Shocking new details in the 2019 murder of Hannah Bender were revealed on Wednesday morning as two suspects entered guilty pleas in the case, giving sworn testimony before the Northeastern Judicial Circuit Court on how and why the murder occurred.
Isaac Thomas Huff and Dylan Patrick Reid, two of five people charged by north Georgia law enforcement officials following the disappearance and murder investigation of 21-year-old Bender, appeared in court on Wednesday, April 7, pleading guilty to aggravated assault, violation of Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, concealing a death and tampering with evidence before Superior Court Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin.
Huff and Reid, who were facing prison sentences upwards of 60 years for their part in Bender’s murder, were sentenced to 12 and 15 years in prison respectively by Gosselin.
As part of negotiated plea deals with the state, both men testified for nearly an hour each on what took place on the night Bender was murdered, laying out how the woman was lured from her home, killed and buried in north Forsyth County.
According to Huff and Reid’s testimony, Bender’s murder was allegedly planned and orchestrated by Austin Todd Stryker and sanctioned by Jerry Harper, the top-level members of a small criminal gang known only as “THIS”.
Huff, Reid and several other individuals not included in the Dawson County indictment were also members of the gang, which according to testimony participated in low-level drug crimes and several armed robberies of grocery stores in the Dawson and Lumpkin County areas.
In his testimony to the court, Huff said that Bender was lured from her home by Stryker late in the night on Sept. 14, 2019, and was told that they were going on vacation to Florida. Bender left her home with a packed bag, riding the back of a Mazda pickup truck with Huff and Stryker.
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As the vehicle neared the Sweetwater Juno Road area of Dawson County, Bender was allegedly shot in the head without warning by Stryker.
"Somewhere around the area of Sweetwater Juno Road and Duck Thurmond road, she is shot in the head, mid-sentence," Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said. "After she's shot in the head, we know that she was alive briefly."
Bender, still alive but critically injured, was then taken to the residence where Huff lived and was allegedly stabbed to death by Stryker, while still laying in the back seat of the parked vehicle.
According to Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva, an autopsy of Bender's body showed that the woman was stabbed 32 times throughout her body, following the gunshot to her head.
Questioning Huff and Reid on their involvement in the stabbing, Sachdeva said that the wounds inflicted against Bender suggested that there may have been more than one person stabbing her. But both men denied that they took part in the stabbing, claiming that the second bout of violence took place when they were inside the residence preparing to wrap and dispose of the 21-year-old’s body.
"Mr. Reid says that when he came back outside Stryker is covered in blood, he's wiping a knife on the ground," Greer said.
Both men confessed that they had heard Stryker say many times that he intended to kill Bender, and believed that Stryker would carry out the murder.
"I remember hearing about how a blond-headed girl has to go," Reid said during his testimony. "Then he mentioned Hannah Bender's name a couple of times, saying that she's got to die, she's got to be taken care of."
Neither man could give an exact reason for why Stryker had wanted to kill Bender, but both repeated rumors that she had blackmailed Stryker for his involvement in the gang’s robberies or had wronged him in some other way.
Following the stabbing, Bender’s body was placed into a large toolbox, the kind that is usually seen in the back of a work truck, which was transported several days later to a location off of Parks Road in north Forsyth County, where Bender’s body was buried in a shallow grave.
Bender was later reported missing by her mother on Sept. 19, and shortly after bloody pieces of her clothing were found in Dawson County. Bender’s body was discovered on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, after interviews with Reid led them to the property in north Forsyth County.
In a matter of days after locating Bender’s body, authorities arrested Huff, Reid, Harper and Elizabeth Donaldson, Stryker’s wife, and had filed warrants and a nationwide BOLO for Stryker’s arrest.
Stryker was taken into custody by authorities in early October 2019 and has since been returned to the custody of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, where he remains incarcerated under no bond.
Stryker faces multiple felony murder charges, a charge of malice murder, aggravated assault and battery, concealing the death of another and violation of the state’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
Harper has been indicted on felony counts of hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal, theft by receiving stolen property and violation of the state’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
Sachdeva told the court that despite how horrible Huff and Reid’s actions were, their sworn testimony is critical to the state’s case against Harper and Stryker, and for that reason only was the prosecution willing to cut a deal with them.
"The facts of the case are the kind that will shock your conscience, they are horrifying ... When I first heard the facts of this case, the gut reaction is that everybody who's involved, including these two defendants, need to go to prison for life," he said. "But the reality of the situation is that Austin Stryker is the one that needs to go prison for life, he is the primary responsible party in this case and he is who we are focused on."
"That's why the state needs them, doesn't mean that they get a pass," he added.
As part of their plea agreement, Huff will spend 12 years in jail and 18 years on probation, Reid will spend 15 years in jail and 20 years on probation. In addition to the fines and other penalties levied against the two men, Reid has also been banished from the Northern Judicial Circuit.
`When I came this morning ... I was very skeptical about whether I would accept this plea, 12 and 15 years in prison does not seem nearly enough for your participation in this horrendous act," Gosselin said. "But the state has done a great job today of explaining more of the details than I had when we started this, explaining more of the issues that arise by not accepting these pleas.”
Court records show that Harper and Stryker are set to appear in court next week on April 16, 2021, for a calendar call.