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West York 'house of horrors' dad seeks prison release, contracted COVID-19 there

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

The attorney for a West York septuagenarian accused of creating a "house of horrors" for five of his seven young children is asking a judge to release the man from York County Prison on compassionate grounds because he contracted COVID-19 there.

As of lunchtime Friday, Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness had not ruled on attorney Clarence Allen's motion on behalf of Charles Benjamin, according to court records.

"He should be allowed to recover at home," Allen told The York Dispatch. "He could be OK in two weeks, or he could be worse in two weeks. ... He has all kinds of risk factors."

Benjamin, 73, suffers from Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid issues — all of which put him at increased risk from COVID-19, the defense motion states, as do his age and the fact that he is Black.

He contracted the virus in prison and was treated at York Hospital, according to the motion.

The hospital discharged him back to the prison Sept. 3, where he remains in quarantine, the motion states.

On Thursday, York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said 32 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 since the previous Friday, and 129 remained isolated in the same unit.

Wheeler said 222 inmates have tested positive overall since the pandemic began, and 93 have recovered. She said 1,577 tests have been given, with 1,355 negative results.

Charles Benjamin

Medically cleared: Benjamin was medically cleared by the hospital before being released, according to the written response to Allen's motion, filed Wednesday by senior deputy prosecutor Erin Kraska.

He is expected to be quarantined in the prison through Sept. 22, Kraska's filing states.

Benjamin remains charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault, child endangerment and simple assault, as well as one count of false imprisonment.

He had been free on bail, but Judge Ness revoked that bail after Benjamin tried to have contact with potential prosecution witness Janay Fountain — the mother of his seven youngest children.

"That's going to be a hurdle" in getting Benjamin released on bail, Allen acknowledged.

Benjamin's trial was scheduled to begin Monday, but both the defense and the prosecution agreed to a postponement, according to Allen, who said the quarantine status means he can't speak with his client.

The prosecution opposes Benjamin's release but not the trial continuance, Kraska's motion states.

Benjamin maintains he didn't beat his children or hold their heads underwater in the family bathtub, according to Allen, but is willing to plead guilty to the misdemeanor offenses against him.

An exhibit attached to Kraska's motion shows the prosecution is unwilling to enter into a negotiated plea agreement with Benjamin in which he doesn't plead either guilty or no contest to felonies.

This home in West York, Friday, March 1, 2019, is where police allege a man and his 25-year-old girlfriend created "a house of horrors" having beaten five of their seven children. Bill Kalina photo

Mom pleaded guilty: Fountain, 27, pleaded guilty March 30 to five counts of child endangerment, all second-degree felonies, for failing to protect her children. She was sentenced to 338 days in York County Prison, which was a time-served sentence. She was not accused of assaulting her children.

Benjamin was supposed to plead guilty that day as well in exchange for a time-served sentence, but the deal fell apart when he refused to admit to committing any criminal behavior against his minor children.

Parental rights to the seven children have been terminated for both parents, Kraska said in March.

If Benjamin is convicted of his felony offenses, he is potentially facing substantial state prison time, according to Kraska.

The couple lived in the 1300 block of West Market Street with their seven children — ages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and twin infants — when all seven children were taken into protective custody Feb. 6, 2019, by the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families.

The five older children all suffered abuse in the home, prosecutors maintain.

'House of horrors': West York Police Chief Matt Millsaps has said Benjamin's home "was literally a house of horrors for these children."

Janay Fountain

Benjamin is accused of beating the five older children with a wooden board, a belt and a curtain rod or blinds — assaults police allege left the children with scars and bruises. He also allegedly kicked some of them while wearing boots, court documents allege.

Benjamin is also accused of choking one of the children and holding the heads of at least two of them underwater in a bathtub, according to court documents.

Benjamin locked the children, in smaller groups, in a room with no bathroom, according to allegations in court documents, which state the floor was soaked in urine and had a pile of feces behind a radiator.

Some of the children indicated they were locked in a room during the day and weren't let out until after dark, according to Millsaps.

Millsaps has said that before being taken into protective custody, the older children had never been to school and had limited access to the outside world.

A forensic registered nurse from York Hospital testified at Benjamin's preliminary hearing that there were multiple scars and bruising on the children's bodies.

She called it "overwhelming to see."

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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