Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Man's Criminal Past Raises Questions on Charity Work; FORMER BAD GUY Records Show Past Involvement in Weapons Stockpiling, Sex with Former Stepdaughter. HAS HE REFORMED? Military Veteran Is Now the Chairman of a Foundation That Helps Trafficking Victims

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Man's Criminal Past Raises Questions on Charity Work; FORMER BAD GUY Records Show Past Involvement in Weapons Stockpiling, Sex with Former Stepdaughter. HAS HE REFORMED? Military Veteran Is Now the Chairman of a Foundation That Helps Trafficking Victims

Article excerpt

Byline: KATE HOWARD

The Defender Foundation's chairman, Dan Benedict, has a stated mission to defend the defenseless and those lost in darkness. But Benedict's own criminal history has dealt a blow to his agency and pits his claim of rehabilitation against the need for caution.

Benedict was featured in a Times-Union story on Nov. 12 as part of a growing movement in Jacksonville to combat human trafficking. The newspaper learned after publication that Benedict has a felony conviction stemming from a 2002 sexual incident with his then 16-year-old stepdaughter. Newspaper archives and court records also show evidence of past involvement in the stockpiling of stolen military weapons by a white separatist movement.

Benedict, a military veteran who often jokes he has a hero complex, said the Defender Foundation's board members know all about his past, and he's not the same person he once was. But those outside of his inner circle had no idea that the man speaking so passionately about victims had once victimized a child and was associated with a hate group leader.

Benedict sat on the community portion of the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of law enforcement and nonprofit agencies that seek to fight human trafficking and organize resources for victims. Members of the task force said they didn't know about Benedict's past and the lack of disclosure was serious enough to raise questions.

Chairwoman Robin Rossmanith said the task force is temporarily disbanding while it establishes a formal process to vet current and new members as a result.

Benedict's victim and her family fear that he will have contact with victimized and vulnerable girls.

"If you have someone with a drinking problem, don't drop them off at the bar and tell them not to drink," said Holly, Benedict's former stepdaughter. "Don't put that temptation in your life. In my mind, it's common sense."

The Times-Union does not identify sex crime victims, but Benedict's stepdaughter allowed her first name to be used. Now 24, Holly said she is worried he will use his position to gain another girl's confidence and put that girl through the same thing she's lived with for eight years.

Benedict said those worries are unfounded because he's a changed man who has accepted Jesus into his heart. He said he will never be alone with a victim, and his agency has strict boundaries to protect everyone it sets out to help.

"My ex-family hasn't seen what I've tried to do with my life," Benedict said. "It sounds cliche, but every day I wake up and try to be the best man I can be. The people who support me know who I am."

FELONY PAST

The chairman of the new nonprofit agency established himself as an authority on human trafficking, passing out fliers at awareness events and attending task force meetings. Benedict assembled ex-military and current law enforcement volunteers for the team he wants to turn into a licensed security force. Already, the agency assisted in two rescue attempts, one successful.

At a recent Defender Foundation meeting that drew about 40 current and prospective volunteers, Benedict stood at the podium and gave the crowd a retooled introduction.

He detailed much of his past - ex-military, bounty hunter, scuba diving instructor, critical care nurse - and then gave a shortened version of his biggest regret. In a measured, soft voice that belies his large frame, he explained his moment of "drunken stupidity."

When asked to explain the incident to a reporter, Benedict said he had a "pity party" at home in March 2002 while his wife was on a cruise. He got drunk and gave his stepdaughter Holly a few wine coolers the day after her 16th birthday.

She was a hellion, Benedict said, always getting in trouble.

He admitted there was "inappropriate touching," and said he won't blame the alcohol. …

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