After a case full of twists and turns and five-and-a-half hours of deliberation, a Dawson County jury convicted Austin Todd Stryker, 24, of murdering 21-year-old Hannah Bender in 2019 by shooting and stabbing her.
Stryker was convicted on all 24 counts relating to Bender’s murder. Those charges were: malice murder; three counts of felony murder; three counts aggravated assault; two counts aggravated battery; possession of both a gun and a knife during the commission of a crime; 11 violations of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act; concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.
Co-defendant Harper, 79, was charged with three street gang violation counts; hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and theft by receiving stolen property.
Stryker, as well as Jerry Harper, Isaac Huff, Dylan Reid and others, were suspected members of a small gang known as “THIS.”
The prosecution has said a 2019 armed robbery case in Dahlonega was central to proving motive for the murder of Bender, who Stryker suspected of talking to police.
According to his indictment and Huff and Reid’s testimony, Harper was the alleged leader of “THIS” and approved of Bender’s murder.
Harper allegedly committed the theft, hindering and two associated gang charges by taking Stryker to West Virginia on Sept. 20, 2019.
At the end of July 2021, 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 Judge Gosselin struck down each of their initial gang counts earlier in July, these additional counts were upheld due to their increased specificity.
On Nov. 4, 2021, three jurors were dismissed due to COVID-19 reasons. With three jurors missing, all three alternates had to be used for the jury. If any more jurors had been excused, a mistrial could have been declared.
The jury began deliberating around 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 and met for four hours before retiring for the day. Jurors reassembled on Nov. 10 at 9 a.m. and deliberated for about an hour-and-a-half before returning Stryker’s guilty verdict.
In a follow-up interview the afternoon of Nov. 10, Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh clarified that Stryker’s case was not a death penalty case.
A calendar date hasn’t been set for Stryker’s sentencing hearing, which is expected to occur in the following weeks.
For their roles in the murder cover-up, Isaac Huff and Dylan Reid both pleaded guilty in April to aggravated assault, aggravated battery, a street gang violation and tampering with evidence. Reid also pleaded to concealing the death of another.
He will spend 20 years in jail and 15 on probation, while Huff will spend 12 in jail and 18 on probation.
Elizabeth Donaldson, Stryker’s wife, has been charged with concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. She allegedly helped move Bender’s remains to the Blacks Mill Road residence on Sept. 16 and strip interior parts from the truck where Bender was murdered.
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.
Court testimony, digital and physical evidence provided more insight into what happened before, during and after Hannah Bender’s death.
Google data from Huff, as well as his and Stryker’s verbal accounts, laid out their movement riding in a black Mazda pickup truck from Dawson County into the Dahlonega area, where they eventually picked up Bender shortly after 4 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2019. The data and their accounts confirmed their journey from the defendant’s home to Huff’s a few minutes away around 6 a.m.
The prosecution and defense narratives diverge around the moment of Bender’s shooting. Although Huff, one of the state’s witnesses, said he didn’t see the moment of the shooting, he and Reid did provide testimony about Stryker’s motive leading up to the incident. Through theirs and Bailey Williams’ testimony, the prosecution argued that Stryker wanted to kill Bender out of concerns that she would go to police about the July 2019 armed robbery.
In that sense, the testimony about Stryker’s affinity for mafia movies and the origins and activities of “THIS” took on greater significance. Earlier in October, Judge Gosselin approved a motion to allow information about the gang into evidence.
During his Nov. 2 testimony, Huff elaborated that he was focusing on the road before the shooting occurred, so he didn’t recall seeing the shooting happen. He said it was when Stryker told him to slow down that the Ruger. 380 handgun went off and Bender was shot. Huff described the immediate seconds after the incident as his ears rang and he struggled to regain control of the truck.
Stryker took the stand on Nov. 8 as the defense’s first witness. He characterized his motive the night of Sept. 14, 2019, as wanting to gain money by stealing methamphetamine from a local drug dealer. For him, the handgun was backup. He expressed a desire to contact Williams, then Bender, so either of them could be in his vicinity and act as bait for meeting up with the dealer.
Stryker claimed that Bender had accidentally shot herself after he’d handed her the gun. He said he was showing it to her to prove he had “the tools” to accomplish stealing from the dealer and said she held the weapon incorrectly as she looked down at her phone.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Stryker testified about deciding to stab Bender to try to alleviate body fluid weight. He admitted to him and Reid wrapping her body in a blanket and putting it in Huff’s fire pit. He and Bailey Williams admitted to disposing of Bender's belongings near a campsite off of Nimblewill Gap Road.
Reid and Stryker admitted to moving the remains to a Blacks Mill Road residence on Sept. 16 using a toolbox that came from the truck and then stripping the vehicle of its parts, with Donaldson also allegedly helping.
A person living at the Blacks Mill property testified about witnessing the car cleanup and some of Stryker’s search for the items disposed of near the Nimblewill campground.
A farmer, as well as Stryker, testified about the defendant and Jerry Harper coming over to a farm property in Forsyth County to give away the Mazda truck. Stryker admitted to burying Bender.
Reid testified that Stryker had asked him to put dirt over the shallow grave. Reid agreed to do so until he eventually led authorities to the site.
Stryker also said that after others refused, Harper took him to West Virginia, where he initially wanted to stay at an ex-girlfriend’s place before he ended up temporarily homeless.
After Bender’s mother reported her missing on Sept. 19, law enforcement discovered the Mazda truck on Sept. 24, 2019. The next morning, authorities recovered her body from a shallow grave in northern Forsyth County.
Stryker turned himself into authorities in Pittsburgh, Pa. on Oct. 2, 2019. Meanwhile, Donaldson was arrested on Sept. 25, while Harper was booked two days later. Huff and Reid were arrested on Sept. 30. The next day, Williams was booked in Lumpkin County.
On Nov. 4, the state’s medical examiner, Keith Lehman, clarified that despite uncertainty over the order in which Bender’s wounds were inflicted, her cause of death was from shooting and stabbing, and he classified the manner of death as homicide.
Bender died from a gunshot wound to the head and at least 32 stab wounds to her neck, back, chest and side.
Furthermore, ballistics expert and Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent William Edison discussed the difficulties of accidentally shooting oneself with a Ruger .380, given its internal safety features. He added that mistakenly pulling the trigger with an inverted index finger and thumb position, like Stryker claimed, would likewise be challenging. Edison also said in his experience as a firearms safety instructor, that people unaccustomed to firearms like Bender are typically unwilling or heavily cautious about holding weapons at all.
Stryker was immediately taken into custody upon the announcement of his verdict. As previously mentioned, his sentencing hearing is expected to occur in the coming weeks.
DCN and its affiliate newspapers will provide updates about his sentencing and the others’ cases as more information becomes available.