BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Janine Marie Benintende and Tracie Johnn’a Clark came from vastly different backgrounds, but they met their end in similar circumstances.
Killed a year and a week apart in the 1980s, both died on the day they arrived in Bakersfield. Both were last seen on Union Avenue. Their bodies were found in the Arvin-Edison Canal.
And the last person they encountered before bullets were fired into them was then-Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy David Keith Rogers.
“The victims suffered,” District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said Thursday morning as Rogers’ penalty phase retrial began in Kern County Superior Court. “He disrespected them by cruelly and callously taking their bodies and throwing them into a canal, like a piece of garbage.”
In 1988, Rogers was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death for killing Benintende, 20, and Clark, 15.
Now, at the age of 75 and after more than three decades in San Quentin State Prison, Rogers is back in Bakersfield to determine whether he’ll be resentenced to death, or to life without the possibility of parole.
The state Supreme Court in 2019 overturned his death sentence after determining a prosecution witness whose testimony was used during the penalty phase falsely testified he sexually assaulted her. His murder convictions remain intact.
Zimmer, during a roughly 90-minute opening statement, gave the jury an overview of the case, from the background of the victims to evidence including tire tracks, shoeprints and ballistics evidence linking Rogers to the crime. She displayed photos of the victims taken when they were alive, and on the autopsy table. She showed a photo of the 3-month-old fetus Clark was carrying when killed.
She talked about Rogers’ troubled history with the sheriff’s office — he was fired in 1983 but the decision was later reversed — and how his crimes were motivated by “corruption, obsession and retaliation.” Rogers had a fixation on prostitutes and engaged in sex acts with women, especially young women, at seedy motels on Union Avenue, Zimmer said.
And she let jurors hear from Rogers himself. In an interview recorded after his arrest, he admitted killing Clark.
“Yeah, I shot her,” Rogers said in a brief snippet of the interview played for the jury.
Rogers said he picked up Clark, who was working as a prostitute, and took her to a remote location where they got in a fight over money. He said she started running away and he shot her to prevent her from reporting the incident.
“David Keith Rogers murdered two young women despite taking an oath to protect and serve,” Zimmer said.
She told the jury the evidence will show the aggravating circumstances in the case are so great that death is a just penalty.
Rogers’ attorney, Assistant Public Defender Tanya Richard, told jurors in her opening statement it’s up to them, and them alone, to determine what would be an appropriate sentence for her client.
“What does justice entail?” she said. “Justice can be a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Justice can be a sentence of death.”
The jury will hear testimony of Rogers’ upbringing and difficult home life, of alcoholism and struggle with addiction.
Despite what the prosecution says about Rogers’ unrepentance, he did express remorse, Richard said. He broke down crying when told Clark was 15, she said.
Richard also noted Rogers, 40 at the time of his arrest, spent a “long time” on suicide watch. He wanted to punish himself by killing himself, she said.
“Wanting to end your life because of what you’ve done absolutely shows remorse,” the attorney said.
He’s led a lonely, isolated existence since then, with no close connection to family — he has an ex-wife and adult children — or anyone, for that matter, Richard said.
She asked the jury show a “reasoned, moral” response when it comes time to deliberate.
The trial resumes Monday and is expected to last several weeks.
Benintende came from a loving family who moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles in the 1980s, Zimmer said. Her parents ran a successful cosmetics business in Hollywood where Benintende worked as a teenager.
But somewhere along the line her life began to unravel. It may have started when her father left, Zimmer said. Her mother remarried and Benintende began using drugs. She got addicted. Then she started selling her body for money.
Looking for an escape, she left Los Angeles with someone and planned to travel back to the East Coast. She made it as far as Bakersfield.
Benintende checked into a motel on Union Avenue in late January 1986. Another woman working as a sex worker saw her get in a vehicle, Zimmer said. That’s the last she was seen alive.
Three weeks later, a farmer found Benintende’s severely decomposed, bloated body floating in the Arvin-Edison Canal at Rockpile Road. She was unrecognizable.
Zimmer played video footage shot of the corpse as it turned in a circle amid pieces of trash.
“That was the torso of a young woman, with the legs outstretched, floating in a pile of garbage,” Zimmer told the jury.
Benintende was identified through fingerprint evidence. She had been shot three times, once in the chest and twice in the back. Strangely, both shots in the back entered the same hole.
These were “devastating, powerful and painful wounds,” Zimmer said. Death likely did not occur immediately.
“And the last person she saw . . . was the defendant, David Keith Rogers, on her first day in Kern County,” the prosecutor said.
Clark had a rough upbringing. She suffered abuse, Zimmer said.
“Tracie was a runaway, a throw away,” she said.
She left her home in Seattle, Washington and arrived in Bakersfield on Feb. 8, 1987. She checked into the El Don Motel.
Clark was last seen entering a beige pickup with a camper shell in the early morning. Another sex worker saw her get in the truck and took note of it because its driver had previously been a customer.
Later that day, two men hunting squirrels found Clark’s body. It was floating in the canal near Hermosa Road.
The crime scene was fresh and far more evidence was collected than in Benintende’s death. There were tire tracks and shoe marks in the dirt near where Clark was dumped. There was a large amount of blood in the middle of the road and drag marks in the blood going across the street.
Given her age, the clothing she wore and that she’d been out late, detectives surmised the victim may have been a prostitute. Unlike Benintende, Clark’s features hadn’t decomposed. Investigators took Polaroids of her face and drove to areas where prostitutes frequent — including a truck stop and a segment of Union Avenue — to see if anyone recognized her.
There was: the prostitute who saw Clark get into the pickup. More on her later.
Clark had been shot five or six times. Three bullets were recovered.
As with the two rounds taken from Benintende’s body, these bullets were submitted to a crime lab analyst, Zimmer said.
Testing revealed the bullets fired in the killings of Benintende and Clark came from the same gun, likely a Colt revolver.
In a startling discovery, the crime lab analyst said the bullets in both shootings were 110 grain, semi-jacketed, hollow-point rounds — a type of ammunition typically issued to law enforcement.
Not only was there a killer targeting young women, the perpetrator was also using ammunition routinely used by law enforcement. Sheriff’s officials knew they had a serious issue on their hands, Zimmer said, and immediately formed a task force to deal with it.
Rogers’ name popped up early in the investigation.
Many in the force remembered an incident that occurred in 1983 when Rogers, a patrol deputy, and his partner responded to Union Cemetery and interrupted a sex act between a prostitute and customer occurring in a vehicle parked on the premises.
A decision was made not to arrest either person. The customer drove off and Rogers and his partner decided he would drive the 19-year-old prostitute from the scene. His partner left.
Rogers started driving away but turned around and came back. He forced the woman to take her clothes off and photographed her as she lay in the back of the patrol vehicle, Zimmer said. Then he ordered her to put her clothes back on and dropped her off on Union Avenue.
The woman didn’t know what to do.
“She knew that what happened was wrong, but it was very confusing, and she was afraid,” Zimmer said.
Two weeks later she filed a report. An internal investigation was conducted and Rogers was fired.
He appealed the decision, and after a hearing the termination was reversed. He served a 15-day suspension and was back on the force, reassigned to the downtown jail.
Although he kept his job, rumors of what had happened trailed Rogers in the years that followed.
After the killings of Benintende and Clark, both sex workers, those rumors resurfaced. Rogers had been fired in connection with his illegal conduct with a prostitute. What if his aberrant behavior had taken an even more disturbing turn?
But sheriff’s officials didn’t want to believe Rogers was involved. They looked into him with the expectation they would quickly eliminate him as a suspect, Zimmer said.
A crime lab analyst and detective went at night to Rogers’ home on Penny Street in east Bakersfield and examined the tires on his pickup with a flashlight. Although they couldn’t say they were a match based on a such quick examination, the tires also could not be excluded as those that left the marks found in a dirt area near where Clark’s body was discovered.
Next investigators found the prostitute who last saw Clark. They drove her around and asked her to let them know if she saw a vehicle similar to the one Clark got in.
As they passed Rogers’ home she told them to stop. The beige truck with the camper shell parked in Rogers’ driveway was the truck in question, she told investigators.
They brought her a photo lineup with the headshots of six men. She pointed to Rogers’ photo and said he was the pickup’s driver, and her former customer.
“So, at this point, the sheriff’s department knew they had a killer amongst them,” Zimmer said.
From that point, things moved quickly. Warrants were served and the gun used in the murders was found in a bag in the pickup. Analysis of the shoes Rogers wore when arrested showed their prints matched those left at the Clark crime scene and the tires on the pickup matched tire marks left there.
A “huge supply” of pornography was found in Rogers’ home, Zimmer said. Some of the pornography depicted sex acts between law enforcement and prostitutes, she said.
When questioned, Rogers confessed to killing Clark.
“I emptied the gun, I think,” he said of the shooting.
But he refused to admit to Benintende’s killing. He said he didn’t remember killing another woman.
Benintende’s death devastated her mother, Zimmer said. She decided to move back to the East Coast, taking her daughter’s body with her. Benintende, at long last, returned home.
Circumstances were different for Clark. When contacted about his daughter’s death, Clark’s father provided investigators some information about her but didn’t travel to Kern County to retrieve her body.
County officials later contacted him, asking what they wanted him to do with his daughter’s remains. He signed a form telling them to dispose of them as they pleased, Zimmer said.
Clark was cremated. Her ashes are buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Union Cemetery.