A lawyer accused in sadistic attacks on men in Tampa and Atlanta pleaded guilty Thursday to setting a man on fire and leaving him to die on the Courtney Campbell Parkway last year.
Attorneys for Robert Lee Bennett Jr., whom police have called Atlanta's mysterious Handcuff Man, announced he also will plead guilty Feb. 24 to attacking two men in Atlanta.
For the Tampa man who was burned so badly that his legs had to be amputated, Thursday's plea was a relief.
"My life's going to be tough," said Gary Clapp, 36. "But now the toughest part is over."
As he stood thin and frail with his arms crossed before him, Bennett was sentenced to 30 years in prison, to be suspended after 17 years. He also must pay $42,000 toward Clapp's medical bills as part of the plea agreement with Tampa prosecutors.
"I think that in view of the evidence that it is in Bob's best interest to go ahead and enter this plea," said his attorney, Guy Notte.
Bennett made no comments in court. If tried and convicted, he could have been sentenced to 12 to 17 years under the guidelines.
The 44-year-old lawyer, who lives with his invalid mother in Clearwater, was accused of picking up the unemployed laborer Feb. 22, giving him a drug-laced drink, and then setting him afire. A police officer who thought he saw a bonfire burning out of control discovered Clapp on the Courtney Campbell Parkway and put out the flames with a fire extinguisher.
"This is clearly one of the most heinous crimes I've ever prosecuted," said Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Chip Purcell.
Bennett also was charged with setting two men on fire in Atlanta, one in 1985 and one in 1991. He is suspected of being that city's infamous Handcuff Man, who is rumored to have roamed Atlanta's gay community for decades, offering cash to get men to drink with him and then drugging them.
He sometimes handcuffed and tortured his victims by pouring flammable liquid on their genitals or burning them with cigarettes.
Bennett, who has divided his time between Tampa, Atlanta and a family estate in Pennsylvania, was scheduled to go to trial here next month.
"I'm confident the disposition was favorable both for the state and for Gary Clapp as an individual," said prosecutor Dale Sisco.
For the two Atlanta victims sitting in court Thursday, there was a bombshell: Notte announced Bennett would plead guilty Feb. 24 to two cases of aggravated assault and aggravated battery in the Atlanta incidents and would receive 17-year sentences to run at the same time as his Florida sentence.
The Atlanta victims said they were shocked and angered to hear about the pleas in the Atlanta cases.
"I just don't believe it's fair," said Atlanta house painter Max Shrader. In 1985, he said, Bennett approached him on an Atlanta street, made propositions and gave him drug-laced vodka. Barely conscious, Shrader was pulled by his hair into Bennett's car, set on fire and burned on his legs and genitals, according to court records.
"He can get somebody else," said Michael Jordan, who accepted a ride in a stranger's car in Atlanta, shared some vodka and woke up in the hospital, badly burned on his buttocks, stomach and genitals. "And they will have to go through the pain that me and my family went through."
Hillsborough Circuit Judge B. Anderson Mitcham allowed Bennett to remain free so he can enter his plea in Atlanta, tend to his personal affairs and spend time with his 85-year-old mother. He is out on $300,000 bail.
He must turn himself in to the Tampa court at 8:30 a.m. March 9, Mitcham said.
"I'm trusting you as a man and as a lawyer," the judge told Bennett.
From his wheelchair, Clapp got his first in-person look at Bennett since the night of the incident. He watched Bennett carefully.
"I was dreading the trial," Clapp said.
Shrader said he always will remember Bennett's face.
"He took a book of matches and held it by his face that night, and the glow was on his face," Shrader said. "This is how I remember him."