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Did a former ballerina accused of murder shoot her husband in self-defense?

The Black Swan Murder?
The Black Swan Murder? 42:54

On a night in September 2020, Ashley Benefield walked to her neighbor's house and said she shot her husband Doug Benefield in self-defense. But was it?

The former ballerina and bikini model was, some say, similar to the devious character in the theatrical film "Black Swan." Ashley and Doug Benefield knew each other for just 13 days before they got married. She was 24; he was 54 and a widower. Four years later it ended with one of them dead and the other charged with second-degree murder.

"To Doug … Ashley's this innocent, pure White Swan," says Stephanie Murphy, Doug Benefield's family attorney. "But underneath those white feathers… she's an evil woman. …She's the Black Swan."

"Since 'Black Swan' came out, I think that's a lot of people's only window into ballet, which sucks," says dancer Athena Nikolakopulos." But this certainly does parlay into that narrative."

Over the time the Benefields were married, there were strained relationships, allegations of abuse, a failed ballet company for unconventional dancers, and the stories of family members left behind trying to make sense of it all in the wake of deadly gunshots.

Ashley Benefield maintains her innocence and is awaiting trial. She has pleaded not guilty.

A WHIRLWIND ROMANCE

Jim Axelrod: Do you remember your last conversation with your dad?

Eva Benefield: … He tried to call me … but I didn't pick up because I was at work … I said I'll call you later … I never called him. 'Cause I assumed everything would be all right. I'd get a Bible verse next morning and I'll call him, and everything would be OK.

Eva Benefield got a Bible verse by text every morning from her father Doug. It was their daily ritual but on September 28, 2020, that Bible verse never came — a sign that everything was not OK.

Eva Benefield: I was … freaking out and I — I spammed him with text messages. I called him.

Out of desperation, she began Googling the names "Doug and Ashley Benefield" and "accident with Florida man." Later that day, Eva called an uncle who had texted her.

Eva Benefield: And I said, "What's wrong with my dad?" And he said, "There's been an accident." And I said, "She killed him, didn't she?" And he said, "Yeah, she shot him twice."

Jim Axelrod: Hang on, those were the first words outta your mouth? Where was that coming from?

Eva Benefield: I just had a gut feeling.

Doug and Ashley Benefield
Ashley Byers, 24, met Doug Benefield , 54, at a dinner in Florida in August 2016 and sparks flew immediately. The couple married 13 days later, in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. Tommie Benefield

Eva's gut feeling came from watching her father and his much younger second wife Ashley argue frequently during their four-year, see-saw marriage. The fighting had now exploded into heartbreak for Eva.

Eva Benefield: I drove a couple blocks down the road to my friend's house and they saw that I was crying … And they said, "What's wrong?" And I said, "Ashley killed my dad."

It was a tragic end to a relationship that began at a dinner in Florida back in August of 2016.  Doug met Ashley and felt like he'd been struck by a thunderbolt.

Alice Robb: …he just — immediately thought Ashley was the most beautiful, the most amazing person in the world.

Writer Alice Robb wrote a piece about the Benefields for the November issue of Vanity Fair. Doug was from Charleston, South Carolina – a consultant who worked with technology companies and defense contractors. The two had bonded over conservative values and guns. 

Stephanie Murphy: The night that she met Doug for the first time … she had guns on her person, in her purse, in her bra.

Stephanie Murphy, Doug's family attorney, says that when Ashley first met Doug, she was working in the Sarasota campaign office of Donald Trump. Her job was to help galvanize the Evangelical vote and work the rallies.

Stephanie Murphy: …you can see video of her on the internet where she's … throwing things into the crowd, getting people really excited …

According to Ashley's journal, she was traveling on Trump's plane when Trump showered her with compliments. As she wrote: "He called me a 'bombshell'…'his little girl' and 'his baby.'"

Aside from her work in politics, Ashley had also been a fledgling swimsuit model and a dancer with the Maryland Youth Ballet, where she was sometimes a featured performer.

Alice Robb: I've seen … videos of her dancing; she was definitely — a good, well-trained dancer.

Days after they met, Doug left the country on a short business trip and, by the time his plane was landing back in the United States, the heart emojis were flying fast and furious. 

Alice Robb
: … they were saying "I love you" to each other within, I think, a week or so.

Doug was deeply religious, and his friends believe he wanted to marry Ashley before he was intimate with her. 

Jim Axelrod: What did he say to you?

Trip Cormeny: "Will you marry us?"

Trip Cormeny was one of Doug's closest friends and happened to be an ordained Episcopal pastor at the time. Just 13 days had passed since the couple had met. Trip wasn't thrilled but agreed to perform the ceremony.

Trip Cormeny: I was being loyal to my friend.

Doug invited almost no one to the wedding, not even his teenage daughter. 

Jim Axelrod: He loves this girl, his 15-year-old daughter … he goes and gets married and doesn't even tell her.

Tommie Benefield: Yeah.

Tommie Benefield is Doug's cousin.

Tommie Benefield: It's bewildering … I would've talked him out of it. Eva certainly would've talked him out of it.

Doug, Renee and Eva Benefield
Doug didn't tell Eva, his 15-year-old daughter from his previous marriage,  that he and Ashley had married. Eva's mother Renee had died of an undiagnosed heart ailment nine months earlier. Facebook/Renee Benefield

Eva was stunned – still dealing with an unspeakable trauma.  Nine months earlier, Eva's mother – and Doug's wife… 56-year-old Renee Benefield had died. Eva had discovered her mother's body.  

Eva Benefield: I couldn't get in through the front door. And she wasn't answering the doorbell or the knock. So, I crawled through these bushes … The blinds were open … the lights weren't on or anything. And then I could kinda see her silhouette, so I went to the door and to my neighbor.

The neighbor kicked in the door.  There Renee was – dead from an undiagnosed heart ailment.  In the aftermath… Doug was right there for his daughter.  

Eva Benefield: … after my mom died, he really took, kind of, a motherly role along with a fatherly role.

Jim Axelrod: Wow.

Eva Benefield: He made sure … I could go to him with boy problems, with school drama, with anything. And he would take care of it …

But nine months later, Eva discovered Doug had a new woman in his life.

Eva Benefield: I was upstairs, and he said, "Eva, we — you need to come down and talk to me and Ashley." … and I said, "… the only thing that you would need to tell me about y'all's relationship is if y'all — if you proposed." And as soon as those words came outta my mouth he said, "We're married."

Jim Axelrod: That's a lot.

Eva Benefield: It is a lot.

Doug encouraged Ashley to try and mother a reluctant Eva who was only 9 years younger.

Eva Benefield: He basically told her that I needed somebody … I needed a motherly role in my life. And I didn't think that I needed that.

The situation became even more complicated when Doug and Ashley allowed Eva's friend Sydney to move into the house. Two teenage girls and a new young wife were a combustible combination and during one heated argument with Ashley, Doug cracked. 

Stephanie Murphy: And in a terrible m — moment … he discharged the gun into the ceiling of his house.

His best friend Trip Cormeny says that Doug was filled with regret.

Trip Cormeny: In his words he said, "I did the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life."

But that did not end the relationship. Just the opposite. Two days after the gun incident, Doug and Ashley threw themselves a formal wedding reception complete with guests this time.

 The newlyweds also forged ahead with Ashley's grand plan to create an inclusive ballet company. 

Stephanie Murphy: The idea of it was really great.

But implementing it was something else entirely. 

Stephanie Murphy: And so, when it didn't go her way, she was just gonna destroy it. 

CHAOS AND CONFUSION

Eva Benefield: Once Ashley started causing trouble and stress, that's when he started to realize how I was feeling. … He promised me that things — things were going to be OK eventually.  

Ashley Benefield
Ashley, a dancer once with the Maryland Youth Ballet, wanted to create an inclusive ballet company. Doug wanted to make Ashley happy, friends say, and he was determined to make her dream a reality. Jim Chatwin

Even though there was a growing tension at home between Ashley and Eva, Doug went ahead with helping Ashley follow her dream: establishing a ballet company in Charleston with a unique mission.

Michael Wise: Being more inclusive, having dancers of every shade, color, body type. Things — those are all things that I'm a big believer in.

Ashley and Doug hired Ballet Master Michael Wise to train the dancers.  They talked a big game about big money he says: $10 million they promised they'd secured from backers and boldly named their new company the American National Ballet, or ANB.

Jim Axelrod: When you first met Doug, what kind of guy did he strike you as?

Michael Wise:  Kind, a very serious businessman, and had a very methodical approach to a lot of what he did.

Jim Axelrod: Did he know anything about ballet?

Michael Wise: No. … And he was very open about that … I was supposed to be working with Ashley to get her to understand how a company should be run.

Jim Axelrod: What was your first impression of Ashley?

Michael Wise: Young. … Ambitious … we were all hoping that she would rise to the occasion.

Benefield ballet studio
The American National Ballet in Charleston would be a more inclusive home to dancers who were considered unconventional.  Doug Benefield

In the summer of 2017, Ashley and Doug were there as ANB held auditions.

Emmana Hemsley: I definitely thought that it was something that I wanted to be a part of.

Dancer Emmana Hemsley hoped ANB would be her chance to prove herself.  

Emmana Hemsley: Being a Black female dancer … it's so challenging to audition for other companies where you don't fit the mold exactly … So, I thought this would be a great fit for me.

Athena Nikolakopulos: If you're in the ballet community, you know there's a lot of crap that needs to change.

Athena Nikolakopulos interviewed with Ashley and loved what she heard about her vision.

Athena Nikolakopulos: It sounded like she was genuinely excited to get this new company going and that they were going to try and do things a little bit differently. 

Michael Wise: The majority of her dancers were individuals that were very much like her, had the drive, had the want, but hadn't necessarily been given an opportunity.

Dancer after dancer proudly posted to social media they'd joined the ANB family. But that wasn't the only family Ashley had in mind.

Stephanie Murphy: On top of starting a ballet company, Ashley also wanted to get pregnant.

And in the midst of putting together the ballet company, that's exactly what happened.

Jim Axelrod: How did that sit with you?

Eva Benefield: It didn't sit well at all … so this kinda felt like another stab in the back … there was a lotta stress. … 'Cause now they basically have two teenage daughters and a little girl on the way.

At the end of the summer in 2017, some 40 dancers from all over the world began arriving in Charleston to work with Ashley.  From the first meeting they realized what they'd been promised at ANB… wasn't what they'd be getting.

Athena Nikolakopulos: We get there and we're like, 'where is she?' And Doug announces that she is bedridden with a really difficult pregnancy and she wasn't going to be there for the first however many months.

Michael Wise: It was explained to me that they were going to be developing this state-of-the-art facility in downtown Charleston. … day one, when we're ready to start up, they were like, "Can we use your facility?"

Athena Nikolakopulos: … each day … something would happen — that just made us feel even more unsettled. 

The shoes kept dropping.

Athena Nikolakopulos: The company typically pays for the dancers' pointe shoes. … I remember one day we came in and they're like, yeah, unfortunately, we have to … half your allotment of shoes.

Jim Axelrod: This sounds like a professional baseball team not supplying their players with bats

Athena Nikolakopulos: Yeah. That's -- that's exactly what it is.

On top of all this chaos and confusion, the dancers were having trouble getting paid. Their checks were often late if they arrived at all. Doug was scrambling to meet the company's obligations.

Emmana Hemsley: We would ask him, "Hey, where's the money for our shoes? Or our paychecks?" And he would go to the bank and just pull out cash and give people cash.

Jim Axelrod: Paying you out of his own pocket in cash is not the kind of thing that's going to inspire confidence

Athena Nikolakopulos: No. No. Confidence had gone a long time at this point, that was very long gone … we really thought … we're like well, when Ashley comes back, like, that might be what fixes all of this.

Ashley Benefield
While they were building the ballet company, Ashley became pregnant. She began to suffer from nausea and returned to Florida so her mother could take care of her. Jim Chatwin

But Ashley wasn't coming back. At the end of August, citing her difficult pregnancy, Ashley went back to Florida to live with her mother, while Doug tried to make the ballet work in Charleston.

Jim Axelrod: What did you make of that?

Eva Benefield: I was just kinda like, "OK, I mean, that means I get more alone time with my dad to hang out."

Athena Nikolakopulos: We had a decent amount of sympathy for him, too. We're like, geez, you got sucked into this whole thing. And, poor thing, he doesn't really know what he's doing. He's tryin' to be there for us as much as he can.

The rumblings about trouble in the Benefield's marriage grew louder.

Emmana Hemsley: It seemed like it was something that was going to crash and burn very shortly.

Very shortly. In September, while Doug was at an event for the ballet, Ashley and her mother drove from Florida to the house in Charleston and dropped a bombshell: the marriage was over

Stephanie Murphy: She came to Charleston … and packed up her things and then left Doug this scathing note about all the reasons why she didn't wanna be with him anymore.

In the note, Ashley called him "possessive" and "controlling." She wrote the incident when he'd fired a gun into the ceiling as well as other unsafe behavior had left her "fearful for her life and the safety of her unborn child." 

benefield-08.jpg
In September 2017, Ashley and her mother returned to Charleston. She packed up her belongings and left a scathing note. Ashley called Doug "possessive" and "controlling." She wrote that the incident when Doug had fired a gun into the ceiling as well as other unsafe behavior had left her fearful for her life and the safety of her unborn child.  State's Attorney's Office

Eva Benefield: I could see the look in his face when he read it. … I could just tell his heart was broken.

But Ashley's note was just the beginning.

Stephanie Murphy: He had this family that he thought was going to be perfect and happy and faithful, and it fell apart in the most spectacular way.

It wasn't long before the relationship would become truly toxic.

Stephanie Murphy: She thought Doug may have poisoned her.

POISONING ALLEGATIONS

Alice Robb: This is a pretty long letter. … She says at the end, "do not harass or try to follow me or I will call the police." … She does not seem like someone who's open to getting back together.

Ashley's scathing note to Doug left little doubt about her feelings.

Stephanie Murphy: I really think that Ashley thought that that was gonna be it. … just pack up her stuff, leave a note, and it was gonna be over …

But Doug wasn't ready to give up. He sent Ashley text after text, begging her to reconsider.  One of them read: "I am on my knees and face before God asking you to forgive me."

But Ashley was not in a forgiving in mood. She decided to call the authorities on Doug.

Eva Benefield: Cops showed up at my house after she left my dad and he wasn't home. I had to answer the door. … she got Child Protective Services involved from Florida. I hadn't even seen her in months.

Ashley told police that Doug had anger issues and all about the day he fired his gun inside the house. Investigators interviewed Eva.

Eva Benefield: I was constantly having people come up to my door and questioning if my dad was a good dad. And it just made me so angry because he was. And I just kept having to repeat myself. "My dad is a good dad. He's never done anything to hurt anyone. He wouldn't hurt anyone."

Doug was subjected to a CPS investigation, but ultimately was cleared.

Trip Cormeny: He'd been evaluated by a … psychologist … a full psych evaluation, who said, "There's nothin' wrong with this guy. … He's not dangerous."

Doug was struggling on another front, overwhelmed by handling the ballet company.

Michael Wise: By mid-October … we were notified that Ashley was stepping down.

Jim Axelrod: Did she jump or was she pushed?

Michael Wise: Pushed.

Jim Axelrod: Why?

Michael Wise: Because there needed to be leadership and Ashley was not being a leader.

Wise was in the room when Doug got a call from Ashley, who was more than a little upset. 

Michael Wise: The phone rang. He picks it up. And you hear Ashley screaming, "You took my ballet company away from me." 

With Ashley gone, Doug brought in new leaders, who made drastic changes.  On October 23, 2017, a group of dancers were called into a meeting, told to sign non-disclosure agreements... and fired. Emmana Hemsley was one of them.

Jim Axelrod: And Doug was of no help here? 

Emmana Hemsley: No. … Doug was...yeah, nowhere to be found that day.   

Just like that, half of the company's dancers were gone. Two days later, Ashley posted on the ballet's social media pages: "I am completely devastated by what has been done."  And "The new leadership has destroyed all that we worked so hard to build." 

benefield-09.jpg
In October, Ashley left the ballet company and new leadership fired half of the dancers. Ashley posted on the ballet's social media pages that she was devastated, and that the new leadership destroyed all that they worked so hard to build.

Athena Nikolakopulos: What happened hurt. It helped to know that … someone was on our side there and that, you know, this was never the intention.

It seemed like a beautiful idea had gone up in smoke. Within months, the American National Ballet was done.  Doug was out more than $100,000.  His ballet nightmare was over, but his friends say a new one was just beginning. Ashley now had questions about Doug's first wife, Eva's mother, Renee, and how she died.  Ashley texted Doug:

ASHLEY: "Wait what did she die of again?'

Doug told her that Renee had a 75% artery blockage.

ASHLEY: "I thought I have heard you say something about medications or something…? Like bad drugs …?"

Tommie Benefield: I've read the autopsy report. It's clear. Died of a heart attack, essentially.

It soon became clear why Ashley was so interested in how Renee died. She told Doug's cousin Tommie she thought Doug had poisoned Renee. 

Jim Axelrod: What was your reaction? You must've been, like, "What?"

Tommie Benefield: It — it's out of left field. I'm — I'm really confused by that. 

Trip Cormeny: It's just preposterous that he would've harmed Renee … He was in love with her.

The local police say they closed the case in 2016 after they got the coroner's report. But Ashley talked to writer Alice Robb, shared her theory about Renee, and made another shocking allegation.

Alice Robb: She said that, you know, as a dancer she'd always known her body well, and that … she really felt like she — was even more nauseous than she would've expected as a pregnant woman. … And she said that … she had been — poisoned.

Stephanie Murphy: Ashley believed that Doug has been poisoning her while she was pregnant with their daughter. They were both big tea fans … and she hearkened back to the times that Doug was bringing her tea in bed. Because she didn't want to get out of bed. 

Doug, still hoping for a reconciliation and apparently having no idea about Ashley's suspicions, sent her a birthday gift at the end of November 2017. 

Stephanie Murphy: He had purchased a lovely teapot and teacups and saucers and this specialty tea … that was supposed to be for pregnant women.

Doug and Ashley Benefield
Ashley unleashed a number of accusations against Doug. Among them, she claimed he was poisoning her with tea  while she was pregnant. Her claims were investigated but nothing was found to substantiate the charges. Tommie Benefield

The gift fed Ashley's growing concerns about Doug. 

Tommie Benefield: She … takes it to the police department … as hazardous materials and claims that it's how he's poisoning her.

Jim Axelrod: What do the police make of that?

Tommie Benefield: They treat it as hazardous materials that day. They test it and prove out … it's not any poisonous materials.

Ashley also sent her hair to an independent lab for testing to determine if she'd been poisoned. The report said her hair showed higher than normal levels of aluminum, zinc, and other metals. But Doug's lawyer disputes those findings.

Stephanie Murphy: She had gotten plenty of lab work done because she was pregnant. … Her medical records in South Carolina … her labs all came back normal.

Three weeks before her due date, without Doug knowing, Ashley checked herself into the hospital.

Alice Robb: I don't think she was poisoned, but that doesn't mean she doesn't think she was poisoned.

Stephanie Murphy: She was at Tampa General Hospital … claiming … the child had been exposed to heavy metals in utero because her husband had poisoned her.

Ashley also claimed, without any proof, that Doug was physically abusive and had held her prisoner back in Charleston. And even though Doug was hundreds of miles away, she said he had been stalking her in Florida. 

Stephanie Murphy: I don't think Ashley was ever sincerely afraid of Doug.

With no way to know if what Ashley told them was true, the hospital took precautions for her safety and assigned her a new name – Christina. Three days later, doctors performed a C-section. The baby girl was healthy. But Ashley continued to worry her baby had been poisoned.

Robert Cederoth: Both Ashley and her daughter were here every single day, receiving treatments.

NEW ACCUSATIONS

The news that Ashley had given birth to a healthy baby girl in March 2018 took more than a month to reach Doug, says his lawyer Stephanie Murphy.

Stephanie Murphy: The baby was born about three weeks early. Doug had no idea … she had named the child something completely different than they had ever discussed.

The child did not have Doug's last name and Doug was not listed as the father on the original birth certificate. No one was.

Stephanie Murphy: Ashley wanted to raise her daughter with her mother, alone … she didn't want to co-parent.

And she kept pursing her accusation that Doug had killed Renee. Eva says that, at one point, Ashley and her mother Alicia even pulled Eva aside.

Jim Axelrod: And they suggest to you that your father had a part in your mother's death?

Eva Benefield: Right.

Jim Axelrod: What exactly did they say to you?

Eva Benefield
Eva Benefield says  at one point, Ashley and her mother even pulled Eva aside to suggest Doug had a part in her mother's death. CBS News

Eva Benefield: They said … "We're concerned about your safety … Your dad's a bad guy. He does bad things …" …I just told them to get away from me.

But mother and daughter did not go away. Months later, Eva says they renewed their accusations.

Jim Axelrod: And what did they say that time?

Eva Benefield:  "Your dad poisoned your mom."

Jim Axelrod: How'd you react to that?

Eva Benefield: I said, "No, he didn't. I was there … I found my mom and that caused a lot of emotional trauma … My dad wouldn't do that. He loved my mom.

Jim Axelrod: I wanna be clear about something … Was Doug ever charged with any crime?

Tommie Benefield: No, sir … none of the allegations were true … he never ever did anything that she said he did.

Ashley did not respond to "48 Hours"' request for an interview, but she appeared convinced that she and her 3-month-old baby had been poisoned. In her search for help, Ashley signed them up for 26 consecutive days of treatment in a hyperbaric chamber.

Robert Cederoth: It can detox the body of heavy metals and other toxins …

Safety Director Robert Cederoth says Ashley and her daughter spent 40 hours in the 12-person chamber that looks more nautical than medical.

Robert Cederoth: We call them dives because it's — we're almost simulating diving, like when the divers go down …

Ashley's daughter was the youngest patient ever treated here. Adults wear a plastic hood while inside the chamber, but with a baby, things got a bit tricky.

Robert Cederoth: [demonstrates] Ashley's daughter was really small, you know, at that time … So, we ended up taking this — ring and we put it around her waist. It was like — she was like a little ballerina … and so half of her body was actually inside of the hood.

In the summer of 2018, the poisoning allegations came to a head when the Benefields squared off in a Bradenton, Florida, courtroom. Doug wanted to see his daughter and Ashley was requesting an injunction to keep him far away.  An audio recording was made of the proceeding.

Here, Stephanie Murphy questions Ashley about the state of her pregnancy:

COURT AUDIO |SEPTEMBER 17, 2018

STEPHANIE MURPHY: You also told Lakewood Ranch OBGYN that, um, the pregnancy had been uncomplicated, correct?

ASHLEY BENEFIELD: Is there a page you'd like me to reference?

STEPHANIE MURPHY: I'm just asking you. Is that what you told them?

ASHLEY BENEFIELD: I wouldn't say it was uncomplicated.  My entire life has been complicated for about two years.

STEPHANIE MURPHY:  OK … the OB, wrote right in her report 'the pregnancy has been uncomplicated.' Was that inaccurate?

ASHLEY BENEFIELD: I'm not responsible for what the doctor or the nurse writes.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: OK.

STEPHANIE MURPHY: …you have accused your husband of poisoning you

ASHLEY BENEFIELD:  Yes … it is heartbreaking that somebody you would trust would do something to you. 

But the judge was not persuaded by two days of testimony and the lab test results Ashley had submitted:

JUDGE DIANA MORELAND [Court audio]: There is not a single scintilla of credible evidence that Ms. Benefield has ever been poisoned or suffered from any illness of any poison. 

That ruling cleared the way for Doug to finally see his daughter. Days later, he and Ashley met outside the sheriff's office to exchange the baby. To Stephanie's surprise, Ashley was suddenly very accommodating.

Stephanie Murphy: She then immediately went right up to Doug, handed the baby over, nice as she could be, very cordial.

She even suggested that that the three of them — Doug, Ashley and the baby — spend time together.

Stephanie Murphy: … and Doug said, "OK, sure" because Doug wanted to make the transition as easy for his daughter as possible because to her, he was a stranger. … And I talked to Doug. I said, "OK. That's fine, of course. Please be careful."

Doug Benefield holding his infant daughter
Doug and Ashley began sharing custody of their daughter when she was 6 months old. Tommie Benefield

For the better part of the next year, Doug, Ashley and their daughter seemed happy, at least according to Doug. Doug even moved to a nearby apartment in Florida. 

Stephanie Murphy: Doug thought they were back together, that they were doing what they were supposed to do in the beginning, which was to slowly get to know each other — be a family … I thought everything was gonna be OK.

But, in August 2019, when he met Ashley to pick up his daughter, Doug was stunned to see an engagement ring on Ashley's finger.

Stephanie Murphy: Doug hired a private investigator to find out what was going on.

The private eye told Doug that Ashley was seeing another man and in November 2019, Doug filed for divorce. Soon after, Ashley began lodging complaints against Doug.

Stephanie Murphy: Ashley accused Doug of sexually abusing his daughter … she accused him of a whole litany of things.

Doug vehemently denied harming his daughter and authorities agreed there was no evidence. Doug then wrote an email in March 2020 to the sheriff's office accusing Ashley of having a "split personality."

But a few months later, Doug did something that seemed unthinkable. In a head-spinning move, he announced that he and Ashley were going to try again to be a family and were relocating to Maryland.    

Jim Axelrod: Tommie … I know we keep circling back to the same question, and I'm sorry it's just any viewer of this hour is going to also be asking. What did Doug need to see before he would say, "Time out. We're done"?

Tommie Benefield: …he is still believing he can rescue and save and have a marriage, a loving marriage …

Jim Axelrod: After somebody says you're sexually abusing your daughter, don't you cut and run? Don't you say I tried?

Trip Cormeny: Right.

Jim Axelrod:  I'm out.

Trip Cormeny: Right … Yes, most people do. But not Doug …

Tommie Benefield: …she's still presenting to him and to others that they're gonna put all this back together again.

Friends held their breath but hoped, for Doug's sake, that a miracle reunion was about to happen.  Trip says he knew better than to even try to talk Doug out of reconciling with Ashley.

Trip Cormeny: … there's nothing I can say that could possibly turn him around on this. He's gonna do this if it kills him.

SELF-DEFENSE OR MURDER?

Eva Benefield: He said that their relationship was going really well, and he was just excited for a fresh start. 

On September 27, 2020, Doug Benefield was preparing to begin his new life. He was moving with Ashley, their young daughter and Ashley's mother Alicia from Florida to Maryland.  

Stephanie Murphy: So, it's Sunday night and Doug is over at Ashley and Alicia's house … And Doug — is filling up the U-Haul … Alicia decides to take the baby for a walk down to the neighborhood park.

Ashley stayed behind with Doug. Soon after, a neighbor heard screams and called 911.  

911 CALL: I heard some - somebody screaming outside.

Then Ashley walked to a different neighbor's house, carrying her .45 caliber handgun. 

Tommie Benefield: She walks next door, gun in hand … tells the neighbor … "I shot Doug in self-defense." The neighbor calls 911.   

NEIGHBOR TO 911: [It was] right next door to me. She just came over. Her estranged husband attacked her, and she says she shot him].

Ashley can be heard sobbing in the background.

Stephanie Murphy: When the ambulance arrives, Doug was still breathing.

Police and EMT's assisted Doug who had been shot twice in his right leg and arm. Police noted that the bullet from his arm traveled into his chest cavity. Doug lived for an hour but died at nearby Doctors Hospital.   

Ashley was not arrested that night as detectives began investigating her claim of self-defense. But they'd have to do it without her.

Stephanie Murphy: … she didn't speak to detectives at all … as of today, she's never given any kind of statement to law enforcement.

But Ashley's mother Alicia told the detective that she and her daughter were victims of domestic abuse and had been living in fear of Doug for three-and-a-half years. She claimed that they had "tried to get help but no body [sic] would help them."

And Ashley's lawyer Faith Brown told the detective that Ashley was creating an escape plan to get away from Doug once and for all.

Brown told the detective: "Ashley was in danger, has a psychologist, two attorneys and a 'burner phone.' Ashley also had a safe location and a rental car set up."

"Ashley was expected to implement the plan" the very next day because, as Ashley's lawyer told a detective, "she was very concerned Doug was 'getting wind' of the plan."

But, as detectives investigated, Ashley's claim of self-defense became problematic. A detective noted that Doug had no guns or weapons "on his person or near him."

Stephanie Murphy: She shot an unarmed man … if it were self-defense, why wasn't there a mark on her body?

Ashley had only an "old and very minor" scratch on her body, police reported. 

And perhaps most troubling of all, the forensics determined that: "It does not appear that he was facing Ashley when she began shooting." Ashley has not revealed what happened in that moment.

More than a month after the shooting…in November of 2020…Ashley Benefield was charged with second degree murder.

Ashley Benefield booking photo
Ashley Benefield was arrested on November 4, 2020, and charged with second-degree murder. She posted bond a few weeks later and is awaiting trial. She pleaded not guilty. Manatee County Sheriff's Office

The arrest warrant noted: "it appears that Ashley had exhausted all legal means of keeping the child away from Douglas before the shooting." She's pleaded not guilty.

Alice Robb: I don't know what Ashley believed … 

Writer Alice Robb says it's difficult to know if Ashley was a victim or a master manipulator. 

Alice Robb: Was she genuinely afraid, and … just trying to protect her baby and save herself? Or was she trying to … get Doug out of her life … just out of spite just 'cause she hated him?

Eva Benefield: I feel like she — part of her wanted to believe that my dad was a good guy but then there was also a part of her that was scared of him and I think that that part took over.

Jim Axelrod: Why was she scared of him?

Eva Benefield: I think all the allegations she made, just — she started to believe them…a little too much.

Today, Ashley's mother Alicia Byers has custody of her grandchild. Ashley is free on bond and reportedly sees her daughter frequently.

Jim Axelrod: Do you ever think about her, Ashley?

Eva Benefield: All the time.

Jim Axelrod: What do you think?

Eva Benefield: I just wanna … know … why would she take away my father, my best friend, knowing that I don't have another parent?

Doug and Eva Benefield
Doug and Eva on a trip to Phoenix

EVA BENEFIELD [on TikTok]: I knew something was wrong one day when he didn't send me a good morning text. Um, and then a couple hours later I got a call that she that she had shot and killed him …

Over the past year, Eva, now 20 years old, has been exploring her feelings on TikTok, using her unique sense of humor to soothe her pain.

She posts frequently under the name "evathefreakindiva" where she jokes that her brand is "the girl with the dead parents."

Eva Benefield: I use dark humor. I — I just, I don't know, I guess it's the way my brain's wired. But I'd rather not sit and sulk. I'd rather just make light of a situation.

These days Eva cherishes her time with Sully, the dog who once belonged to her father.

And she and Tommie still go to the beach at Sullivan's Island where her father's ashes were scattered.

Jim Axelrod [at the beach with Eva]: When we stand out here now … all these months later, any peace? 

Eva Benefield:  I don't think I'm going to get peace until after the trial's over.

Jim Axelrod: Do you ever dream about your dad?   

Eva Benefield: A few times

Jim Axelrod: What happens in the dream

Eva Benefield: We're in this big house and he enters the room through the — a door. And he says, "I've been in hiding and I need you to help me." And then I run with him and there's a tunnel. And then I wake up.

Ashley remains free on bond. Her trial is not expected to take place until 2023.

If Ashley is convicted, Doug's family plans to fight for custody of his now 3-year-old daughter.


Produced by Paul LaRosa and Dena Goldstein. Tamara Weitzman is the development producer. Michael Loftus is the associate producer. Richard Barber is the producer-editor. Grayce Arlotta-Berner and Gary Winter are the editors. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.  

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