As the first week of Austin Todd Stryker’s trial finished Friday, the state’s overall argument that the defendant killed Hannah Bender in 2019 by shooting and stabbing her continued to grow.
Stryker, 24, of Dawsonville, is on trial for Bender’s killing and has been charged with malice murder; felony murder; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; possessing a firearm and knife during commission of a felony; violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act; concealing the death of another; and tampering with evidence.
Northeastern Circuit Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin is trying the case. Stryker and Jerry Harper, 79, of Forsyth County, are co-defendants.
So far, the trial has primarily focused on Stryker. Harper has been charged with three street gang violation counts; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and theft by receiving stolen property.
Bailey Williams, another key witness besides Isaac Huff and Dylan Reid, took the stand Friday. Williams was arrested for tampering with evidence relevant to Bender’s case on Oct. 1, 2019. She also has pending charges in a July 2019 armed robbery case in Dahlonega in which Stryker is also a defendant.
The prosecution has said the Dahlonega robbery case is central to proving motive for the killing of Bender, who Stryker suspected of talking to police.
In that instance, Williams was allegedly the getaway driver (something both she and Reid mentioned) and Stryker was the alleged robber.
She, Huff and Reid have alleged that the robbery and other criminal acts were connected to Stryker and others’ activities as part of a small gang called “THIS.”
When asked by Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer, Williams was aware her testimony Friday could be used against her for her Lumpkin County case.
“I want to get justice for her. She was my best friend,” Williams said of Bender.
Williams admitted that she occasionally used methamphetamine with Stryker but denied taking a blood oath for the gang like Reid alleged she had. She said she had a pre-existing fear of Stryker before the incident resulting in Bender’s death.
“He (Stryker) said things or went about things to where you felt you couldn't tell him ‘no’ or go against him,” Williams said.
She reiterated Stryker’s fear before Sept.15, 2019, that there was a “blonde-haired snitch” among their friend group. Williams took the inference to mean Bender.
When Stryker picked up Williams early that morning, she saw the blood before noticing the smell.
“It was more blood than I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” she said.
Then, a caravan led by Stryker in the black Mazda truck and Williams driving the white Ford Explorer went to a campground off Nimblewill Gap Road in Lumpkin County.
Williams claimed that Stryker told her to serve should she see any law enforcement behind them so he could get away. Allegedly, he’d also asked her that during the Dahlonega robbery a couple months prior, so Williams assumed that something criminal in nature was likely happening.
Williams switched places with Reid, who had been a passenger in the truck, and he ended up driving the second car to the Dahlonega site. When they got there, she stood next to Stryker as he put some of Bender’s items, like a purse and beloved coloring pens, into a duffle bag, and quickly went to hide it farther into the woods.
On the way to another friend’s house, Williams rode passenger with Stryker, who ended up asking her rhetorical questions about alleged events between Sept. 14 and 15.
“He said, I had to do it, didn't I? A rat was a rat,’” Williams said. “He told me that he shot her and he said [that] when she didn't die right away, he stabbed her.”
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation first interviewed Williams about Bender’s death on Sept. 21. Williams denied to investigators about either knowing her friend had been killed and was concerned she might be in the “same boat” as Huff and Reid due to tampering with evidence.
Weapon, car evidence found
The friend whose house Williams, Reid and Stryker went to is deaf, and that man testified in court Friday through a sign language interpreter. The man alleged that Stryker took his firearm, a Ruger LCP .380, used it without his permission and returned it without ammunition. He also signed that he took Stryker to look for some kind of bag in the Nimblewill area within a few days of Sept. 15.
That man’s account of the truck cleaning and stripping lined up with Reid’s account. Around the same time, the man explained he smelled what he thought was a dead animal near Jerry Harper’s camper. The smell, which should’ve dissipated naturally in one to two weeks, went away in one day, so he called the police.
The man also claimed that although his name is on the bill of sale for the black truck from himself to Harper, that it’s not his signature on the document.
For its first witness Friday, the state recalled a GBI forensic biologist about DNA swabs from the handgun returning no results. The expert agreed that it’s possible no DNA would be obtained from a cleaned handgun.
For its second witness, the state called back GBI crime scene specialist Taylor Lawrence so the defense attorneys could cross-examine her about Hannah Bender’s exhumation and the testing and reconstruction of the black Mazda truck. One of Stryker’s defense attorneys, Kyle Denslow, asked Lawrence whether or not placing Bender’s body into Huff’s fire pit and then into a toolbox with sharp points could have produced some of the sharp-force injuries present on the body.
She considered it a possibility but didn’t say definitively that that was the case.
The state’s last witness for the day was William Edison, a former ballistics specialist-turned-GBI special agent and crime scene specialist.
During his testimony, Edison explained the Ruger LCP .380 handgun’s internal safety features. After the gun was confirmed to be empty, the expert dry fired it for the jury to see. With having to pull the trigger all the way back to prepare the gun to fire, accidental discharge from bumping or shaking around the weapon can be prevented, he said.
“That action of the vehicle itself wouldn't be enough to cause the firing of this firearm,” Edison said.
The ballistics expert elaborated that this Ruger model is designed so people can tell when a chamber is in the firearm by seeing the silver, nickel or brass-colored cartridges. A person pointing the gun toward themselves would not be able to look through that cutout to see if the weapon was loaded.
Attorney Denslow asked about the likelihood of an accidental discharge to the head with this type of handgun.
“In my experience, people [with less firearms training] have been very unwilling to touch the gun, let alone point it toward their head,” Edison added.