Judge Rejects Church’s Attempt To Dismiss Family’s Suit
BERLIN — A Delaware Superior Court judge on Wednesday ruled against a motion to dismiss a wrongful death civil suit filed in April by the family of a woman found murdered along a rural road in northern Worcester County.
The suit was filed against the church where she worked and its pastor, alleging they were negligent in allowing her accused killer, a convicted sex offender, to work alone with her the night she was killed without warning her of his past.
Last August, a Worcester County grand jury indicted Matthew N. Burton, 29, of Dagsboro, on eight counts including first-degree murder and first-degree rape in the death of Nicole Bennett, 35, of Millsboro, who body was found on a roadside embankment in Whaleyville in Worcester County on the morning of June 15 of last year. Earlier this summer, Burton was formally charged with murder in Delaware and the case against him was dropped, although he reportedly remains in custody in Worcester awaiting extradition to Delaware.
Meanwhile, proceeding on a parallel course is a wrongful death civil suit filed in Delaware Superior Court in April by the victim’s family against the church where she worked and its pastor Danny Tice, alleging the defendants were aware of Burton’s prior rape convictions and his violent past and allowed him to work along at the church with Nicole Bennett on the night she was murdered.
Attorney Bart Dalton, who represents the Bay Shore Community Church in Millsboro and Tice earlier this summer filed a motion to dismiss the case, or in the alternative a motion for summary judgment. However, Delaware Superior Court Judge Andrea Rocanelli on Wednesday denied the motion to dismiss the case and the motion for summary judgment, essentially allowing the case to move forward toward trial.
“The judge ruled that the defendants’ motion to dismiss was denied,” said Dalton on Thursday. “In a motion to dismiss, the standard is that the allegations in the complaint are to be accepted as true. That is because it is so early in the litigation before discovery has taken place.”
Dalton said the judge’s ruling on Wednesday will now move the case forward to the discovery phase.
“The judge’s ruling is based on the complaint and the ruling is that there is no reason why the case cannot move forward,” he said. “The judge was not making a decision on the quality of the evidence since there was no evidence properly before her given that no discovery has been taken. The complaint was legally sufficient to have the case move forward to discovery.”
According to the suit, Tice learned that Burton was a registered sex offender and was on probation for multiple sex crimes. Burton was a registered Tier I sex offender, having been charged with 22 felony counts of rape against a child. Burton had reached a plea deal in those cases which required him to register as a sex offender in Delaware prior to his employment as a custodian at the Bay Shore Church in Millsboro.
After Tice and the Bay Shore Church learned of Burton’s sexual predator past, they gave Burton two weeks to find another job. On the last day of his employment with the church, Nicole Bennett disappeared and her body was found the next day in northern Worcester County.
In the wrongful death suit, the victim’s husband Kevin Bennett asserts Tice should be held partly responsible because he failed to warn his wife and presumably others in the church that a violent sexual predator was in their midst.
On or about June 14, 2012, Nicole Bennett was working late in order to complete a mailing for the Bay Shore Child Care of which she was the director and she told her family she would be late. Burton was also working as a custodian at the church
that night. Shortly before 9 a.m. the next day, June 15, Worcester Central received a 911 call reporting the discovery of the body of a deceased woman in an embankment off Swamp Rd., a dirt road east of Nelson Rd. near Whaleyville.
DNA evidence gathered by crime scene technicians from the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division ultimately connected Burton to the crime. An autopsy conducted by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore determined Bennett was murdered and had been asphyxiated. Autopsy evidence also indicated Bennett was already dead when her body was left in the embankment off the dirt road in Whaleyville.
Only after the grand jury indictment in Worcester County last August did it come to light she had also been allegedly sexually assaulted and raped by the suspect. According to the suit filed by Bennett family attorney Bart Dalton on April 17, Tice and church officials should be held partly responsible for Nicole Bennett’s death because they were aware of Burton’s violent past and allowed him to continue to work at the church for another two weeks including the night of June 14 when he was left alone with Bennett.