very difficult to replace," Grohn said.

Staff writer David Cobb contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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