By Brian Haas
Parole officers did not worry about Jacob Allen Bennett blowing off the terms of his release from prison until four bodies turned up in Renegade Mountain.
They didn't revoke the longtime felon's parole when he flunked a drug test in April — his second month out of prison. They let it slide when he didn't pay his court-ordered fees. And they didn't even look for him when he went absent in August, a month before he would be hauled in as a suspect in a quadruple homicide.
"I asked her to have him contact me to discuss this violation issue," a parole officer wrote in Bennett's parole file Aug. 22 after speaking to his grandmother.
Parole officers took notice Sept. 12, when the bodies of Rikki Jacobsen, 22; her nephew, Dominic Davis, 17; and their friends Steven Presley, 17, and John Lajeunesse, 16, were found near his home. Only then did a parole officer issue an emergency parole violation warrant against Bennett, citing the flunked drug test, unpaid fees and a skipped parole appointment, according to parole records obtained by The Tennessean.
Tennessee's supervision of released felons has been under fire for more than a decade. Performance audits have taken the state's probation and parole system to task for inadequate supervision of parolees since at least 2001. Probation officers, now operating under the Tennessee Department of Correction, have warned of inadequate staffing and poor supervision of sex offenders for years. Reports of dead people being "actively supervised" and violent offenders repeatedly violating the terms of their parole have surfaced as well.
Bennett, 26, is currently jailed in Cumberland County on four counts of premeditated murder, four counts of felony murder and two counts of aggravated robbery. His girlfriend, Brittany Lina Yvonn Moser, 25, of Dayton, Tenn., has been charged with four counts of felony murder and two counts of attempted aggravated robbery.
Jacobsen's mother and Davis' grandmother, Sherril Crombie, wasn't aware that Bennett had been on parole. She said the state should have taken his violations more seriously.
"I think they should have picked him up and put him back in prison," said Crombie, who lives in Crossville. "Apparently he wasn't serious about turning his life around. That's the whole purpose of being out on parole, isn't it?"
Tennessee Department of Correction spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said Bennett had been on a "medium supervision level" and was in "substantial compliance" at the time of the murders.
"While his supervision compliance reflected violations, the violations were technical violations which would not have resulted in a violation of parole, given the overall compliance of his supervision," Carter wrote in an email. "There were no indicators in these violations or in Mr. Bennett's behavior that indicated his risk for violent acts."
Asked whether technical violations ever lead to meaningful consequences, Carter said the effect is cumulative.
"When a person cannot or will not be brought into compliance through use of all appropriate intermediary sanctions, the offender would be violated."
Felony charges at 12
When it comes to crime, Bennett started young.
Records in Florida show that his first felony charges came at age 12, when he was accused of burglary, larceny and damage to property over $1,000.
The charges kept coming over the years. Bennett moved to Tennessee in 2009 and picked up where he had left off in Florida. According to state records here, a Fentress County sheriff's detective found Bennett leaving someone's house with a 12-gauge shotgun and bags packed with stolen loot. He was charged with theft of less than $500, attempted theft of greater than $1,000 and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He pleaded guilty to all three charges in March 2010 and was eventually sentenced to prison until Jan. 17, 2015, if he were to have served his full sentence.
Even in prison he couldn't stay clean, according to state records. In 2012, while being held in the South Central Correctional Facility in Clifton, records show he tested positive for amphetamines, marijuana and prescription painkillers.
Two weeks later, prison officials had to put him in protective custody after he snitched on other prisoners who were hoarding drugs, cellphones and weapons behind bars.
In early 2013, Bennett was up for parole. In state records, he wrote that he was ready to move on.
"I was guilty and now I'm ready to move on with my life!" he wrote.
In March, the Tennessee Board of Parole agreed to release Bennett nearly two years early.
Melissa McDonald, spokeswoman for the Board of Parole, said board members had previously rejected Bennett's parole twice.
"The decision of the Board to release Mr. Bennett was in compliance with the Board's Statute and Rules," she said.
Bennett, however, fell out of compliance almost immediately.
A resort town in decline
Renegade Mountain is a small resort area about two hours east of Nashville on the Cumberland Plateau. It began in the 1960s as a resort town with skiing and eventually golf, earning a reputation as a top vacation destination.
But the years haven't been kind. Over the past decade, Renegade Mountain has been in a general state of decline. Its ski slopes closed long ago. Its golf course, once considered one of the best in the state, shuttered in 2008.
It's now home to just 37 families, according to the community's homeowners' association.
When Bennett was released from prison in 2013, he moved in with his grandmother, Jeannie Haiser, who lives off Renegade Mountain Drive.
"I feel really good, loved and cared about," he wrote about his living situation in documents submitted to parole officials.
But once released, it didn't take long for trouble to surface.
According to Department of Correction records, he flunked his first drug test in April, testing positive for marijuana. Parole officials didn't revoke his release.
A month later, he got a job doing landscaping but fell behind on paying his fees. Still, no revocation.
Then, in August, he failed to show up to his parole meeting, according to state records. His parole officer went to his house Aug. 22, only to find that Bennett wasn't even living there anymore.
"His grandmother told this Officer that she had not seen him for several days and did not know where he was staying," the parole officer wrote. "I asked her if she had contact with him to have him contact the PPO asap."
Carter, the department spokeswoman, said tracking down the offender immediately wasn't required.
"Protocol mandates that the offender contact the officer within 24 hours if the officer could not see the offender face to face during a home check," she said. "After a home visit where the offender is not home, the officer is to send a letter or call the offender to confirm residence. As the officer was scheduled to be out of the office the week following (the) home visit, the follow-up letter or call would have taken place upon his return to the office."
That changed when four people were found dead near Bennett's home Sept. 12.
A candlelight vigil
On Sept. 20, dozens of people took to the Cumberland County Courthouse for a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims. They wore blue ribbons in solidarity and heard from pastor Terry Swaw of the Crab Orchard Church of God of Prophecy, who wanted to lift the community up after such a tragedy.
"We're not fearful, but we're shaken anytime tragedy happens," he said.
Authorities have released few details about what they think happened Sept. 12. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has said Bennett and Moser wanted to rob Jacobsen and Davis during a marijuana deal.
Crombie, Jacobsen's mother and Davis' grandmother, said her family is still grappling with grief and confusion. She said Jacobsen and Davis had moved to the Crossville area about a year ago.
Crombie's daughter had been working as a cashier at Wal-Mart to help support her 5-year-old son, Xaynne, whom she considered the love of her life. Another grandson, Davis, had struggled in school in Colorado but had been earning A's in Crossville. He was good at drawing and dreamed of playing professional basketball.
"It's just real tough," Crombie said. "They were just took away from us too soon. You should never outlive your kids."
Crombie had trouble imagining Jacobsen knowingly getting caught up in drugs. But she said the state could have prevented it all had they kept a better eye on Bennett.
Bennett, for his part, appeared ready to accept responsibility for everything. He quickly pleaded guilty to violating the terms of his parole. Even more shocking was what happened at his arraignment Sept. 20.
There, he told Judge David Patterson that he hadn't hired an attorney and couldn't afford one.
"How do you plan to go forward?" the judge asked.
"Guilty," Bennett responded.
The judge stared for a moment. Eventually, he ordered an attorney appointed for Bennett, and the lawyer pleaded not guilty on his behalf.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Bennett, who is expected in court Nov. 18.
Bennett's parole history
March 15, 2010: Bennett is convicted of theft under $500, attempted theft over $1,000 and being a felon in possession of a firearm. His sentence is set to expire in January 2015.
Dec. 21, 2011: Bennett refuses to take a drug test while in prison.
April 20, 2012: Bennett tests positive for amphetamines, marijuana and prescription painkillers.
April 30, 2012: Bennett is placed in protective custody after ratting out other inmates for having illegal drugs, weapons and cellphones in prison.
March 4, 2013: Bennett, after being rejected twice by state officials, is paroled.
April 2, 2013: Bennett reports for the first time to his parole officer in Crossville.
April 9, 2013: Bennett's drug screen comes back positive for marijuana — a violation of the terms of his release.
May 7, 2013: Bennett says he's found a landscaping job.
Aug. 6, 2013: Bennett not only misses his parole appointment, but he has fallen behind on paying his parole fees — more violations of the terms of his release.
Aug. 22, 2013: A parole officer finds that not only is Bennett not home at an unannounced home visit, but that he has moved out without telling the state — another violation of the terms of his release.
Sept. 12, 2013: Parole officers are asked about Bennett, who is named as a suspect in a quadruple homicide. They file to have his parole revoked.
Source: Tennessee Department of Correction parole records