Produced by Josh Yager, Doug Longhini, Ana Real, Shoshanah Wolfson and Tamara Weitzman
[This story first aired on Sept. 27, 2014. It was updated on July 25, 2015.]
BORACAYAN, Costa Rica -- Fourteen years ago, Ann and John Bender moved to the jungle of Central America to live an extravagant, idyllic dream. Fourteen years later, Ann stands in a Costa Rican courtroom on trial for the murder of her husband.
The dream she was living seems very far away. Their home, called Boracayan, which rises from the middle of the Costa Rican rain forest, was once Ann and John Bender's vision of paradise.
The phrase "over the top" doesn't begin to do the house justice. It's like some bizarre combination of Disneyland and art museum and something you'd really only see in a James Bond movie.
"Does this strike you as astonishing every time you're here or are you totally used to it?" "48 Hours" correspondent Susan Spencer asked Ann Bender as they walked through the home.
"I'm used to it by now. It's home," Ann replied.
The main house at Boracayan is four floors tall and nearly 50,000 square feet, with tons of gleaming granite and no windows or walls.
"I think that's one of the things I miss the most ... it's the sounds of the birds," Ann said. "We built the house ... to our taste, which is crazy."
John and Ann always had been a bit eccentric, from the moment a friend introduced them in Virginia in 1998. "It was love at first sight for both of us," she told Spencer.
The daughter of an international banker, Ann had grown up all over the world. John was smitten and proposed after just two weeks. They married the next year.
"We both found in each other a future," said Ann.
They shared many interests and one unfortunate problem: both struggled with depression -- specifically in Ann's case, with bipolar mood disorder.
"I had just been diagnosed ... with bipolarity," Ann said.
The Benders' friend, Pete Delisi, said John hated doctors and preferred to privately deal with his problems.
"He could go from being extremely happy to extremely sad very quick," said Delisi, adding that what Bender lacked in happiness, he made up for in smarts.
"He was absolutely a genius..."he said.
John Bender had been a math and science whiz in high school and then studied physics at the University of Pennsylvania. His looks got him work as a male model and his smarts helped him beat the odds at the local casinos. He had an unusual talent for making money -- a talent that blossomed at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange.
"In just about five minutes, he developed a way of trading options that had never been done before," Ann said, "and within just a few years, he was one of the top traders."
"By the time he was 25, I think he'd amassed about $80 million," said Delisi.
According to reporter and CBS News consultant Ned Zeman, Bender ran a half-billion dollar hedge fund by his early 30s.
Zeman said that by 1998, John Bender was looking for both a safe haven for his money and a purpose for his life. And that for all his brilliance - and his bank balance - he'd never really fit in with the Wall Street crowd.
"He just walks away from it," Spencer noted.
"Just walked away," Delisi replied.
But not without a plan: John and Ann, both animal lovers, decided to use their fortune to start a refuge for wildlife. In the dense rain forest of Costa Rica they found the ideal location: 5,000 pristine acres they named Boracayan, after a native plant.
"I mean this is as out there as you can get..." said Zeman.
Setting up a sanctuary for wildlife gave the Benders a sanctuary too, an escape to an extravagant, private universe of exotic flowers, animals and waterfalls. Here, nothing was ordinary -- not even the lights in the house. Many of the approximately 400 lamps were custom made of stained glass.
Ann said John thought the lamps would brighten her outlook on the world.
"Depression was an immense bond between them ... it's a very isolating disease. And people tend to pull away from society," Zeman explained.
Although construction of the house brought in running water, reliable electricity and dozens of jobs to the area, the project -- and the Benders -- got a chilly reception.
"There was definitely a degree of, 'who are these rich gringos and who the hell do they think they are coming down and doing all of this,'" Ann recalled.
Then, in April 2001, Ann said armed men in an unmarked car forced them onto the shoulder of a mountain road. The men claimed to be police, but wore no uniforms.
"I thought it was a kidnapping," she said.
One of the men pulled John from his car and when he protested, "This guy fired the gun between John's legs and held up the gun to John's head," Ann told Spencer. "I was terrified."
All this, it would turn out, was just so Costa Rican authorities could serve John Bender with papers naming him in a lawsuit stemming from his days on Wall Street. But John spent six hours in police detention before he knew that, and Ann says the incident completely unnerved him.
"That's when our entire lives changed," she said.
Ann said an attempted break-in at the house months later only made things worse. The couple bought guns, hired guards and turned the refuge into a virtual fortress. They lived in fear.
"It makes me very sad to think back on how painful life could be for him," Ann said in tears.
In 2005, perhaps trying to right the ship, Bender set up a $70 million trust to manage the refuge and provide for Ann's living expenses. He named attorney Juan de Dios Alvarez to run it. Alvarez was then a trusted advisor. Later, Ann would point to him as a key figure in the events surrounding John's death.
But neither the trust nor the guards nor the guns stopped the couple's continuing slide into depression. Ann said John saw a psychiatrist, but refused antidepressants. She, however, was taking an enormous amount of medication. By the fall of 2009, Ann said she'd all but stopped eating.
"I was 40 pounds lighter than I am now," she told Spencer.
Desperate to cure her, John began injections of spring water -- a home remedy. Ann broke out in boils and lesions.
"What he was doing was making her sicker and sicker," Zeman said. "I think both of them had lost touch with reality."
"You thought you could manage this?" Spencer asked Ann.
"Yeah, we both did. We had been through very difficult situations together before," she replied.
"Did never at one point occur to you to say, 'Oh, my God,' you know, 'I've gotta get him out of here,'" Spencer asked.
"He wouldn't have gone," said Ann.
By 2010, after a decade at Boracayan, the Benders had become prisoners in their own paradise. The natural beauty that brought them there, lost in irrational despair. Ann said John became convinced that every problem -- her illness, even the death of a beloved pet bird -- was his fault.
"He became... suicidally depressed," Ann said. "He wanted to die."
The stage was set. That night, he would die. But was it suicide or murder?
THE DEATH OF JOHN BENDER
"I'm sure this seems as real to you as it did that night," Spencer said to Ann Bender, standing in the room where her husband died. "So what happened?"
"John brought a gun to bed," she replied. "It was the last thing I expected him to be doing, even though I knew that he was suicidal."
On Jan. 7, 2010, Ann Bender said it was nearly midnight when she got in bed and turned out the lights. She had just drifted off to sleep when, "I opened my eyes and I saw the outline of the trigger of the gun ... and he had it pointed at his head ... at himself..." she said.
Horrified, Ann said she recognized their 9mm Ruger pistol.
"From what I could tell he was holding it with both hands," she said.
"And what'd you do?" Spencer asked.
"I got up on my knees and reared towards him and I tried to grab the gun," said Ann.
"Were you able to get it?"
"No. I was able to get my hands around his and the gun slipped and it went off," she replied.
Just minutes later, their security guard, Oswaldo Aguilar, was first on the scene.
"She said to me, 'I tried to stop him and I couldn't do it,'" he told "48 Hours."
Asked if there was a long struggle, an emotional Ann told Spencer, "No ... I remember it as being instantaneous. It couldn't have been any more than two seconds."
"When it went off, who was holding it?" Spencer asked of the gun.
"I don't think anyone was holding it," Ann replied.
"How does a gun go off when no one's holding it?" Spencer pressed.
"I think that it fell. He dropped it," Ann said. "I never touched the gun."
Ann told roughly the same story to the first responders who arrived at Boracayan some two hours later. But reporter Ned Zeman says that their examination of the scene actually raised more questions than it answered.
"If somebody wanted to commit suicide, he says, the way they do it is here, here or here," Ramirez said, pointing to inside mouth, under his chin and against his temple.
But if a left-handed person, as prosecutors assumed John Bender was, did fatally shoot himself behind the right ear, the gun presumably would end up on the same side as the bullet hole.
"Just to be clear, the gun is on the opposite side from the wound?" Spencer asked Zeman.
"Yes, the wound is on this side of John's head," he replied, pointing to his right."He is lying on his back. The gun is over there on this side of the bed, near his arm. So you know that doesn't look good," he explained, pointing to the left.
"There were no lights on. All I knew is he had a gun and I tried to get it away from him and I couldn't and it went off," Ann cried.
But investigators were puzzled over the bullet's path, entering just below the right ear and ending up behind the left eye. Also odd was the location of a spent cartridge found some 15 feet behind the bed -- all, they thought, inconsistent with Ann's story of a struggle.
"Did you move anything, touch anything, change anything in that room?" Spencer asked Ann.
"The only thing I remember doing is using the radio, unlocking the elevator and touching John," she replied.
"But as far as the gun?"
"The shell casings?"
"I don't remember," Ann replied.
"The pillow ..."
"I don't remember anything," said Ann.
A pillow near John's head had a tear with gunpowder in it.
"...which means the pillow was positioned over his head and the gun was fired," Prosecutor Ramirez told "48 Hours".
Within hours, investigators began to think John Bender may have been shot in his sleep and died where he lay. There were pools of blood on both sides of his body and the earplugs he always wore were still in place.
"From the fourth floor down ... we started looking," said police inspector Louis Aguilar, who led a sweep of the house and quickly discovered something that stopped him cold. "We found a great amount of jewels ... precious stones," he said.
There were thousands of gems -- diamonds, rubies and opals -- some on display, others in suitcases and worth roughly $20 million.
"But when -- when you talk about the jewelry collection, you know, I have jewelry. I don't think that's what you're talking about," Spencer remarked.
"No. No," Ann laughed. "No. In no way, shape, or form."
Investigators didn't see it as a jewelry collection either. To them it looked a lot more like a smuggling operation.
"Do you think ... that when the police got here they find all these amazing jewels ... do you think that it prejudiced them?" Spencer asked Ann.
"So what?" she replied. "Strange doesn't mean that you're a criminal."
Ann says the gems were merely a hobby and an investment, and says she did her best to cooperate that night.
"I was falling to pieces," she said, her voice breaking.
Within hours of John's death, after calling her family and Juan de Dios Alvarez, the trustee of Boracayan, Ann was rushed to the hospital. She was emaciated and covered with sores from John's injections.
"I went into some sort of shock mode," she said. "My understanding is they were giving me a 40-percent chance of survival for the first two weeks."
Ann's psychiatrist, Dr. Carlos Lizano, who she authorized to speak with "48 Hours," met her in intensive care just hours later. He described her condition at the time as "Terrible. ... Dehydrated ... extremely thin."
Asked if Ann was in touch with reality, Dr. Lizano said she was "in and out."
"Do you think she was even physically capable of doing what the prosecution alleged?" Spencer asked.
"No," Lizano replied. "Ann could not even hold a fork when she was here."
Ann Bender would remain hospitalized for seven months under Lizano's care and under a growing cloud of suspicion.
"They were beginning to say, 'This doesn't look like an accident. This doesn't look like a suicide. This looks a lot like a murder.' And they began looking at her as a suspect," said Zeman.
"Did you for one second, until it actually happened, think that you were gonna be charged?" Spencer asked Ann.
"No," she replied.
EXAMINING THE FORENSICS
The Bender's friend, Paul Meyer, visited Ann in the hospital just days after her arrival. She weighed 84 pounds.
"She literally looked like someone who had just walked out of a concentration camp," he said.
Sick or not, Ann Bender was already investigators' number one murder suspect. Police confiscated her clothes and her computer. But it's unclear if they examined John's messages or ever saw these chilling excerpts, dated just weeks before he died:
"I wish I were f----ing dead. I feel so f---ing horrible. I want to kill everyone and then myself."
The messages were a window, Ann said, on a tormented soul.
"John was the most loving, generous person I ever met but also the most tortured person I ever met," she said. "He had been wanting to kill himself for weeks."
Ann said the lawyers Bender trustee Juan de Dios Alvarez hired for her should have used John's messages in her defense. They wouldn't comment on strategy.
"They never manifested that I was innocent," said Ann.
"So their position was, 'Oh yeah...she did do this," Spencer noted.
"By not doing anything ... they were making it inevitable that I would be charged," said Ann.
Nineteen months after John Bender died, Ann was officially charged with murder. Convinced the gems had been smuggled into the country, authorities later also charged her with possessing contraband.
She is sure it's all just what Alvarez wanted. Why? To hide the fact, she claims, that he had siphoned money from the $70 million Bender trust.
"I'm the only person that can stop him ... or bring scrutiny to what he's done," said Ann.
In July 2012, with murder charges hanging over her head, Ann took Alvarez to court for fraud. The suit claimed Alvarez used the Bender trust as his personal piggy bank, buying horses for his horse farm and paying his credit card bills. Authorities raided his office and confiscated 135 boxes of documents. The court then removed Alvarez as trustee.
"The investigation is still going today," Alvarez told "48 Hours." "Prosecutors haven't interviewed me ... At the end of the day, this investigation will go nowhere because the accusations are bogus."
But whatever Juan Alvarez did or did not do, he did not shoot John Bender and prosecutors see Ann's lawsuit as an attempt to distract them from their firm belief that she did.
"They just didn't see how that gunshot could have been in that part of his head by suicide," said Zeman.
Was this suicide, or an accident or murder?
The forensic evidence is so vital in this case, "48 Hours" brought in outside experts to Boracayan and asked them to take a look at it.
In the rarified world of forensic science, Selma and Richard Eikelenboom are internationally recognized experts. From the start, they say, some Costa Rican authorities had a preconceived idea that this was murder.
"The pathology report is very straight from the beginning, 'This is a homicide... This is a homicide and let's prove it's a homicide,'" said Selma Eikelenboom.
"He does look like he's sleeping," Spencer noted.
"A lot of people who die with their eyes closed look like they're sleeping and they might have been wide awake when it happened," Selma replied.
"The prosecutor said, 'If you're going to shoot yourself ... Everyone knows it's here or it's here or it's here," Spencer said, pointing to her mouth, under her chin and her temple.
"Well ... that's completely unscientific," Selma replied. "If that's an example of the logic they used in this case, then I'm really very worried..."
The Eikelenbooms cite other monumental mistakes: not immediately testing for gun powder residue, not fingerprinting the gun, not testing the sheets for blood spatter.
"What is the most vital thing that they missed?" Spencer asked.
"I think the trajectory ... that you can place the shooter on the scene in relation to the victim," said Selma.
The Eikelenbooms told "48 Hours" the trajectory -- the path the bullet followed -- was critical to understanding where the gun was when it was fired and if Ann or John fired it.
"Looking at this investigation, how would you grade it?" Spencer asked Richard Eikelenboom.
"Very poor," he replied.
In January 2013, Ann Bender went on trial for murder before a three-judge panel. Costa Rica has no jury system. Prosecutors argued that the evidence from the body, the bullet casing, the entry wound, bloodstains and pillowcase all made it impossible that this was anything but murder.
"Once you see the forensic photographs of John lying on his back with his arms down and you see the blood trails ... And you see the bullet hole in the back of his head. It's hard not to at least stop and think wait ... how could he have done that himself?" said Zeman.
Defense experts were just as insistent on their suicide theory. Ann's psychiatrist, Dr. Carlos Lizano, testified about the Benders' ongoing mental health struggles, describing a syndrome called folie à deux -- when two mentally ill people reinforce one another's illness.
"She was out of her mind. And he was out of his mind," Lizano explained.
"And it's just getting worse and worse and worse?" Spencer asked.
"Yeah, yeah ... there must've been a folie à deux going on for ... three months before John's death," said Lizano.
In court, Paul Meyer, the Bender's neighbor, put a different slant on it.
"What you have here is a genius who's losing his mind," he told "48 Hours." "And I think, in a moment of sanity really, he took his life so that he didn't start killing the people he loved around him."
After a week-long trial, the judges decided they could not rule out suicide. Ann Bender was acquitted of murder ... but not for long.
SEARCHING FOR THE TRUTH
After her acquittal on murder charges, Ann Bender hoped for a new start. She got an apartment in the capital, San Jose and began dating her now-boyfriend Greg Fischer. When the trust stopped paying her bills, friends and family helped.
Ann said not once did she even consider leaving Costa Rica. "That was the last thing I was thinking about..."
Perhaps it should have been the first, because the prosecution decided to charge Ann Bender with John Bender's murder a second time.
"She has never not done what this court system has asked her to do. Never not done what this government has asked her to do," Fischer told "48 Hours."
"I know what I have to do... I'm telling the truth. I have all the confidence in the world that things will turn out the way they're supposed to be," Ann told "48 Hours."
It may seem odd to Americans, but in Costa Rica there's no double jeopardy rule. So if a prosecutor doesn't like a verdict, he can appeal. And if he wins, can try the defendant all over again with the same charges with the same evidence and the same witnesses.
A new panel of judges will hear the case.
And prosecutors began by telling them John was sleeping when Ann decided to take his life.
Ann's attorney, Fabio Oconitrillo, told the court there's just no motive here.
"In all homicides there's a reason. In this case there is no reason," he told "48 Hours."
And in a risky move, Oconitrillo decided there's nobody better able to make that point than Ann Bender herself.
Costa Rican law allows her to speak whenever she wants -- for as long as she wants -- without facing any questions.
"I was so happy here when we moved here," she tearfully told the court.
Ann stayed on the stand all day. "John and I used to talk about how we felt we were destined to meet," she continued.
She described the dream she and John shared, the jobs the preserve would create ... the species it would protect...the fight they had waged to keep it all alive and the accident that ended their dream forever.
"He was talking about suicide every day for at least four weeks," Ann continued in court. "It was an issue of getting through every day."
"You seem to be saying that there was no way to prevent him from attempting suicide" Spencer noted to Ann.
"I tried my hardest," she replied.
"I'm not saying no way for you - there was no avenue open, period. This was destined to be," Spencer said.
"No," Ann said. "He wanted to die."
"That evening I had no indication of what was going to happen," Ann told the court. "...after the shot, I don't remember exactly what happened."
Security guard Oswaldo Aguilar described the scene, but he also raises questions about one of the prosecutor's key assumptions.
"The main point of the evidence for the prosecution was John was left-handed. The bullet wound is behind the right side of his head. You're lying in bed. How does a suicidal man possibly end up shooting himself like this," said Ned Zeman.
Aguilar told the court Bender may have been a lefty, but he always carried his gun on the right side. For Zeman, the possibility that John was ambidexterous is an eye opener.
"So it's conceivable that he could have done this," Zeman demonstrated, pointing behind his right ear with his right hand.
But testifying for the prosecution, Forensic Pathologist Gretchen Flores doesn't care if John Bender was right or left-handed. She insists suicide is inconceivable. She said another person would have to fire the weapon.
Her conclusion from the blood evidence and the position of the body: John Bender never saw the shot coming.
At Boracayan, independent forensics experts Richard and Selma Eikelenboom tested that idea -- that John's body never moved.
"It would explain the blood we found over here... but doesn't explain the blood over there," said Richard Eikelenboom, pointing to different areas of the bed.
In their view, it had to have moved for the blood to have pooled as it did on both sides of his body.
"So his head was completely different ," Richard said. "This was the position of his head when he was shot," turning the mannequin head face down. "The blood pattern analysis supports the hypothesis that there was some sort of fight," said Selma.
Back in court, Ann tearfully testified: "I lunged forward towards him with my hands. I fell towards the center of the bed ... and the gun went off."
But in an interview with "48 Hours," Selma Eikelenboom said, "The hypothesis that he was shot in the position he was found is not supported by this evidence.
Also unlikely, the Eikelenbooms say, is the prosecutor's theory that Ann shot her husband from behind the bed.
"This trajectory is not very likely," said Selma.
And they showed "48 Hours" why they think the odd location of the spent cartridge -- such damning proof according to the prosecution -- really proves nothing at all.
"The casing can end up in that position if the gun is twisted far enough around?" Spencer asked.
"Correct," Richard said. "And what we see very often on crime scenes is that somebody kicks a shell casing and then, of course, it ends up, you don't know. You cannot relate it to the crime."
Even John Bender's own parents told "48 Hours" they think there was no crime. They weren't at the trial, but Ann's supporters and her brother, Ken Patton, make the point for them in court.
"There is no chance she murdered her husband," Patton testified.
"If I thought Ann had anything to do with this, in any way, shape or form, I wouldn't be here," friend John Delisi told the court.
Whose version is the truth? For Ned Zeman it's far from clear.
"So you can see a scenario ... where it's an accident ... or it's suicide ... and where it might be murder?" Spencer asked Zeman. "You can see all of these?"
"Yes," he replied. "Yes, I absolutely can and I think anybody who sat in that courtroom would probably say the same thing except for maybe Ann and her attorney, because any of those make sense."
Perhaps concerned the judges also might find reasonable doubt, Prosecutor Edgar Ramirez played his trump card: a forensics expert named Donald Montero. The defense hired him for the first trial, but he never testified.
Ann's lawyer furiously objects now that this witness is tainted. Why? Because of who paid his original fee, then-Bender trustee Juan de Dios Alvarez -- the same man Ann claims could profit if she were convicted.
But Montero does testify, and it's clear why the defense was worried.
"I can't imagine a suicidal person shooting themselves like this," he said. "I rule out a suicide."
In his closing, Prosecutor Ramirez insists this case is straightforward -- Ann Bender shot her husband.
Defense attorney Oconotrillo pleads for reason, saying Ann is not an assassin.
Facing a possible 25 years in prison, Ann herself has the last word.
"I did not kill John..." she sobbed in the courtroom.
"I know what I remember. I know I did not bring that gun to bed. I did not shoot my husband," Ann Bender told "48 Hours."
After four years and two trials, there's perhaps no way Ann can prepare herself for the verdict: guilty of murder.
Her friends and family sit stunned. Ann was sentenced immediately to 22 years in prison and led away.
"It's like a ton of bricks ... so it's tough ... my worst fears came true," said neighbor Paul Meyer.
Ann's boyfriend, Greg Fischer, is frantic about her fragile health.
"I don't think she is gonna live," he said. "I don't think she's gonna survive."
In fact, no sooner than she is behind closed doors, Ann reportedly faints. She was rushed to the hospital where she spends 10 days on suicide watch.
"The hardest thing for us right now is just to focus on getting her stabilized because I think this verdict is so unexpected, so harsh," said the Benders' friend, Pete Delisi.
"To me, this wreaks of corruption," said Fischer.
Juan de Dios Alvarez, the man Ann considers her archenemy, has an entirely different view. Though he insisted he has no ax to grind and no financial interest, he thinks this time the court got it right.
"... based on what the tribunal found," he said, "she killed him."
Alvarez continues to insist that when he was trustee he always acted in Ann's best interest. "We paid for Ann's hospitalization," he said, "for doctors, lawyers, trips for her parents." After removing Alvarez as trustee in 2013, the Costa Rican authorities continued their investigation.
The Eikelenboom's forensic review did turn up disquieting questions about Ann's story. For someone lying next to a person who shot himself as she claimed, she had very little blood on her. And the tear on that pillowcase looked a lot like the one Richard Eikelenboom made in his experiment firing a gun across a pillow from close range.
"Does this confirm or dispute Ann's story?" Spencer asked.
"This could be against Ann's story," Richard replied.
But overall, the Eikelenbooms told "48 Hours," their experiments support Ann's story far more than they do the prosecution's version, especially when they recreated those few deadly seconds at Boracayan.
They showed "48 Hours" how a struggle could have happened, how Ann's efforts to get the gun could make it fire and how John's body then might have moved.
"Looking at the facts we have here, the scenario of the prosecution is wrong," said Richard.
"I'm pretty convinced that it was an accident," said Selma.
"I tend also to more that it's an accident than this was a homicide," said Richard.
It's no comfort to Ann Bender, who continued to protest her innocence from prison.
"I'm still surviving and I refuse to give up. This won't be what pushes me over the edge," she told Spencer.
"She's a fighter," said her brother, Ken Patton. "My sister's not gonna give up. ...And I'm behind her every step of the way."
Ann appealed the verdict. Her lawyer is working pro bono. She said the Bender fortune is in limbo -- the second trustee didn't pay her bills or release any money for the nature preserve.
"What matters at the end of the day is what John wanted being allowed to happen," she said.
A few devoted staff are working without pay to keep the jungle from engulfing Boracayan. Once the site of dreams, the home is now a silent witness to whatever really happened the night John Bender died.
Last February, nine months after Ann Bender was convicted of murdering her husband, an appeals court overturned that decision. Their finding: the prosecution's evidence was insufficient proof of murder.
Ann was released from prison. She told "48 Hours" she barely survived her time behind bars. But her ordeal is not over yet. The court ordered a third trial.
Sadly, her boyfriend who had fought so hard to bring attention to her case died of natural causes while she in was in prison.
Ann Bender must remain in Costa Rica pending her next trial, which is scheduled to start in August.
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