West York 'house of horrors' dad, 74, pleads no contest to felony assault, endangerment charges
The elderly patriarch who West York Borough Police said created a "house of horrors" for five of his seven youngest children has been sentenced to prison.
Charles Benjamin, 74, appeared in York County Court on Tuesday and pleaded no contest to four counts of aggravated assault of a child and five counts of child endangerment — all second-degree felonies, according to court records.
Pleading no contest, or nolo contendere, means Benjamin didn't have to admit guilt. Instead, it means he didn't contest the charges against them. Otherwise, a no-contest plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.
Presiding Common Pleas Judge Harry M. Ness sentenced Benjamin to 571 days to 23 months in prison and gave him credit for the 571 days he's already spent in York County Prison, meaning it's a time-served sentence.
The judge also ordered Benjamin to spend 10 years on probation after his release and directed him to undergo a mental-health evaluation and comply with any recommended treatment, records state.
Ness forbade Benjamin from having any contact at all with his seven youngest children or with their mother, Janay Fountain, and also forbade him from having unsupervised contact with any children, according to court records.
Defense attorney Rick Robinson said prosecutors agreed to drop lesser charges of simple assault and reckless endangerment if Benjamin pleaded to the bulk of the felonies against him, but that it was up to the judge to determine the proper punishment.
Benjamin pleaded no contest rather than go to trial on his charges, in part, because "he did not want to make the children come into court and testify," the attorney said.
He hasn't been in legal trouble prior to this case and has multiple physical issues, including Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid issues.
"Given his physical condition … the chances of him reoffending are probably zero," Robinson told The York Dispatch, but he noted that the decade of probation means if he does reoffend, he could go to state prison.
Benjamin will live in York City with one of his adult children after his release but might eventually relocate to Florida to live with an adult daughter. Robinson said it's his understanding Benjamin has 17 children.
Mom pleaded guilty: Fountain, 27, pleaded guilty on March 30, 2020, 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, senior deputy prosecutor Erin Kraska has said.
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 on 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 the older children had never been to school and had limited access to the outside world.
Benjamin's home "was literally a house of horrors for these children," the chief said.
Court documents state that Benjamin beat the five older children with a wooden board, a belt and a curtain rod or blinds — assaults that testimony indicates left the children with scars and bruises. He also kicked some of them while wearing boots, documents state.
Benjamin also choked one of the children and held the heads of two of them underwater in a bathtub, according to court documents.
Benjamin locked the children, in smaller groups, in a room with no bathroom, and some of the children said they weren't let out until after dark, according to Millsaps.
"There were multiple scars on all these children," said Elizabeth Jenkins, a forensic registered nurse from York Hospital who examined the children and who testified at Benjamin's April 2019 preliminary hearing.
'Overwhelming to see': "It was overwhelming to see all … these marks on them — all the bruising and the scars," she testified.
According to Jenkins, the children had marks all over their bodies, including bruising and scars on their faces, arms, legs, backs, buttocks and torsos. Some of the children had redness to their genital areas as well, she noted.
Jenkins said that when she catalogs a patient's injuries, she uses a body chart to map their locations. But in the case of the five Benjamin children, she said she could only mark "acute," or fresher, injuries.
"There were too many scars and too many injuries" to document all of them on the body charts, she testified.
Fountain told lead Detective Michael Mendez Sr. that it was Benjamin who injured their children and told him that "pretty much the children were locked in their bedrooms all day long," and that sometimes Benjamin withheld food from them, Mendez testified at the preliminary hearing.
Sneaked food? Fountain said she would sometimes try to sneak food to her children, but she said if Benjamin caught her, he would lock her in a room, too, according to Mendez.
Mendez testified that when he searched Benjamin's former home in the 1300 block of West Market Street, he found a bungee cord attached to a bedroom door that allegedly was used to keep the children from leaving the room.
He testified he found piles of feces behind the radiator in the room, and that it appeared the children had to relieve themselves in the room because Benjamin wouldn't let them out to use the bathroom.
— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.