Teen in Englewood chef death found guilty of felony murder

Raheem Vaughn Benson left evidence on Facebook, showed up on surveillance, prosecutors said

Posted 3/22/18

A teenager accused of the 2016 fatal shooting of an Englewood man near a convenience store was found guilty of second-degree murder, criminal attempt to commit aggravated robbery and first-degree …

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Teen in Englewood chef death found guilty of felony murder

Raheem Vaughn Benson left evidence on Facebook, showed up on surveillance, prosecutors said

Posted
A teenager accused of the 2016 fatal shooting of an Englewood man near a convenience store was found guilty of second-degree murder, criminal attempt to commit aggravated robbery and first-degree felony murder.
 
Raheem Vaughn Benson's verdict came March 22 in Arapahoe County District Court in Centennial, where about a dozen family members and loved ones of victim Nicholas Lewis let out hushed sobs amid embraces after the judge read the jury's decision.
 
The top count, felony murder, qualifies as first-degree murder not due to deliberating before the shooting, but because the jury found Benson to have killed Lewis in the act of attempting robbery with a weapon.
 
That is likely to garner a life sentence for Benson, of Littleton, who was 16 years old around the time of the incident.
 
The defense attorney for Benson painted the case as a frame job by the other teenager in the incident, Louis Fernando Lara-Macias, who received a youth-prison program sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder as of Oct. 19.
 
The defense attorney, Allen Chaney, implied that the incident wasn't actually a robbery attempt — because cash, cards and Lewis' phone weren't missing at the scene — and that Benson was not involved at all.
 
“Benson is sitting at that table not because he did anything wrong, but because he is the collateral consequence of (Lara-Macias) trying to get himself out of trouble,” said Chaney, a deputy state public defender.
 
Trip to the corner store
 
Lara-Macias, of Englewood, testified during the trial for Benson that he didn't remember whether he gave the gun that killed Lewis to Benson before Benson got out of the vehicle they were in, but it could have happened.
 
Benson and Lara-Macias — who was also 16 around the time of the shooting the night of Oct. 1, 2016 — were driving on their way to Elitch Gardens, according to Judge Andrew C. Baum's summary of Lara-Macias' testimony, when they saw Lewis walking in the area of a 7-Eleven along South Broadway in Englewood.
 
According to the summary:
 
Lara-Macias told Benson, “If you want him, you can have him,” and Benson got out of the car with a Halloween mask and a 9 mm handgun to rob Lewis. Lara-Macias drove the stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee around the block.
 
Benson fired his gun multiple times, killing Lewis. Benson had pointed the gun at Lewis in a robbery attempt, and Lewis pushed the gun away, Benson told Lara-Macias. That's when Benson shot him, according to testimony.
 
Lewis had been walking from the convenience store around the 3000 block of South Acoma Street to his home about a block away. He was a 33-year-old chef at the Blackbird Public House restaurant in Denver and father of a then-8-year-old son.
 
One witness called it a “robbery gone wrong.” Chaney argued that the case became a vehicle for Lara-Macias to frame Benson while earning himself a lesser sentence — calling into question who was behind Facebook posts that appeared to incriminate Benson as well as what Chaney said was a lack of DNA evidence.
 
The prosecution disputed those details and said Lara-Macias came clean before having awareness of a chance for a more lenient sentence.
 
'Who do you believe?'
 
The defense painted Lara-Macias as untrustworthy, telling the court the teenager told police he only has a gun for emergencies but a video showed his 9 mm firing out of a stolen car.
 
“He told you, I'm so sad about this, and that's just completely inaccurate,” Chaney told the jury.
 
The defense's evidence doesn't show Benson held the gun, Chaney said, but a witness said if it rained, water could have washed off fingerprints easily. Chaney asked why a mask allegedly worn by the shooter wasn't tested for DNA. Around the time of the crime, the Jeep the teens drove was involved in a felony-menacing incident in Westminster, and Lara-Macias and Benson were both arrested.
 
The gun found under the passenger seat in the Jeep contained a bullet that matched the bullet that killed Lewis.
 
On Facebook, a status posted after the incident on an account with photos of someone who appears to be Benson reads, “Call me 3 shots.” Lara-Macias on Facebook said, “I heard them three shots.” The defense said four shell casings were found, but Lara-Macias said he heard three gunshots.
 
Around that time, the profile picture for the first account changed to a photo of a person who prosecutors say is Benson wearing the white Halloween mask and posing with the gun stuck partly in his shorts, the same pair he was wearing in a home-surveillance video they say caught Benson in the area at the time of the incident.
 
Benson also appeared to wear the shorts at a King Soopers with Lara-Macias a few hours before the shooting, according to surveillance footage, a prosecutor for the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office said.
 
An iPad belonging to Benson “mysteriously reappeared” unlocked at Englewood High School after the shooting, Chaney said, around when the two teenagers spent about 2 1/2 weeks in custody, which began Oct. 3.
 
It turned up “with Facebook running and with Facebook not password-protected,” Chaney said. “So for (weeks), someone would have had the ability to post from Benson's account.”
 
Benson's mother said she believed the iPad to be stolen, but there was never a report of a stolen iPad, said Brittany Martin, 18th Judicial District prosecutor, after arguing Lara-Macias would have to be a “brilliant criminal mastermind” to frame Benson.
 
“He would have to somehow (access) the defendant's Facebook account, plant the image of him,” Martin said, “and somehow get it back to Englewood High School, even though he had been in custody for three weeks.”
 
Chaney said Lara-Macias was angry with Benson some time around the incident, and that his anger influenced what he told authorities. The prosecution said Lara-Macias lied to police at first to protect Benson but later told them his initial statements were false. He didn't know police were “onto him” at that point and hadn't been charged, but he implicated himself and Benson in the crime, which the prosecution argued is a testament to his honesty.
 
He didn't have any promise for a lesser sentence when he admitted wrongdoing, Martin said.
 
Grief and consequences
 
On Dec. 7, Baum, the judge, handed Lara-Macias a sentence of 21 years in the Colorado Department of Corrections for his murder charge but said that would be suspended upon successful completion of seven years in the state's Youthful Offender System, which houses offenders who are in their mid-to-late teens at the time of their crime.
 
Benson's request to be transferred to juvenile court, denied on Oct. 18, could have allowed him incarceration in juvenile facilities. But he was tried as an adult.
 
Lara-Macias waived his right to a reverse transfer hearing — where attorneys could have made the same request as for Benson — and opted instead for a plea deal as an adult. That deal dropped the original first-degree murder charge against him.
 
Benson also faced a charge of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, but Baum did not find that the evidence suggested an agreement before the incident to commit murder. Baum dismissed that charge, and the jury did not consider the matter.
 
The general sentence for a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder is life with the possiblity of parole after 40 years, according to the defense.
 
Several of Lewis' family members spoke in court at Lara-Macias' sentencing, venting the grief and emotional challenges they've faced since his death.
 
“There will be no more soccer practices, bike rides or pillow fights with (his son's) dad,” said Maria Kuntz, mother of their son Liam and Lewis' ex-wife. “This crime did not end” at the time.
 
“That Saturday was truly just the beginning.”

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