A stolen Bible led to the arrest of two men charged Wednesday with robbing and fatally beating a 90-year-old man in his Carver County farmhouse.
One of the suspects had recently painted Earl Olander’s house and decided he was “an easy target because he was an old man that lived alone and had money,” the charges say.
The house painter, Reinol Godines Vergara, 35, of Richfield, and his alleged accomplice, Edson Celin-Dominguez Benitez, 29, of St. Paul, are in the Carver County jail in Chaska on second-degree murder charges, with bail set at $1.5 million apiece. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have placed detainers on both men, which indicates that they are suspected of being illegal immigrants.
Olander’s body was found on April 11, bound with duct tape and severely beaten in his ransacked farmhouse in the 16800 block of Homestead Road in San Francisco Township.
“We hope … that the people of San Francisco Township and Carver County can rest a lot easier tonight knowing they are in jail,” Sheriff’s Cmdr. Paul Tschida said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Chaska.
Key to the arrests was a tip from a citizen who found two savings bonds issued to Olander inside the large, European-language Bible while cleaning a St. Paul apartment once occupied by Benitez. Drew Evans, assistant superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, who also spoke at the news conference, said the case highlights the crucial role citizens can play in solving crimes.
The criminal complaint details how Vergara and Benitez allegedly planned to rob Olander, whose house and shed Vergara had painted.
“The defendant … had recently painted Olander’s house and shed [and] used Olander’s bathroom in his home and had been provided water by Olander while painting his home,” it said.
‘We totally trusted him’
Vergara’s employer at the time was Bill Boecker, a neighbor whose family for years treated Olander as a grandfather and included him in their holiday and birth celebrations.
Boecker said Vergara had worked for him for the past 10 to 12 years and has been with him “side by side renovating my whole house. We’re still not done yet.”
“We totally trusted him,” Boecker said. “And for something like this, we had no clue.”
Over the years, he said, the two had talked about all sorts of things, “normal conversations and about his brother who couldn’t get his life straight and the stupid stuff his brother did.”
Carver County Attorney Mark Metz said Vergara and Benitez drove from the Twin Cities on April 9 or 10 with the intention of robbing Olander. They entered the unlocked home through the back door and found Olander sleeping on a couch, the charges say. They covered his head with a blanket and beat him with a shotgun.
“Mr. Olander struggled with the men,” Metz said. “They beat him in the face, head and body.”
The charges offer a grim account of what police found at the scene: “Olander’s body was bound behind his back with duct tape [that] appeared to be stretched and worn, indicating Olander attempted to free himself. There was also duct tape on both ankles, although his ankles were not bound together when police arrived. … There was significant blood on the carpet [that] formed a large arch pattern, indicating his body has moved back and forth.”
Said Tschida: “It appeared as if he was thrashing about trying to get loose.”
Before the attackers fled, they ransacked Olander’s home and stole the Bible, as well as coins, old silverware and two-dollar bills.
Boecker said he found it “quite ironic that it was the Bible” that helped investigators make the arrests. “Think about that.”
The citizen who called police about the Bible found it while cleaning a recently vacated apartment in St. Paul. Inside were two $1,000 saving bonds issued to Olander. The citizen searched the Internet for Olander’s name, found he was a crime victim, and contacted authorities. Investigators found that Benitez had occupied that apartment.
Neither defendant has been convicted of a violent crime in Minnesota. Both have numerous convictions for driving on an invalid or revoked license. Vergara also has been convicted of drunken driving.
Along with the murder allegations, Vergara is in trouble with federal immigration authorities because he is in the country illegally from his native Mexico, his lawyer said.
Attorney Ignatius C. Udeani said the judge raised concerns about Vergara being a flight risk when setting his bail. Udeani said Vergara and Benitez have been friends for about four or five years.
There is also an immigration detainer on Benitez, ICE confirmed Wednesday.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Olander’s niece, Mary Rothfusz, thanked those who worked on the case. “He was a loving uncle,” she said.
Olander, a lifelong bachelor, lived in a home that had been in his family for many decades on 160 acres about halfway between Chaska and Belle Plaine. His neighbors have described him as independent and generous.
“I loved him,” Bill Boecker’s wife, Maria, said Tuesday night. “It’s devastating. Not a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about it. I walk by his house every day and planted flowers there today.”