Florida man may have gotten away with murder had he emptied his own trash
"Wait for confirm that he is alone. Then turn off cell phones."
This note was written on a balled-up piece of paper, sitting on the top of the trash pile in the home of a suspected killer. Detectives were in disbelief. This unburied treasure was a key piece of evidence that they needed to convict their prime suspect of murder.
In February 2018, 25-year-old Patrick De La Cerda was shot four times in an ambush-style assault by an assassin. Detective Chad Weaver of the Volusia County Florida, Sheriff's Office who investigated the case, described the killer as "lying in wait."
Detective Weaver believes De La Cerda was gunned down when he came to his front door expecting to receive a package containing an engagement ring for his fiancée Jessica Devnani.
"You could see the front door was open, there was glass all over the place," Weaver told "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant in an interview for "The Ring: The Murder of Patrick De La Cerda," airing Saturday, July 9 at 10/9c on CBS and streaming on Paramount+. At first the detective thought "this is probably going to be a whodunit."
The case changed quickly when Devnani pointed investigators to the man she believed was responsible for De La Cerda's murder: her jealous ex-boyfriend, Gregory Bender.
Devnani told Weaver that Bender had been tormenting her and Patrick for months, leaving threatening voicemails and text messages. Afraid, Devnani had taken these threats to a judge, who issued a restraining order against Bender. He was ordered to turn over his extensive gun collection. For a few months, she said his threats and messages stopped.
Until the morning of February 27, 2018, when Devnani received her first phone call from Bender in months. She did not answer, but immediately knew something was not right. She rushed to De La Cerda's house, but when she arrived, her fiancé had already been shot, and was dead on the ground.
Weaver believed he had a suspect, but there was not enough evidence at the crime scene to arrest Gregory Bender for murder. It was a tip from Bender's ex-wife, Daymara Sanchez, that gave Weaver what he needed to build a case against him.
Sanchez, who Weaver learned was still married to Bender during the time he was dating Devnani, asked to meet with the detective in a secluded parking area. "She was nervous," Weaver recalled. She had more incriminating evidence against Gregory Bender to share.
Sanchez told Detective Weaver that she had seen a news report of Patrick's murder, and that it sounded very similar to some notes that she had found written in a spiral notebook that belonged to Bender. She told Weaver that when she had questioned Bender about his notebook, he had assured her that the disturbing notes were all just his "fantasy." But, to Detective Weaver, this "fantasy" Sanchez remembered sounded a lot like the very real murder of De La Cerda.
Weaver says Sanchez's tip gave police probable cause to search Bender's house. "Once she told us about the murder plan, that gave us what we needed to get into the house," said Weaver, but he was doubtful the possible killer would have kept this obvious piece of evidence.
On February 28, 2018, Weaver and his team of investigators entered Bender's home in Windemere, Florida, to execute their search warrant. Almost immediately after entering Bender's five-bedroom house, Weaver saw what did seem like a fantasy. There, in the suspect's home office, Weaver spotted the notebook pages Sanchez had described.
"I was in shock," said Weaver. "There's no way that we just found this murder plan."
There, on a few crumpled-up pieces of paper sitting at the top of Bender's trash bin, were the details of his elaborate plot to kill Patrick De La Cerda.
"The first thing I wanted to do was reach in the trash can, grab it, and read the whole thing," Weaver said, but he knew this needed to be bagged as crucial evidence.
The notes were complete with De La Cerda's address, sketches of his property, and notes on how to enter and exit the premises without being detected.
The notes read in part, "... dispose of clothes, plate, tracker, gloves." It appeared Bender had accounted for the elimination of almost all evidence, but one oversight in his plan was neglecting to dispose of the notes.
Also found in his home were ammunition and a shell casing which matched those found at the crime scene. These bits of trash were invaluable, and testimony from both Sanchez and Devnani, along with cell phone evidence and the discovery of the ammunition helped to convince the jury that Bender's musings were more than mere fantasy.
On May 28, 2021, Gregory Bender was found guilty of first-degree murder. Bender's attorneys say the search of his home was illegal and plan to appeal the conviction, but he is now in prison serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
The fate of this killer was determined by the truths of the women he had deceived, justice for a jealous murder, and a neglect to empty his own trash.
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