Forand Jessica Devnani, 2018 was shaping up to be a year to remember.
“I was looking forward to getting married,” she tells “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant. “We’re going to have, like, the fairy-tale life.”
Patrick proposed just six months after they began dating – and ordered a custom-made engagement ring for Jessica. “He never got to give it to me,” says Jessica.
On February 27, 2018, Patrick was gunned down, ambush-style at the front door of his home Deltona, Florida, home.
Who would want to harm him? Detective Chad Weaver of the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office learned from Jessica that the couple had been harassed by her jealous former boyfriend, Greg Bender, who left the couple threatening messages.
“It’s almost like he never left. Like he was shadowing my life, like he was not accepting of it at all,” says Jessica.
Weaver knew he had a prime suspect in Bender, but little evidence linking him to the crime – until he got a tip from Bender’s former wife, who told the detective Bender had written a murder plan. But what were the chances Weaver would find it?
A DEADLY AMBUSH
What started as a slow Tuesday morning in 2018 for Volusia County, Florida, Sheriff’s Detective Chad Weaver changed dramatically when a fragmented 911 call from a neighbor reporting Patrick De La Cerda’s death came in.
OPERATOR: 911, where is your emergency?
CALLER: … has been shot and killed!
OPERATOR: When did that happen?
CALLER: I don’t know.
OPERATOR: You don’t want to try CPR, correct?
CALLER: No, No. He’s dead. He’s cold.
Within minutes, sheriff’s deputies wearing body cameras entered the lush, 9-acre compound on the outskirts of Deltona, worried that the killer may still be here.
DEPUTY [body cam video, shouting into the building]: Sheriff’s Office! If you’re inside, you need to announce yourself now!”
Detective Chad Weaver: When the deputies showed up, they had their guns out and … preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.
With the gunman still at large, Detective Weaver took charge of the crime scene as TV news choppers hovered above.
Det. Chad Weaver: As we walked up to that area, you could see a male, looked like he was in his early 20s … appeared that he was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.
WKMG NEWS REPORT: Deputies say someone shot right through his front door.
Patrick De La Cerda, 25, had been shot four times by a high-powered rifle, right in the doorway of the house he shared with his father, Max, who was out of town that day.
Max De La Cerda: I never got to say goodbye to my son, I never got to talk to him…nothing
Detective Chad Weaver: You could see the front door was open, there was glass all over the place, there’s a lot of blood. … You know, right off the bat you’re going, “OK, this is probably going to be a whodunit.”
At the scene, Detective Weaver and several deputies approached a traumatized Jessica Devnani, Patrick’s 29-year-old fiancée,
OFFICER: Whose house is this?
JESSICA DEVNANI: My boyfriend’s house and his dad’s house.
Jessica Devnani: I was just walking in circles around, like, the front yard, just pacing up and down.
OFFICER [to Jessica]: Ma’am, come over here. Stay here behind the tree.
Just two months earlier — at this very location — Patrick had popped the question to Jessica and presented her with a temporary engagement ring.
Jessica Devnani: It just came out of nowhere. … He just asked, “Like, you know, will you marry me?”
Peter Van Sant: And what did you say?
Jessica Devnani: Of course I said yes, I was so excited.
The marriage proposal couldn’t have come at a better time for Jessica, who worked as a bank teller. Months earlier, she had ended a tumultuous eight-year relationship and then met Patrick on a dating app.
Jessica Devnani: We just fell in love, like right away. … It was a connection from the beginning. So, it was kind of like love at first sight.
Jessica and Patrick, who worked a construction job with his father, partied and played together as their romance blossomed.
Patrick ordered a custom-made work of art to be delivered to his home for Jessica’s permanent engagement ring. He was a romantic, says his mother Patricia Ronze.
Patricia Ronze: Patrick was a wonderful son. … And he loved kids. He loved babies. … And I really was looking forward to have grandchildren from him.
Jessica and Patrick lived in different cities. She was in Orlando, while Patrick lived with his father in Deltona, 30 miles away.
On the night of February 26, 2018, Patrick left her this sweet voicemail:
PATRICK DE LA CERDA VOICEMAIL: “I love you, good night, sweet dreams. In the morning I’ll call you, I’ll send you a text when I wake up a little later, all right? Love you. … Good night, bye.”
It would be the last voicemail she would ever receive from her love. The next day, a series of what seemed like random events would change everything. The first came when Patrick’s father Max, who was 70 miles away working on a construction job, received a phone call.
Det. Chad Weaver: Max gets a phone call from an unknown person stating that they have a package to deliver to his son, Patrick. Max hangs up the phone, he tries to call Patrick. Patrick doesn’t answer. … So, he sends him a text message: “Hey, there’s someone with a delivery.” Max never hears from Patrick again after that. He never answers, never responds.
Meanwhile Max and Jessica kept calling Patrick with no luck. Jessica feared the worst because of those disturbing threats the couple had received.
Peter Van Sant: You’re thinking he’s been harmed?
Jessica Devnani: Yes. Yes. For sure.
Max and Jessica rushed to the house. She got there first.
Jessica Devnani: I’m approaching the front door and that’s where his body laid. … Patrick just laying there in this big pool of blood and just — he was just lifeless.
Soon after Jessica discovered her fiancé’s body, Patrick’s dad arrived. He took “48 Hours” back to the crime scene with Jessica.
Max De La Cerda: My son was lying down there [pointing to the floor inside the doorway]. His head was right there. His foot were still on top of this [tapping the second step of the staircase], so that means that he fell back.
Peter Van Sant: And that tells you the gunman was right here [standing outside the front door]. … Because no bullet can take a right-hand turn.
Max De La Cerda: That tells me — exactly, exactly. That guy was right there. My son saw this guy, he turned around and the guy shot him because my son was just like this.
Max De La Cerda [laying on the floor the way Patrick was found]: My son was like this.
Peter Van Sant: Wow.
Detective Weaver’s team combed through the house. They soon discovered that the killer had taken Patrick’s computer and the hard drive from the home’s security camera system. Investigators also recovered unique shell casings from 300 Blackout ammunition, bullets often used in semi-automatic weapons like an AR-15.
Det. Chad Weaver: When we saw the shell casings … with how close they were to the body … Immediately realized that this was a calculated murder. This was — this was planned.
But why would anyone want to kill Patrick De La Cerda? Weaver learned about a bizarre incident in 2017.
WKMG NEWS REPORT: In a strange twist, News6 has discovered the young man has been shot at before …
When Patrick called police, saying his neighbor had fired some bullets after arguments back and forth about trespassing. Patrick wasn’t harmed.
Det. Chad Weaver: There had been some complaints. … And Patrick felt that the neighbor was shooting towards their house.
There’s night footage of the man being tackled and arrested by police for that incident. It was an intriguing lead until Weaver learned the man was in custody on the day Patrick was murdered.
Det. Chad Weaver: We were able to check him off the list.
Detective Weaver then focused on some ominous voicemails that had been discovered:
GREGORY BENDER VOICEMAIL: “Call me back, talk to me.”
…. which led them to a man that Patrick and Jessica knew quite well.
GREGORY BENDER VOICEMAIL: “I’ll talk to you soon, I hope.”
Jessica Devnani: I was really scared because. … Like, he was always shadowing my life.
A couple in love with everything in front of them, dreams of marriage and family about to come true.
Then came February 27, 2018. When Jessica Devnani came upon her fiancé, Patrick De La Cerda in a pool of blood at his home shot four times at close range by an assassin.
Jessica Devnani: I think my mind just doesn’t want to accept it … My whole future was taken away. My whole world was taken away.
The ambush style-assault of Patrick made it seem like the killer was lying in wait. Detective Chad Weaver was hoping Jessica might have a lead that would jump start his investigation.
Det. Chad Weaver: And we were speaking to her about any enemies or any problems with anyone, you know, that Patrick had had.
The detective learned that there was someone who wasn’t happy with Jessica and Patrick’s whirlwind romance.
Peter Van Sant: Who was that person?
Jessica Devnani: My ex, Gregory Bender.
Jessica told Detective Weaver that right before she met Patrick, she broke up with Bender, her ex-boyfriend of eight years. It was a breakup that he was not happy with.
Jessica Devnani: He was not accepting of it—it’s almost like he never left. Like he was shadowing my life, like he was not accepting of it at all.
Det. Chad Weaver: He was very controlling.
And as Weaver was about to learn, Jessica and Bender had a very complicated, love-hate kind of relationship over the eight years they were together.
Jessica Devnani: He could be very charming and manipulative.
At 42 years old, Bender was almost twice Jessica’s age when they first met online in 2009. He was a successful hedge fund manager who lived in this house in Windemere, a wealthy suburb outside of Orlando.
Jessica Devnani: He had a very charismatic personality. He was very intelligent. … It felt like we’d known each other all our lives. He became my best friend.
Peter Van Sant: Was he a down-to-earth kind of guy?
Jessica Devnani: Not so much in the sense that he did like to show off. … He loved fast cars and he loved guns as well.
But what, if anything, did Gregory Bender have to do with Patrick’s death? Detective Weaver wanted to know more.
Det. Chad Weaver: Patrick was middle class, blue collar, hard-working young man. Gregory, on the other hand, who’s white collar, well educated, lived in a three quarter of a million dollar house … Totally different people from totally different walks of life.
Jessica told the detective that Greg Bender simply couldn’t tolerate the idea of any other man in her life. She told a story about what happened when she briefly dated someone else after first meeting Greg.
Jessica Devnani: He did stalk the person that I was dating. And he described exactly where he lived. And he said that he would tie him up and harm him.
Peter Van Sant: So, a relationship that had love in it now had a little bit of terror in it.
Jessica Devnani: I never feared what he could do to me, but I feared what he could do to other men.
Despite his jealousness and verbal threats, Jessica accepted Greg’s proposal to marry a few years into their relationship.
Jessica Devnani: I was in love with him at the time. And maybe I was a little bit naive at the time. I didn’t want to find someone else.
And there is another twist in Jessica’s twisted relationship with Gregory. In early 2016, he was having a procedure done at a local hospital. Jessica decided to drop by for a surprise visit. When she entered his room,was there.
Jessica Devnani: I was like, “what is she doing here?” And she’s like, “What are you doing here?” … And I told her, I’m like his fiancée and I showed her the ring. And then she showed me her ring. She’s like, “I’m his wife!”
She was Daymara Sanchez.
Peter Van Sant: He’s secretly married to this woman?
Jessica Devnani: Yes. … My heart just dropped. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock.
Several days passed when Bender finally called Jessica, and tried to explain that he had only married Sanchez so her son could go to school in the district where his house was located.
Jessica Devnani: And he said, “I’m so sorry.” … And he told me that he had only married her, as like, a business marriage. He was just trying to help her out and they had an arrangement together.
At that point, Jessica had sort of had enough.
Peter Van Sant: So, you end up giving Greg Bender an ultimatum. What was that?
Jessica Devnani: Yes, I told him that he had until the end of the year to leave her.
Peter Van Sant: He had to divorce her, not only leave but divorce.
Jessica Devnani: Yes.
But that “business marriage” line was just another of Bender’s lies and he stayed married to Sanchez. With that, Jessica finally ended the relationship in 2017. One month later, Jessica met Patrick and began dating him. But Bender was often on her mind.
Jessica Devnani: I was afraid that he would find out about our relationship.
But just five months after dumping him…
Jessica Devnani: Gregory Bender…came across our Facebook page.
Jessica Devnani: He immediately started messaging Patrick on his Facebook, threatening him … And he said, “I know where you live. I’m going to harm you guys.”
Bender left ominous voicemails like this one:
GREGORY BENDER: “I’m giving instructions. And I’m going to have my plan put into action.”
Peter Van Sant: What’s he talking about?
Jessica Devnani: At that point in time, he had mentioned to me that he was going to hire a hit man…or he was going to do the job himself.
Peter Van Sant: And what job was that?
Jessica Devnani: To kill Patrick.
Enough was enough. Jessica and Patrick had these tapes and text messages presented to a judge who issued a restraining order. Bender was ordered to stay away from Jessica and turn in his large collection of firearms to authorities.
Peter Van Sant: Did Greg Bender go away?
Jessica Devnani: We thought he did go away. We didn’t hear anything. And we felt confident.
Until she told Detective Weaver that on the morning of Patrick’s murder, Gregory Bender called for the first time in two months.
Jessica Devnani: He called my job that very morning.
But Jessica said she didn’t answer.
Det. Chad Weaver: So, when she got the phone call and saw on the caller ID that it was Gregory Bender, flags started going up and that’s what made her so worried.
Flags were also going up for Detective Weaver. He believed he now had a prime suspect in Patrick’s death. And, Weaver had an idea; now was the time for Jessica to return Bender’s calls and investigators would listen in.
Det. Chad Weaver: She really wanted to solve Patrick’s murder, so she did that without hesitation.
DET. WEAVER: OK, call him and put him on speakerphone.
GREGORY BENDER: Hello.
JESSICA DEVNANI: Hello.
Detective Weaver was hopeful Bender might say something to implicate himself:
JESSICA DEVNANI: You ruined my life. … You got your revenge, and you ruined my life.
GREGORY BENDER: What are you talking about?
THE MURDER PLAN
It was a tense, awkward moment. Just a few hours after she’d seen her fiancé’s body, investigators’ asked Jessica Devnani to call the man they thought may have murdered him. Gregory Bender quickly spoke up.
GREGORY BENDER: I saw what happened on the news, I want to tell you, I feel sorry for you.
Jessica Devnani: I just wanted to try to do everything I could to help the investigation.
She reminded Bender about his previous threats.
JESSICA DEVNANI: You said, “Enough is enough. I can’t do this. I’m going to hire a hitman. I’m gonna kill him.”
GREGORY BENDER: No. That’s not. No, no, no, I didn’t say that.
Peter Van Sant: Did you ask him outright, “did you shoot Patrick?”
Jessica Devnani: I did.
JESSICA DEVNANI: But that’s why I want to find out if it is you, like …
GREGORY BENDER: No, it’s not. I’m your friend. I did not do this.
Peter Van Sant: Could you tell he was lying to you?
Jessica Devnani: Yes, I could tell he was lying.
While Bender denied any involvement in Patrick’s death, Detective Chad Weaver says there was enough evidence to arrest him: not for murder, but for violating that restraining order.
Det. Chad Weaver: We had seen that he …. attempted to contact her twice at work, which we found was a violation of that injunction.
Even with Bender behind bars for the night, Detective Weaver didn’t have much to link him to Patrick’s murder. Then he received a phone call from the attorney of Bender’s now ex-wife Daymara Sanchez — the woman Jessica had first met in the hospital.
Det. Chad Weaver: And he said … “She has some information that will be valuable to your case.”
Sanchez asked to meet Detective Weaver in a parking lot.
Det. Chad Weaver: She’s very, very nervous. … She didn’t want us coming to her house.
It turns out Sanchez had a pretty good reason to be nervous. She was about to provide a crucial piece of evidence.
Det. Chad Weaver: So, we spoke with her, she had told us that … her and Gregory had gotten a divorce and she had moved out in December of 2017. Around that same time, she had discovered what she believed to be a murder plan in a spiral notebook that she had seen Gregory writing in in the past.
A murder plan, handwritten in a notebook detailing an elaborate plot to kill. Sanchez said when she confronted Bender about it, he told her it was all a fantasy. And she forgot about it until she saw the report that the man Bender was supposedly fantasizing about killing had just been murdered.
Det. Chad Weaver: Once she told us about the murder plan, that gave us what we needed to get into the house to see, you know, what else was in there.
Volusia County Prosecutor Ashley Terwilleger says learning about the murder plan was a potential game changer — if investigators could find it.
Ashley Terwilleger: So, the next day, February 28 of 2018, they execute the search warrant at Gregory Bender’s home in Orange County, Florida, in Windemere.
Detective Weaver had some doubts. But almost as soon as he entered Bender’s house, Weaver hit paydirt. He spotted several balls of crumpled-up note paper.
Det. Chad Weaver: I looked in the trash can and … I was in shock, there’s no way that we just found this murder plan. The first thing I wanted to do was reach in the trash can, grab it.
Weaver wisely held off while this paper was bagged and tagged for forensics. Later, when he was able to read the plan, it was just as Sanchez said — a detailed road map for murdering Patrick De La Cerda.
Det. Chad Weaver: Some of the first things in it were directions. … It actually had Patrick De La Cerda’s address. Howland Boulevard.
Weaver took “48 Hours” to the crime scene to explain how the plan matched the actual murder.
Det. Chad Weaver: This road leads down the side of the property, it’s off of Howland Boulevard. This is important because of the dirt road that was drawn on the murder plan runs down the side of the property. … It’s pretty heavily wooded down this way, so I think he walked on foot until he got to this opening and this is the area, we believe Gregory Bender accessed to sneak up on our victim. … The sketch of the property was spot on.
The plan was evidence of Bender’s obsession with detail and compulsion to kill, says Weaver.
The plan read: “Put duct tape on the bottom of a second pair of shoes so no tread prints” … “wait for confirm that he is alone. Then turn off cell phones” … “and dispose of clothes, plate, tracker, gloves”
With the murder plan in hand, Weaver had a powerful case against Bender. And with the discovery of this ammunition, there was now a direct link to those unique bullet shells found at the scene.
Ashley Terwilleger: They find that arsenal of 300-blackout ammunition.
Remember, Patrick was shot four times with that type of unique ammo, but only two shell casings were recovered at the crime scene. That’s what made another discovery by investigators at Bender’s house so important.
Ashley Terwilleger: They find a shell casing in a desk drawer, essentially a junk drawer.
Det. Chad Weaver: The casing … matched the two recovered shell casings from the crime scene. … Short of actually finding the murder weapon, um in my opinion, I think that was probably the most important piece of evidence that we found.
That’s because the murder weapon has never been recovered, although Jessica remembers seeing a powerful rifle at Bender’s house when they dated.
Peter Van Sant: The AR-15, this semi-automatic rifle. Did he have one of those?
Jessica Devnani: Yes, he did.
Det. Chad Weaver: I think it’s probably at the bottom of a lake somewhere.
The evidence was overwhelming – Weaver now had a clear and concise theory of the crime.
Det. Chad Weaver: Greg Bender was lying in wait in the bushes, just out of view. He made the phone call posing as a delivery man. Patrick receives a text message just thinking that he has a package.
Det. Chad Weaver: And as Patrick answered the door, he shot and killed him.
Less than 48 hours after Patrick’s death, an arrest warrant was issued for Gregory Bender, charging him with the murder. Volusia County sheriff’s deputies had an easy time locating their suspect, who had been released from jail after violating that restraining order. Bender was in his own front yard, says prosecutor Andrew Urbanak.
Andy Urbanak: Mr. Bender actually showed up, bonded out from the Orange County jail just a short time after they started executing that warrant.
Det. Chad Weaver: You can’t make this stuff up.
For Patrick’s mother, the arrest is just the first step against a man she despises.
Patricia Ronze: Psychopath, that’s what he is. … You want me to say his name? I’ll never pronounce his name. I don’t want to pronounce his name. That is hurting my mouth to just say his name.
Peter Van Sant: Why did Patrick have to die?
Jessica Devnani: Just out of jealousy of a man that was obsessed … and he thought that, by doing this, that I would go back to him.
But with no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and no DNA at the crime scene …
Richard Parker | Defense attorney: Ultimately, this case … is a circumstantial case.
… Bender and his attorneys are planning a vigorous trial defense.
And.using undercover video shot by a private eye, they plan to challenge Jessica on the stand about the real nature of her relationship with Greg Bender.
RICHARD PARKER [to Jessica in court]: You started dating Patrick in June. Why are you dining with Greg and going to Greg’s house in November of 2017 if you’re happily moving on with Patrick?
THE MURDER TRIAL
Two months after Patrick De La Cerda was gunned down as he went to his front door expecting to pick up that engagement ring for Jessica Devnani, she was finally able to put on the ring at her 30th birthday celebration — a surprise finally delivered by Patrick’s family.
Jessica Devnani: … he got me the perfect ring.
Peter Van Sant: Why do you wear that ring today?
Jessica Devnani: I wear it because Patrick will always be the love of my life.
And Jessica will be wearing the ring at the murder trial of Gregory Bender, her former boyfriend, who stands accused of stalking and killing the man she had hoped to marry.
This day could not have come soon enough, says Patrick’s devastated mother, Patricia.
Patricia Ronze: Jessica and I — we felt victimized every single day for three years-and-a-half because we have no voice, absolutely no voice.
Prosecutor Ashley Terwilliger is now the voice Patrick’s loved ones had longed for as she began her opening statement.
ASHLEY TERWILLIGER: Patrick de la Cerda was the victim of a murder, A detailed and meticulously thought-out murder plan and a tragic ending in which he was shot four times in the head, face, chest and hip.
Defense attorney Richard Parker says the state’s case is no slam dunk.
RICHARD PARKER: We will show that there’s more than just one or two people that have motive and opportunity in this case.
Jessica is the prosecution’s star witness and will be the first to testify.
Jessica Devnani: It was really hard. I was really nervous.
Jessica describes for the jury how Gregory Bender was a man consumed by jealousy, who made many threats.
JESSICA DEVNANI: He would message me saying if I didn’t leave Patrick, he would harm Patrick.
And Jessica read one of those threatening texts for the jury:
JESSICA DEVNANI: “Think about it. If I don’t hear from you or the cops call again, I’ll just do what I said and move on.”
Jurors learned that Bender went to extraordinary lengths to poison Jessica and Patrick’s relationship. On secretly recorded video, it appears Bender and Jessica are at lunch, and then a week later at a restaurant enjoying dinner, just a few months after she started dating Patrick.
PROSECUTOR ANDREW URBANAK: Did you actually see these videos?
JESSICA DEVNANI: I did.
The encounters were captured by a private investigator hired by Bender. There’s a scene of the two of them entering and leaving Bender’s home. He’s seen rubbing Jessica’s leg for the camera; they hold hands, and he leans in for a kiss.
Jessica Devnani: I felt really odd because I felt like he was trying to put on a show looking back, because he kept, like, trying to get close to me. … like trying to hold my hand, which he never used to do. … I was like, “what are you doing?” I was like, “we’re just friends right now. … what are you trying to do?”
But prosecutors say the video was all a setup.
ANDREW URBANAK: What did he do with it?
JESSICA DEVNANI: He had given it to Patrick.
ANDREW URBANAK: Did that cause some strife between you and Patrick and your relationship?
JESSICA DEVNANI: Yes.
JESSICA DEVNANI: We had a fight and we had broke up for a few days.
ANDREW URBANAK: Did the two of you end up getting back together after that?
JESSICA DEVNANI: Yes.
Defense attorneys tried to use their client’s video production to convince jurors that Jessica and Bender actually were more than just friends.
RICHARD PARKER: Why are you dining with Greg and going to Greg’s house in November of 2017 if you’re happily moving on with Patrick?
JESSICA DEVNANI: Because the defendant was threatening, and I was trying to calm him down. And he said that if I went to see him, he would not harm anyone.
The defense tries another tactic. Making what prosecutors say is an unfounded allegation that Patrick’s father Max was attracted to Jessica.
RICHARD PARKER [to Jessica]: Did Max De La Cerda comment in a very positive way regarding your appearance?
ANDREW URBANAK: Same objection judge, still a hearsay statement.
DEFENSE [to Max De La Cerda]: Would you say you had a good relationship with her?
MAX DE LA CERDA: I didn’t have any relationship with her at all!
That led to a combative cross examination when Max took the stand.
MAX DE LA CERDA: What you are asking me makes no sense! … I don’t think that has nothing to do with Patrick’s murder.
And the defense implied he may have had the motive…. and the opportunity to kill his own son because of discrepancies of his whereabouts that day.
RICHARD PARKER: Your girlfriend said that you were in fact staying with her//is it her memory that’s wrong or is it yours?
MAX DE LA CERDA: It might be mine, sir. I’m constantly on the go. I work here, I work there, I don’t keep track of phones, I don’t keep track of time. … so, what point are you trying to make? I don’t know!
Ashley Terwilleger: They wanted to blame it on Max and you can tell … he’s angry that his son was killed unnecessarily, violently, horrifically and now he has to be in a room with his son’s killer.
Throughout the trial, Bender remained stoic until his ex-wife Daymara Sanchez took the stand and spoke through an interpreter.
ANDREW URBANAK: Were you married to Mr. Bender?
DAYMARA SANCHEZ: Yes.
During Sanchez’ testimony, Bender broke down, showing emotion for the first time in the trial.
And jurors heard her audio interview with Weaver about the murder plan.
DAYMARA SANCHEZ: It was a plan to kill the guy.
DET. CHAD WEAVER: The guy is Patrick?
DAYMARA SANCHEZ: Yes.
During a break in her testimony, Bender appears to say “I love you” to someone … in the gallery and is admonished by an official.
Bender mouths “I love you”
COURT OFFICIAL: Don’t talk to anybody in the courtroom.
When Detective Weaver took the stand, the defense grilled him about the lack of forensic evidence in the case.
RICHARD PARKER: How about any hair or skin or DNA, anything like that from the scene that was helpful to your investigation?
DET. CHAD WEAVER: Uh, no, sir.
Prosecutors responded by calling cell phone experts who could connect Gregory Bender’s personal phone to a burner phone that was tracked to a cell tower near the murder scene.
ASHLEY TERWILLEGER: So, the burner phone … is the cellphone that made the call to Max De La Cerda that morning at 7:18 a.m.?
SGT. AMRHINE: Yes
ANDY URBANAK: The state would rest at this time.
After the prosecution rested, Gregory Bender chose not to testify.
JUDGE: Are you comfortable with the decision you made?
RICHARD PARKER: Yes.
ANDY URBANAK: Thank you, your honor.
JUDGE: Thank you.
For closing arguments, prosecutors said Gregory Bender was the only person who had motive to kill Patrick.
ANDY URBANAK: He couldn’t take that Jessica left him and wouldn’t come back to him because of Patrick De La Cerda.
In his closing, defense attorney Richard Parker insisted that Bender’s murder plan did not equate to guilt.
RICHARD PARKER: This case is about the difference between a fantasy and reality.
RICHARD PARKER: People should not be judged on their worst thoughts just because they put them to paper. But that’s what they’re doing in this case.
Finally, after four days of testimony, the case went to the jury. Prosecutor Andy Urbanak was uncertain about what verdict they’d come back with.
Andy Urbanak: Once it goes to a jury, we can’t make any guarantees.
But Jessica Devnani was confident a guilty verdict would finally put an end to Bender’s reign of terror.
JUDGE: It’s my understanding you have a verdict…
Jessica Devnani: I just wanted to see the expression on his face
Memories. Tender words from a son.
Max De La Cerda: This is from a Christmas card that he gave me. “Dad, with all my love, thank you for always being there for me. To many more years. Love, Patrick. [crying].
Max De La Cerda surrounds himself with reminders of his son, taken violently, and far too soon.
Max De La Cerda: I feel my son’s presence here. I haven’t moved his stuff, I haven’t, you know, everything is pretty much the same because I love this kid so much, man.
Patricia Ronze: The only reason it makes me feel better, is … I lost my child for love.
Patrick’s mother Patricia has found some solace in her suffering.
Patricia Ronze: He had love in his heart when he passed, he was going down the stairs to get … the ring.
And Jessica Devnani still wears that very engagement ring, in honor of a marriage that never took place.
Jessica Devnani: It’s been a hard past three years. I’ve been living in respect to Patrick.
But now, Patrick’s loved ones huddle together, hoping finally, three years after Patrick’s murder, the jury will give them justice.
During four days of testimony, they relived the horror of his death — listening to excruciating details of Bender’s murder plan.
WITNESS: We can see the entrance wound on the right side of the face.
JUDGE: It’s my understanding you have a verdict. Is that correct?
As the verdict was about to be read, Bender turned his head to Jessica.
Jessica Devnani: He was looking at me. … I don’t know what was going on in his head.
JUDGE: Madame clerk, if you can please read the verdict.
CLERK [reads verdict]: We the jury find the defendant, Gregory Bender, as follows guilty of the charge of first-degree murder as charged in the indictment.
Peter Van Sant: It’s guilty and his face does what?
Jessica Devnani: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
In Florida, a conviction of first-degree murder carries an automatic life sentence without parole. So just moments after the emotion of victory, Patrick’s loved ones are allowed to address the court as Gregory Bender listens just a few feet away.
PATRICIA RONZE: And I want to thank all of you for having put evil where it belongs.
Jessica then spoke but chose not to look at her tormentor.
JESSICA DEVNANI: You will not win. You have only lost. I hope you feel some peace Patrick. Rest assured the man who took your life is going to pay with his own life now.
Then it was Max’s turn.
MAX DE LA CERDA: I will miss my son. … And I regret that I wasn’t there for him to save him (cries).
Remember that during the trial, the defense shamefully tried to suggest that Max may have been involved in his son’s murder.
MAX DE LA CERDA [addressing Bender]: I hope they keep you in jail until you die there, until you die. Because the moment you step out, I’m going to finish you off. I’m going to peel you like an onion. The same thing you did to my son.
ANDREW URBANAK: Mr. De La Cerda, Max, you have to address the judge, you have to address the judge.
MAX DE LA CERDA: You understand that?
ANDREW URBANAK: … address the judge.
MAX DE LA CERDA: And I will miss my son. … he was a beautiful soul. A beautiful kid.
And with that, Gregory Bender was carted off to prison for the rest of his life.
Jessica Devnani: He lost everything. … He’s not going to win again, ever again.
Jessica and Patricia are angry that this restraining order they felt would offer protection for Patrick, turned out to be worthless.
Patricia Ronze: My son would be today alive if the restraining order had been enforced by the law enforcement.
Bender had been ordered to turn over his gun collection to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. He never did … and without probable cause for a search warrant, law enforcement lacked the authority to seize those weapons
Jessica Devnani: It failed us. It failed Patrick.
Now behind bars, the days of Gregory Bender lurking in the shadows of Jessica’s life are finally over.
Peter Van Sant: Will you go on with life, as Patrick would like you to do?
Jessica Devnani: I will. I will go on for Patrick. I will live in his happy memories close to my heart.
One week after Greg Bender’s conviction, was what would have been Patrick’s 29th birthday.
Jessica Devnani: Patrick’s mom and I, we went out to the cemetery in West Palm Beach and we just celebrated his life. We brought some cake, and we brought some champagne.
Peter Van Sant: And what did you say to Patrick on this birthday when you were at his grave?
Jessica Devnani: I said … “we finally did it. We got the guilty verdict.” … We always tell him we love him. … We will always love him.
Gregory Bender’s attorneys say they plan to appeal his conviction.
They contend the search of his house that produced the murder plan was illegal.
Produced by Chris O’Connell. Tamara Weitzman is the development producer. Jordan Kinsey is the field producer. Marlon Disla, Ken Blum and Grayce Arlotta-Berner are the editors. Kayla Laine is the associate producer. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcast producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.