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Judge asked to jail suspected "Handcuff Man'

The scene was eerily familiar.

Last week, lawyer Robert Lee Bennett Jr. pleaded guilty to charges that he picked up a man at a Tampa Salvation Army, drugged him and set him afire. A judge let Bennett remain out on bail until March to plead guilty to similar charges in Georgia and to see his mother.

Now, a Tampa police detective says he saw Bennett cruising in a convertible around that same Salvation Army, stopping to talk to a man along the way.

For investigators, that's too close for comfort. They want him in jail.

Now.

"He was seen down there at the same time of day that he picked up Gary Clapp and at the same location that he picked up Gary Clapp," said Tampa prosecutor Chip Purcell, who filed a motion Friday to have Bennett's $300,000 bond revoked. "And he's already admitted the crime he committed against Gary Clapp."

Exactly one year ago today, Clapp was a laborer looking for work when he met the stranger outside the Salvation Army on N Florida Avenue and accepted a ride in his big, white car. Investigators say Clapp, 36, was given drug-laced vodka, doused in a flammable substance and set on fire in a remote area of the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

He was so horribly burned that his legs had to be amputated.

Police have long suspected that Bennett, who divided his time among Clearwater, Atlanta and a family estate in Pennsylvania, is Atlanta's infamous Handcuff Man. That figure was said to stalk Atlanta's gay community for decades, picking up men, drugging them and sometimes handcuffing and torturing them.

Bennett, 44, is charged with aggravated assault and battery in Atlanta incidents in 1985 and 1991 that left two men burned.

Along with his attorneys, Bennett proclaimed his innocence. But last week, he pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of Clapp, accepting a 17-year prison sentence.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge B. Anderson Mitcham allowed Bennett to remain free on $300,000 bail so Bennett could deal with the Atlanta cases and spend time with his 85-year-old invalid mother in Clearwater. He was told to turn himself in to the Hillsborough court March 9.

"I'm trusting you as a man and as a lawyer," the judge said before releasing Bennett.

But according to court records, Bennett didn't spend all of his time in his mother's Clearwater condominium. Tampa police Detective Bob Holland, who worked Bennett's case, said he saw Bennett driving his red convertible on several streets around that same Salvation Army, which is two blocks from the Tampa Police Department.

"Detective Holland saw the defendant stop his car and talk to a male person that was walking down the street," prosecutors wrote in the motion asking the judge to revoke Bennett's bond. It was unclear from court records exactly when Holland saw Bennett, but the motion says the act is similar enough to the night of the crime to warrant revoking his bail.

Bennett's attorney, Rochelle Reback, disagreed.

"Whether he was out there or not, it's not a violation of his bond," she said. "He was specifically permitted to be in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties."

Max Shrader, the victim in the 1985 case in Atlanta, said he wasn't surprised to hear this recent report about Bennett.

"That was dumb on that judge's part down there. He just gave him a few days to play with somebody else," Shrader said.

"But his playing isn't too gentle," he said. "He left me for dead."

Judge Mitcham wasn't available to hear the matter Friday afternoon. The hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, after Bennett returns from Atlanta.

There, his attorneys say, he will plead guilty to the two cases against him and receive a sentence of 17 years in prison, to run at the same time as his Florida sentence. That means he will serve no additional time on the Georgia cases.

Shrader said he plans to be there to protest the sentence.

"He's a serial criminal," he said. "He's not going to stop."

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