Crime A Reptile Breeder Was Killed by One of His Snakes, the 911 Caller Said. Then Bullet Wounds Were Found
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Marnette Gordon was doing laundry at home in Minneapolis one summer morning last year when a call came from her 36-year-old son. She figured her son, Telly Blair, was checking in to see if she wanted a soda from a gas station down the street, where he often went for fuel and snacks. “Mom, I’ve been shot,” he said. “Call the police!” Marnette, her other son Tamarcus and his 12-year-old daughter rushed to the gas station from their home in the city’s north side, a part of town long beset by violent crime. Blair’s family came upon his blue 1986 Chevy Caprice at pump No.
In the world of boutique snake-breeding, Ben Renick was a rockstar.
The unique color combinations and patterns he produced at Renick Reptiles in rural New Florence, Mo., created "designer pets" that could sell for upwards of $100,000, says his friend and fellow breeder David Levinson. "Ben was doing stuff nobody had ever seen before, and he had a lot of 'world's first' over the years," he says.
But reptiles also can be dangerous. When, on June 8, 2017, Ben's wife, Lynlee, called Ben's brother and screamed that she'd found Ben face-down at the breeding facility in a pool of blood, Sam Renick raced over and reached the most logical conclusion.
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"My brother's skull was crushed," he says. "In my wildest dreams I would've never imagined someone would hurt Ben."
With Lynlee by his side, Sam told 911: "It had to have been a snake."
But Ben, 29, hadn't been strangled by a reptile, the coroner told Sam on the spot. He'd been shot eight times — at least once in the head.
Rumored tensions between the brothers over money and possible sale of the family farm at first pointed investigators to Sam, 38 — and Lynlee, 34, didn't dissuade them.
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"Sam was a heavy suspect," says Missouri State Highway Patrol criminal investigator Devin Foust.
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"The seed was definitely planted early that he had something to do with it," says Levinson, whom Lynlee quickly asked to maintain, then help sell and downsize, Ben's 3,000-reptile stock of animals, which included prized ball pythons that could fetch more than $1 million.
But investigators soon turned to another suspect: Lynlee herself.
Foust tells PEOPLE in this week's issue that far from the "perfect" marriage Lynlee had described to them initially, the couple's relationship was troubled. Lynlee soon acknowledged an affair — and then a second one with a man, Brandon Blackwell, who she began seeing just days before Ben's murder. The day prior to the shooting, Lynlee also had deleted social media exchanges with Ben that revealed his mistrust and their fights over money, as Lynlee had fallen deep into debt from a spa business she'd opened a year earlier, he says.
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"After we started to find out about boyfriends, the shape the spa was in, how much money she owed, it just started pushing Sam to the side [as a suspect]," says Foust.
Meanwhile, another of Lynlee's ex-boyfriend's, Michael Humphrey, came to the attention of investigators. Lynlee would later claim that she'd enlisted Humphrey to accompany her to the snake breeding facility, where she planned to break up with Ben on the day he was killed.
But Foust alleges she had different intentions. Lynlee feared that if she and Ben wound up in divorce court, she might lose custody of the child they had together, along with access to Ben's $1 million life insurance policy and any proceeds from the sale of his business and property, he says.
In court, Lynlee testified she didn't know Humphrey had a gun with him, and they both blamed the other one for firing the fatal shots. Jurors found both of them guilty late last year, and each is serving time for second-degree murder and a related charge; Humphrey was sentenced to life in prison, and Lynlee was sentenced to 16 years.
Opinion: How a bullet fired by a stranger almost killed and forever changed me .
Kathy Pisabaj writes about being shot at 19 and how the experience changed her. She describes finding purpose in her story and her struggles with anxiety and depression. She wishes people would show more kindness, compassion and empathy to others.