- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A Lusby woman sentenced last week to serve seven years in custody on a charge of conspiracy to attempt an armed robbery died Sunday evening at a hospital, authorities report, after she was found unconscious in her cell at the St. Mary’s jail.
Melissa Mae Benton, 36, was alone in a cell in the detention center’s diagnostic holding area when correctional officers checked on her shortly before 6 p.m. that day, sheriff’s Capt. Michael Merican said, and efforts commenced to try to revive her.
“She left here with CPR in progress, and the hospital pronounced her dead,” according to Merican, the jail’s commander.
No signs of trauma to Benton’s body were found, Merican said, and she did not have anything in her possession with which she could have harmed herself.
Benton’s lawyer said at a sentencing hearing last week that Benton became dependent on prescription pills after she was injured in a vehicle accident.
Benton told a judge, “I do believe that I need help.”
Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said Tuesday that there was nothing at the scene to indicate the cause of Benton’s death. An employee at the state medical examiner’s office in Baltimore said Tuesday afternoon that the cause and manner of Benton’s death has not been determined.
Benton acknowledged in court last week that prosecutors had evidence to support the charge against her of conspiracy to attempt an armed robbery, in which they allege she was the getaway driver.
Benton’s plea included no admission of guilt in the thwarted holdup attempt from August of last year at a Great Mills business. At the sentencing hearing, a prosecutor said that Benton steadfastly denied knowingly participating in the crime, including after she and three other people were charged by police.
“Her statement was, ‘I didn’t know anything,’” St. Mary’s State’s Attorney Richard Fritz (R) told a judge at the hearing. The prosecutor added, “Without the driver, there wouldn’t have been a robbery.”
The robbery never was carried out, Fritz said at an earlier hearing, because the mother of one of the other suspects walked into the Three Mules Welding Supply shop off Great Mills Road and told James “Doc” Oliver that he was about to be robbed.
Moments later, according to Fritz, two men with a “knockoff” version of an AK-47 rifle came in. Oliver pulled out a .38-caliber revolver, the prosecutor said, and told the pair, “You’re not going to rob me, get out of here.”
They complied, and dropped part of the rifle on the ground as they ran to a van, occupied by two women, according to the prosecutor. Police responding to the area conducted a search, including in bushes where they found the rifle.
In January of this year, Morsell Christopher Mackall, 19, of Lusby pleaded guilty to the charge of conspiring to attempt an armed robbery and was sentenced to eight years in prison, suspended to five years in custody and five years of supervised probation.
Devonte Sahr Taylor, 23, of Dunkirk pleaded guilty last month to the conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, suspended to 10 years in custody and five years of supervised probation.
Paula Ann Miller, 23, of Lusby acknowledged that prosecutors had evidence against her to support the conspiracy charge, and she was sentenced in September to 18 years in prison, the top of the sentencing guidelines range in her case.
“Ms. Miller was the one who actually planned and arranged the robbery,” Fritz said last week at the courthouse. “It was Ms. Miller’s mother who found out about the robbery [plan] and ran down the street and told “Doc” Oliver. He armed himself in anticipation of danger.”
At Benton’s sentencing hearing last week, defense lawyer Cynthia Panos said that Benton had the “least” role in the crime. Benton’s grandmother told the judge that Benton did not know what Miller was planning, and that Benton did not know about the rifle.
“Ms. Benton has learned to be careful about what she’s doing,” Panos said.
“I wish I could go back and change what happened,” Benton said in court last week.
St. Mary’s Circuit Judge Michael J. Stamm sentenced Benton to 10 years in prison, suspended to the seven-year term and five years of supervised probation.
“Almost everyone in this case has not wanted to take responsibility,” Stamm said, and he told Benton, “I do not believe you are an innocent party.”
The judge added, “When it comes to drugs, there’s only one loyalty, to getting more drugs.”