TAMPA — Tucked in a crawlspace inside a tree-shaded house on Chateau Drive in Clearwater, a locked safe held answers to a 44-year-old secret.
Federal agents executed a search warrant there last November. In the safe, they found high school and college diplomas belonging to Douglas Edward Bennett, who vanished in 1976 from Connecticut after he was ordered to serve prison time for a rape and kidnapping he insisted he did not commit.
They also found a letter referring to Bennett and Gordon Ewen, handwritten notes detailing the first time Bennett used Ewen’s identity, social security numbers for both, and other items linking the pair. Those and other details were revealed in a court paper prosecutors filed recently in the case.
On Thursday, the man once known as Douglas Bennett, but long known as Gordon Ewen, pleaded guilty to charges of passport fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Bennett, 77, appeared from the Pinellas County Jail on a Zoom video screen before U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Jenkins. He wore orange jail garb, a long white beard showing behind a medical mask as he peered he through eyeglasses.
“Is Douglas Edward Bennett your true name?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Have you ever used another name?”
“What other names have you used?”
He faces a minimum of two years in prison for the identity theft charge, and a maximum of 12 years total.
Bennett’s family maintains he was innocent in the Connecticut case. His granddaughter, Kaytee Gallagher, told the Tampa Bay Times that they hope he may be exonerated through the testing of DNA evidence.
“There were a lot of things about this case back then that did not happen properly,” she said.
Bennett, a former college drama instructor, was accused in 1974 of perpetrating a Valentine’s Day kidnapping and sexual assault against his employer’s 22-year-old daughter. It happened in Wethersfield, a small city near Hartford, Conn.
During the attack, the woman managed to glimpse her assailant’s face. Hearing her description later, her father told police it sounded like Bennett.
But Bennett claimed it was a case of mistaken identity. He went to trial in 1975. A jury deliberated over three days before finding him guilty. The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld Bennett’s conviction in 1976. Thereafter, he was to begin serving a sentence of nine to 18 years in prison. But he never showed. An arrest warrant was issued.
The same year, according to federal court records, Bennett applied for and received a late-issued social security number in the name of Gordon Ewen. The real Gordon Ewen was born in Massachusetts in 1940 and died on Feb. 13, 1945.
Bennett received six U.S. passports in Ewen’s name since 1977, prosecutors said. He last received a renewed passport in 2016. The Department of State identified the fraud during a review of late-issued social security numbers. Their Diplomatic Security Service arrested Bennett last year at the home on Chateau Drive, where he’d lived since at least 1994.
The court paper includes snippets of things Bennett said during recorded video visits with his family at the Pinellas County Jail.
“I would have explained to him (the federal judge) the entirety of things,” he is quoted as saying, “said yes I started out as Douglas Bennett, but Douglas Bennett ceased to exist in 1977 ... and from that time forward, I’ve spent 43 years being Gordon Ewen.”
Bennett also pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. When agents searched his home, they found in the garage a locked room that held what was described in court as a “firearm storage and reloading area.” They seized five guns and 4,819 rounds of ammunition.
Connecticut prosecutors said after his arrest that they would try to bring Bennett back to their state. It’s unclear if that’s still the case. Brian Preleski, the state’s attorney for the New Britain Judicial District, near Hartford, did not return a call for comment.
“This man isn’t a rapist on the run,” Bennett’s granddaughter said. “This man has paid his taxes every single year. He’s never had so much as a speeding ticket.”
In court, Bennett was asked if he understood there were no guarantees about his possible sentence in the federal case.
“I do understand that,” he told the judge. “And at my age, I do understand that there are no guarantees for anything.”