A snake is eyed as the culprit in man's death until cops realize it can't pull a trigger
Montgomery County Coroner Dave Colbert's job usually entails him showing up at a crime scene after the action has subsided. But in the warm early evening hours of June 8, 2017, Colbert responded to a 911 call of a male victim believed to be dead by snakebite, and he said he proceeded to walk into one of the most bizarre and dangerous death scenes of his 20-year career as a coroner. "Someone being killed by a snake is not something that happens every day, especially in Missouri," Colbert says.
"48 Hours" and correspondent Peter Van Sant take viewers inside the unusual case in an encore of "The Poisonous Wife."
Colbert soon learned that the man lying face down in a pool of blood in the exotic snake breeding facility in New Florence, Missouri, wasn't just "someone," it was Ben Renick, the owner of the business Renick Reptiles and a world renowned snake breeder. Body cameras on responding sheriff's deputies captured the frantic scene that Colbert walked into.
"They're holding shotguns in hand," Colbert said of the deputies, "There were guns out. ... Walking into a death scene with thousands of snakes, jumping at the cages … it was just a crazy scene to be at."
Indeed, the body camera footage shows sheriff's deputies brandishing shotguns, walking through the facility lined with containers containing pythons and anacondas weighing upwards of 200 pounds, with one thought in mind: that a killer snake was on the loose. One sheriff's deputy tells another, "I don't care if it's a 5-inch-long snake — if something tries to bite me I'm gonna light its a-- up."
There were guns out because in the initial 911 call, Ben Renick's brother Sam Renick indicated that the victim appeared to have been bitten or crushed by one of the many snakes in the building where he was found. Sam Renick, in his interview with "48 Hours," said that Ben's wife, Lynlee Renick, made the initial discovery, then called him to come over. "I assumed it was a snake," Sam says of looking at his brother's body, because it appeared Ben's skull was crushed and two puncture wounds on his arm appeared to be bite marks.
But Colbert says he soon made a surprising discovery when he examined Renick's body: "The two marks he has on his arms are not from a snake." Furthermore, a shell casing a few feet away from the corpse changed the investigation entirely, and Colbert realized the position of Ben's body hid his true cause of death: homicide.
Ben Renick had been shot eight times, once at close range. "For some reason," Colbert says, "somebody just really didn't like Mr. Renick — because of the amount of damage that was inflicted upon him. And, obviously, from bullet holes in the floor. This was something that was not just a random act." In just moments, the focus of the investigation changed for Colbert from a cold-blooded serpent to a human who killed in cold blood.
By all accounts, Ben was well liked both in his small town of New Florence, Missouri, and around the world in the reptile community. Ben lived on the farm where he was found murdered nearly his whole life, building a life and a business with his wife Lynlee by his side. Sam Renick lived nearby on the same property in a separate house. Investigators learned that Ben shipped his serpents all over the world, from the U.K. to Japan, and that the snakes in the Renick Reptiles facility were worth more than a million dollars, with some rare albino anacondas able to fetch prices of tens of thousands of dollars. Those facts made robbery an initial theory, but a sweep of the building was conclusive: no snakes were missing.
What followed was an almost unbelievable investigation into the people around Ben Renick that led detectives and "48 Hours" to learn more than we ever bargained for about the international community of reptile breeders and enthusiasts, where Ben Renick was so legendary.
To help "48 Hours" understand that unique culture of reptile enthusiasts, we reached out to Ben Renick's friend and colleague Dāv Kaufman, a snake expert and breeder and YouTube personality who travels the world to learn about and discover rare and dangerous reptiles. The first thing he told us is that he was not surprised that it was assumed Ben was killed by a snake. Kaufman spends a lot of his time debunking myths and assumptions about snakes that he says come from a lack of knowledge about them.
"If you are afraid of snakes … then everything you know about snakes is wrong," Kaufman told Peter Van Sant.
Kaufman also introduced "48 Hours" to a few types of snakes that Ben Renick was famous for breeding and selling. Our interview took place at Twin City Reptiles in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Kaufman pulled out a giant reticulated python to help explain to us exactly why it is that people want to keep these animals in their homes. Van Sant was noticeably skeptical — and more than a little nervous — when Kaufman gave the snake to him, instructing him to hold the animal with open hands and let it slither and cling to him. "I've got a new scarf," Van Sant joked as the yellow snake wrapped a little too intimately around his neck. Almost immediately, Van Sant was enamored with the snake he'd been reluctant to hold just two minutes earlier. "It's a remarkable sensation," Van Sant told Kaufman.
While Kaufman told "48 Hours" he wasn't surprised that an anaconda didn't kill his friend Ben, he was shocked to learn, almost three years after the murder, that Ben's wife Lynlee had been charged with the murder. Sam Renick was also shocked. He couldn't believe that the woman who led him to his brother's bloody body could have had something to do with his murder. But the more he learned about the investigation, the more he realized what Lynlee was capable of. "You know, the Lynlee that we knew back then was very sweet, kind. She was outgoing. However, there was — there were other sides of her that we didn't know."
To learn more about the case that took investigators inside a snake pit of conspirators and slippery lies tune in to "48 Hours" as Peter Van Sant reports in "The Poisonous Wife" airing March 12 at 10/9c on CBS and streaming o nParamount+.
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