Trial in Ceres killing under way with two juries seated

Two juries in Stanislaus County Superior Court heard testimony Tuesday in a 2005 murder that investigators linked to two men: Jerry Michael Benge, a Turlock man who had grown close to the dead man's wife, and Benge's nephew.

The prosecution says Benge, now 49, and his 30- year-old nephew, Sean Benge, are responsible for the shooting death of Steven Glenn Brown in his home outside Ceres. Brown was 45. Jerry Benge was Brown's cousin.

Testimony on Tuesday revolved around the relationship, sometimes tumultuous, between Brown and his wife, Katherine. Attorneys spent about an hour questioning Katherine Brown about her relationships with her husband and with Jerry Benge. She testified she and Benge agreed their relationship became too close and that they started twice to have sex but did not continue.

Brown described how she got to know Benge in 2003 when her son started visiting him to learn to care for pigs. As her children got involved with 4-H, she and Benge spent more time together. Benge eventually moved his animals to Brown's home, and visited daily to care for them.

"We were friends for a long time through that relationship," she said to Bob Wildman, Jerry Benge's attorney. They would meet at the post office or at 4-H events. She said she and Benge eventually crossed a line.

Brown said she and Benge never talked about leaving their spouses to be together.

But she said her husband told her he didn't like Benge coming around so much.

Her former boss, Deborah Viera, also took the stand.

Viera said Benge visited Brown several times a week at work, and that they talked "a lot" on the phone each day. Viera asked if the two were having an affair, but Brown said they weren't.

Viera said she and Brown talked about her marital troubles and a storage unit Brown filled in preparation for moving out. She told Viera her husband would "ruin her stuff" if she left.

Viera said Brown once packed her husband's belongings. He moved out for several days before they reconciled, Viera said. Despite the couple's troubles, Viera said, she never heard about physical abuse.

Brown asked her, she said, to keep Benge's visits a secret from Steven Brown.

Families get mistrial warning

About 15 family members packed the right side of the gallery, in rows with signs designating separate seating for the Browns and Benges.

During a break, family members outside the courtroom declined to comment, saying they had been instructed by Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Steffen that talking about the case could lead to a mistrial.

Steffen has not issued a protective order to stop discussion about the case, said Michael Tozzi, court spokesman, but he cautioned everyone in the courtroom about speaking with the media.

Steven Brown lived with his wife and children in the 6900 block of Crows Landing Road. Family members found his body when they returned home Jan. 4, 2005, detectives said. He died from a gunshot wound to his upper body.

According to detectives, Benge told them he asked his nephew to help him "get rid of" Steven Brown or "cause him serious injury."

Detectives said in 2005 that Sean Benge entered Brown's home, waited for him to come home, then shot him.

Sean Benge is being held at Stanislaus County Jail with a bail of $10 million in the shooting and other charges. Jerry Benge is being held at the Public Safety Center with a bail of $1 million.

It's the first time a Stanislaus County courtroom has used two juries in a single courtroom, said Tozzi, though courts in Sacramento and Los Angeles have used the method.

The benefit is that it allows witnesses to testify once, rather than in two cases. Also, Tozzi said, the case could last six to eight weeks, so the judge and attorneys agreed a two-jury solution would be more efficient.

Certain evidence, he said, is admissible against just one of the defendants. Having two juries allows attorneys to present such evidence only to the appropriate jury.

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.