MAKING A CASE FOR MURDER
John and Jim Cipriani hope to accomplish in federal civil court what police and prosecutors have been unable to do for the past four years--prove that Colorado State Patrol trooper Bob Benefiel murdered their sister, former El Paso County sheriff's deputy Cecilia Cipriani Benefiel. Benefiel has denied killing her ("A Shot in the Dark," July 17, 1991), but if the brothers can convince a jury of his guilt and win their lawsuit, they will be entitled to the proceeds from Cecilia's life-insurance policy. The Ciprianis say the issue goes deeper than cash.
"Part of our feeling is that this investigation has languished," says John Cipriani, himself a prosecutor in Michigan. "The money, to some extent, is important, but it is the fact that this man has, at least in our view, gotten away with a murder. And if money is the catalyst that brings this to court, that's the direction we're willing to go."
When Cecilia "C.C." Cipriani and Bob Benefiel married in April 1985, it was the second time around for both. C.C. had divorced her college sweetheart two years earlier. Bob's thirteen-year first union was dissolved about the same time. C.C. and Bob seemed well suited if only because of their mutual careers in law enforcement. But five years into the marriage, they separated.
Originally, say C.C.'s friends and family, it was Bob Benefiel who'd wanted the divorce. "I think [marriage] was cramping his style," Jim Cipriani, a federal prisons employee in Wisconsin, has said. But when Bob changed his mind and asked for a reconciliation, C.C. refused. Friends say she'd discovered evidence that her husband had been unfaithful. She'd also become concerned about some of his behavior: She believed he was responsible for making prank phone calls to her and pouring sugar into her car's gas tank.
C.C. began preparing for a life without Bob Benefiel. Among other things, she changed the beneficiary on some of her insurance policies from Bob to her brothers. "She had several different policies," Jim Cipriani says. "She tried to switch as many over as she could. On one of them, there was a specific time period where you could make changes. She didn't get to switch it."
On November 18, 1990, one day before her divorce from Bob Benefiel was to have become final, C.C. Benefiel was found shot to death in her Colorado Springs home. Her body was discovered by a friend who, concerned when C.C. did not report for work, went to her home to check on her.
Because C.C. was a lieutenant in the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, there was no shortage of possible suspects in her murder. But a close examination of her home led investigators to believe almost immediately that their colleague had been slain by someone she knew.
It appeared to detectives that C.C. had been killed not long after returning home from work. She was still in uniform, her service revolver snapped securely in its holster. She was found lying on her back in the dining room, leading one investigator to speculate that she had been sitting with her killer at the table when the assailant whipped out a pistol and shot her in the face.
The house had been ransacked, but there was no sign of a break-in. Nothing had been taken.
Suspicion soon began to center on Bob Benefiel. And El Paso County District Attorney John Suthers has since said he considers Benefiel to be the "prime suspect" in C.C. Benefiel's murder.
Detectives' interest in Benefiel as a suspect in his wife's murder was compounded by information they received about the 1984 death of Benefiel's thirteen-year-old daughter, Shannon. On November 5, 1984, as Benefiel was heading back from a cross-country skiing trip with daughters Shannon and Charlea (then fourteen), he experienced car trouble. Benefiel later told state patrol investigators that he parked his old International Scout at a pulloff and walked away to fetch some water for the overheated radiator. As he was returning, he said, he saw the Scout--with both girls asleep in the back--crash down the mountainside. Shannon was killed. Charlea was critically injured but survived.
Questions surfaced soon after the crash about the reasons for the accident, but a thorough investigation by the state patrol revealed nothing extraordinary. The case was closed. And the insurance companies paid up. Benefiel had taken out $25,000 life insurance policies on each of his daughters less than three weeks before the crash. The car insurance on his old Scout had gone into effect the very day of the accident.
The matter of C.C.'s estate proved to be more complicated, however. When C.C. died, she was still legally married to Bob Benefiel. And because she left no will, Bob was granted control of her assets, which included her police pension and paychecks, two cars, half of her savings bonds, checking accounts and CDs, and her half of the rights to their home. He was also slated to receive proceeds from any insurance policy in which he was named beneficiary.
But court records show that after Benefiel informed Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company that his wife had died, police officers told company representatives that Benefiel was a suspect in her death. The company withheld payment of the benefits, which, with interest, are now worth more than $74,000.
Late last year Benefiel sued Mutual Benefit, demanding that it pay. John Cipriani learned of the suit and contacted Mutual Benefit's Denver-based attorney, James Gigax, to discuss the possibility of intervening in the case.
This past summer Mutual Benefit deposited $74,626.87 with the federal court and declared itself unable to determine whether Benefiel or the Ciprianis were entitled to it. And Gigax signed on as the Ciprianis' attorney. No trial date has been set.
In Benefiel's response to the Ciprianis and the insurance company, he "denies any involvement in the death of Cecilia M. Benefiel" and adds that "there has never been any arrest or conviction of any person in her death."
The Ciprianis, however, do not mince words. They "aver that Robert F. Benefiel in fact murdered their sister," adding that pursuant to Colorado's so-called "Slayer Statute," a named beneficiary who is found in a civil action to have committed first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter is not entitled to any benefit under the policy.
The standard of evidence is less stringent in civil court than it is in a criminal case, which means that, to win, the Ciprianis have to prove only that Benefiel is guilty "by a preponderance of the evidence" instead of "beyond a reasonable doubt." And they say they plan to go to court well armed. Gigax already has subpoenaed the criminal investigation file concerning C.C. Benefiel's murder, as well as the file of a personnel investigation conducted by the Colorado State Patrol on Bob Benefiel. (The CSP placed Benefiel on a lengthy administrative leave after his third wife accused him of threatening her. She subsequently divorced Benefiel, and he left the state patrol to train for a job as an underwater welder.)
Though he is a seasoned attorney, John Cipriani says he can't predict the outcome of the case. "I honestly don't know what will happen," he says. "It's scary for us. But something needs to be done. If nothing else, it'll take him to task.
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