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Here’s what to know before the Hannah Bender murder case goes to trial next week
Bender hearing Oct 8.jpg
Defendant Austin Stryker, center, and Judge Kathlene Gosselin, right, listen as prosecutors argue for inclusion of evidence that would help establish motive for Hannah Bender’s murder. - photo by Julia Hansen

Starting Monday, Nov. 1 at 9 a..m. the accused killer and another defendant will stand trial for the shooting-and-stabbing murder of 21-year-old Lumpkin County resident Hannah Bender. 

Here are details of everything leading up to Monday’s trial.

Defendants and charges

The two co-defendants going to trial Monday are Austin Todd Stryker, 24, of Dawson County and Jerry Harper, 79, of Forsyth County. 

Stryker has been charged with the following: one count of malice murder; three counts of felony murder; three counts of aggravated assault; two counts of aggravated battery; one count each for possessing a firearm and knife during commission of a felony; 11 violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act; concealing the death of another; and tampering with evidence. 

Harper has been charged with three street gang violation counts; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and theft by receiving stolen property.

Initial evidence and arrests

Law enforcement recovered Hannah Bender’s body from a shallow grave in northern Forsyth County the morning of Sept. 25, 2019, said Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard during a press conference later that day. 

Bender’s mother reported her missing on Sept. 19, and not long after, bloody clothing was found in Dawson County. On Sept. 24, a black Mazda pickup truck was discovered on Parks Road at a property adjacent to where Bender’s body was found.

The day Bender’s remains were discovered, Stryker’s wife, Elizabeth Donaldson, was arrested. Harper was booked two days later, followed by Isaac Thomas Huff and Dylan Patrick Reid on Sept. 30.

On Oct. 1, another suspect, Bailey Diane Williams, 21, was arrested in Lumpkin County and charged with tampering with evidence. 

After a nationwide BOLO was issued for Stryker’s arrest, he turned himself in to authorities on Oct. 2, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Defendants Huff and Reid

Huff and Reid pleaded guilty for their roles in Bender’s murder as part of an agreement with the state at an Apr. 7, 2021 hearing, as reported in an Apr. 8 DCN article. 

The two defendants both pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, a street gang violation and concealing a death, with Reid also pleading guilty to tampering with evidence. 

Reid will spend 15 years in prison and 20 years on probation and face banishment from the Northern Judicial Circuit. Huff will spend 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation. 

Per the plea deals, they both testified as to how Bender was lured from her home the night of Sept. 14, 2019, and killed before she was buried in northern Forsyth County. 

Huff and Reid alleged that Stryker planned and carried out the murder, while Harper approved of the actions. 

Plea testimonies

Huff alleged that Stryker was the one to lure Bender from her home on the pretense that they were going on vacation to Florida. Bender left her residence with a packed bag and sat in the back of a Mazda pickup truck with Huff and Stryker. 

As the truck approached the area of Sweetwater Juno and Duck Thurmond roads in Dawson County, Stryker allegedly shot Bender in the head without warning. 

 "After she's shot in the head, we know that she was alive briefly,” Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said at the hearing.

A critically-injured Bender was then taken to Huff’s residence, where Stryker allegedly stabbed her to death while she was still laying on the truck’s back seat. ADA Shiv Sachdeva detailed an autopsy report showing that Bender had been shot in the head once and stabbed 32 times.

Huff and Reid denied stabbing Bender and said that they were instead preparing to wrap and dispose of her body when the second violent act occurred.

It was also revealed then that Bender’s body had been placed into a large toolbox after she was stabbed. Her remains were transported to the location off of Parks Road in northern Forsyth Co. before being buried. 

Possible motive

At the end of July, Stryker and Harper were reindicted for their alleged crimes surrounding Bender’s murder. Stryker was charged with 10 more street gang violations, while Harper received two more counts. After Northeastern Circuit Judge Kathlene  Gosselin struck down each of their initial gang counts earlier in July, these additional counts were upheld due to their increased specificity. 

In the April plea hearing, Huff and Reid said they and others are members of a small gang called “THIS” that committed low-level drug crimes and multiple armed robberies. 

They also alleged that Stryker and Harper are top-level members of the gang. 

Both men shared their recollections of Stryker voicing his intent to kill Bender on more than one occasion. While neither of them gave a precise reason for Stryker’s alleged intent, they both shared rumors that perhaps Bender had blackmailed Stryker about his alleged role in the gang’s robberies or done something else to offend him.

During an Oct. 8 hearing, prosecutors Greer and Sachdeva successfully argued for the introduction of a pending Lumpkin County armed robbery case from 2019 in which Stryker is also a defendant.

“Each testified saying the reason [Stryker] wanted Hannah Bender dead is because he thought she would snitch on the armed robbery,” Sachdeva said.

Later in that hearing, the prosecutor clarified that Huff and Reid’s testimonies, along with the pending armed robbery case, will be used to prove motive for the murder, not that the separate robbery occurred.