Twenty-six months after 21-year-old Hannah Bender’s murder, the case’s eldest defendant was sentenced for his role in the grisly crime.
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.
He approved Austin Todd Stryker to kill the Lumpkin County woman 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.
Last month, Stryker, now 24 years old, was convicted on all charges relating to the murder.
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.
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.
Northeastern Judicial Circuit Judge Kathlene 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.
Stryker will have his own sentencing hearing at the Dawson County courthouse tomorrow, Dec. 15 starting at 1:30 p.m. He faces a possible sentence of life without parole.
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, has been arrested and 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 and strip interior parts from the truck where Bender was murdered. Her case has not advanced to the trial stage.
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 will continue to follow the co-defendants’ cases and provide updates.
Kelly Whitmire contributed additional reporting to this article.