Note: Kelly Whitmire and Nick Watson contributed additional reporting to this article.
One month after being convicted an all charges relating to 21-year-old Hannah Bender’s 2019 murder, the case’s central defendant was sentenced for the grisly crime on Wednesday.
Dawson County resident Austin Todd Stryker, 24, received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for murdering Bender.
He was also sentenced to 20 years for aggravated battery, five years for each of his weapons possession counts and another 10 years for concealing the death of another. Many of his sentences were concurrent with the malice murder count.
“Your honor…you are the final step in delivering justice in this case,” Senior Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva said to Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.
He reminded the judge about her comment that the pictures of Bender’s body were some of the worst she’d seen in her 35-year judiciary tenure.
“Everything in this case calls for justice. It screams for absolute justice, and absolute justice in this case is an absolute sentence,” Sachdeva said.
“I believe in second chances and that people can change,” Gosselin said in response. “I also believe that sometimes, you don't get that opportunity.”
The judge qualified that while Jerry Harper has borne some culpability in Bender’s murder, Stryker also had choices to not commit the acts he did on Sept. 15, 2019.
The sadness of Bender’s death, along with the rage involved with Stryker stabbing her 32 times and breaking ribs, also gave the judge pause.
“Your [trial] testimony was cold, manipulative and smart, which makes me believe you’re a serious danger whatever age you are, and I can't give you [life with] parole in good conscience,” Gosselin said.
“The state is thankful that Judge Gosselin gave the maximum sentence in Stryker’s murder conviction, the only one which would accomplish justice for Hannah Bender’s family,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said in a statement. “All murder cases are horrible, of course, but the actions of this defendant were especially heinous.”
The prosecution did not present any new evidence at the sentencing, and no members of the Bender family spoke.
Because of laws passed by the state legislature, the most serious penalties in this case were either life with parole or life without, ADA Sachdeva said.
Sachdeva also discussed Stryker’s alleged involvement in the armed robberies and local drug transactions as part of an alleged gang called “THIS.”
Stryker is accused of being the main participant in two alleged armed robberies at the Lumpkin and Dawson County Dollar Generals. During Stryker’s trial, the prosecution linked the Lumpkin armed robbery to Stryker’s motive for murdering Bender, because the defendant was worried she would go to police.
While he is a defendant in the Lumpkin case, no charges have been filed for the Dawson robbery.
Sachdeva said the allegations of armed robbery against Stryker are extremely serious in and of themselves.
“Other than prior murder, having committed armed robberies is probably one of the most aggravating factors the court can consider,” Sachdeva said.
The prosecutor cited the state legislature’s decision that armed robbery deserves 10-20 years in prison with no parole and possibly life, depending on the circumstances.
“Stryker was one impulsive decision away [during those times] from the people at the Dollar Generals losing their lives,” Sachdeva said.
The prosecutor added that Stryker’s story of Bender shooting herself was “an egregious statement” and that “the courts must and should consider that perjury.”
The prosecutor also took issue with Stryker’s account of stabbing Bender and draining her body of blood to make her a lighter weight.
“That’s what people do to animals after they’re finished hunting them. That's not someone who deserves rehabilitation,” Sachdeva said.
During Stryker’s sentencing, two longtime educators spoke as character witnesses for Stryker, sharing their memories of him as a teenager in South Carolina.
Spouses Ginger and Jason Osborne talked about how they observed Stryker’s character while they and Stryker were involved with a karate dojo in Lexington, South Carolina.
Stryker grew up earning belts at the dojo and eventually instructed their kids, showing a strong work ethic and eventually coaching alongside Jason for the competition karate team. Jason described Stryker as someone who eagerly sought the teacher’s approval as he advanced belts.
“I’ve been in higher ed for 20 years,” Ginger Osborne said. “This is not a person to put in jail forever and throw away the key. I just think it’d be a colossal waste of talent and potential not to give him a chance to give back to society.”
The last time they saw him was several years ago, she added. They did not know of him being in a gang at that time.
“The court is aware that young men in these formative [teenage] years are eager for guidance, leadership, mentorship by an older man,” said Brock Johnson, Stryker’s attorney.
He urged the court to consider Jerry Harper’s role in the lives of Stryker and the other young, male defendants as someone who provided “a perverted tutelage in the ways of the world.”
“While his role does not excuse Austin’s responsibility for the actions he took, it is relevant to who Austin is and who he is not,” Johnson added, elaborating that if not for Harper, Stryker may not have been in the current situation.
The defense attorney urged Gosselin to give Stryker the sentence of life with the possibility of parole.
Johnson was confident that as a dedicated, smart and thoughtful person, Stryker still has the potential to succeed and find positive, proactive ways to pay his debt to society.
“At some point, Austin got himself majorly off-course, which has resulted in tragedy…[but] at his core, he’s not beyond redemption or evil incarnate,” Johnson said.
On Tuesday, Dec. 14, Forsyth County resident Jerry Harper, 79, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and 10 years of probation for his part in Bender’s death.
At the end of October, Harper pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering activity involving a homicide, a violation of Georgia’s street gang law; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and a connected gang violation. The state agreed to not prosecute Harper on charges for theft of a vehicle and a connected street gang violation.
He approved Austin Todd Stryker to kill Bender on Sept. 15, 2019 and helped him travel to West Virginia after her death. After fleeing, Stryker later turned himself in to authorities in the Pittsburgh area on Oct. 2, 2019.
Despite Harper’s attorney, John Warr, arguing for leniency given Harper’s multiple medical conditions, Harper received 20 years in prison for the gang charge involving racketeering of homicide.
For the hindering count, he received five years to be run concurrently with the previous sentence. Harper received 10 years of probation for the other gang violation. This last count will follow the prison time consecutively.
Judge Gosselin explained that she gave Harper probation, rather than parole, so he could be supervised, if he eventually is let out of prison.
She said probation wasn’t appropriate, given “what he did and what he knew” and added that groups like the alleged gang “THIS” don’t have to be successful to then be considered a gang.
“I can’t understand how you engendered the blind devotion,” said Gosselin, looking at Harper.
“You had an opportunity...to be a voice of good [to young adults], and instead you were not. You were a voice of frightening evil and scary things.”
Harper offered his plea on Oct. 29, just three days before the Stryker murder trial began. However, documents related to Harper’s plea hearing were not released until Nov. 15. During that event, Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer clarified that the state did not have a negotiated plea agreement nor a plea offer or pending one with Harper.
“I can look in his eyes and know he has remorse for everything that’s happened...with this tragedy,” Harper’s sister, Cheryl Harper Lovett, said.
Hannah Bender’s mother, Carol Gilreath, spoke during Harper’s sentencing and showed pictures of their family’s matching sentimental tattoos to the defense and judge.
“We were robbed,” Gilreath said. “Everything was taken from us, from her being able to grow up to her having kids...when they took her, they took a piece of me, too. I'm thankful for y’all (the court) for fighting so hard for her.”
During the sentencing, ADA Greer also admitted into evidence Facebook messages between Bender and Gilreath in the months leading up to her daughter’s death. In those messages, Bender said Harper had raped her.
Multiple witnesses during the trial said they thought Harper had raped Bender. However, no charges have been filed against Harper for this alleged offense.
Bender was killed in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2019 while riding in a Mazda pickup truck with Stryker and Isaac Huff, according to previous court testimony. As the truck neared the Sweetwater Juno Road area of Dawson County, Stryker shot Bender in the head without warning, according to Huff’s testimony from a plea hearing in April.
Testimony from Stryker and a GBI medical examiner who testified at his trial suggested that the gunshot may not have been immediately fatal. After shooting her, Stryker stabbed Bender at least 32 times. She was later buried in a shallow grave in North Forsyth County, where her remains were found on Sept. 25, 2019.
As part of his testimony during his plea hearing and Stryker’s trial, Huff talked about his, Stryker’s and others’ connection to the “THIS” gang in the months leading up to Bender’s death.
Huff and Dylan Reid, another alleged gang member, both said that Stryker’s motive to kill Bender was tied to his belief that she might go to police about his alleged armed robbery of a Dahlonega store in July 2019.
The lead investigator for Bender’s murder case, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Kristin Perry, recounted that Harper’s statements only had the appearance of initial cooperation, given how his words conflicted with other information and how he initially withheld some details.
During interviews, Harper told GBI agents about seeing Bender’s body in the toolbox Stryker had brought over to the property where his camper was. So, Perry said she thought Harper knew more than what he was initially saying.
Likewise, defense and prosecuting attorneys disagreed about the extent of Harper’s involvement with the murder, “THIS” and whether or not he was the gang’s leader.
As mentioned in multiple co-defendants’ previous trial testimony, the prosecution reiterated Harper seeing the bloody Mazda truck where Bender was killed and telling Stryker to clean it up. They elaborated that Harper coordinated taking the vehicle to a friend’s property to sell.
At that same property, Harper was said to be present while Stryker buried Bender’s remains.
“He had no direct knowledge...yes, it’s horrible for a decent person to do. He should've known better,” said Warr of Harper, “but he chose to help them after the fact [of the murder].”
Huff and Reid have both already been sentenced for their roles in attempting to cover up Bender’s killing. During their April hearing, they both pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, aggravated battery, a street gang violation and concealing the death of another. At that time, Reid also pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence.
Huff will spend 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation for his role in Bender’s death. Reid will spend 20 years in prison and 15 on probation.
Elizabeth Donaldson, Stryker’s wife, was arrested in October 2019 and subsequently charged with concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.
She allegedly helped move Bender’s remains to a Blacks Mill Road residence on Sept. 16, 2019 and strip interior parts from the truck where Bender was murdered. Her case has not advanced to the trial stage, but there is a calendar call for Donaldson on Dec. 20.
Bailey Williams, arrested in October 2019, faces a tampering with evidence charge in Lumpkin County for her role in allegedly helping dispose of Bender’s belongings after her murder.
Williams is also charged in the same 2019 Dahlonega robbery as Stryker in Lumpkin County. She has not gone to trial for either of those cases.
DCN and its affiliate newspapers will continue to follow the remaining defendants’ cases and provide updates.