Man charged in school van shooting sentenced to prison

Bryon Benetas

A Shenango Township man who pleaded guilty to shooting at a school van, nearly missing the heads of two elementary  schoolers, will serve three to six years in a state prison. 

Lawrence County Common Pleas President Judge Dominick Motto on Wednesday handed down the sentence to Bryon John Benetas, 42, of 827 Schenley Ave., which will be followed by four years of probation.

Police and prosecutors reported a bullet from morning gunfire of March 10, 2020, shattered the window of a Shenango Area School District van and missed the children's heads by inches.

Benetas in April had pleaded guilty to two felony counts of aggravated assault attempt at seriously injury, and six counts of recklessly endangering other persons. The two aggravated assault charges, filed by Shenango Township police, are in consideration of two children who were closest to the trajectory of the bullets when they hit the van, Lawrence County Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Miller said at the time of his plea.

Miller, who is prosecuting the case, said the six counts are for the other six children who were passengers in the van.

"The facts indicated that Mr. Benetas was firing his rifle from a grassy area near Route 65, and one round struck the school van," Miller said. "While there was a lack of evidence of intent, the extreme recklessness of his conduct called for a significant state sentence and multiple first-degree felony convictions."

Benetas has been in the Lawrence County jail and was defended in court Wednesday by private defense attorney Allison Hartle of Mercer County. Several parents of the children who were in the van the morning of the shooting were in the courtroom in April when the plea arrangement was approved.

The family of the two children nearly hit by the bullets also attended the sentencing proceeding Wednesday. They submitted a written impact statement that Miller read aloud in court.

The Shenango Township police initially charged Benetas with 32 criminal counts, including criminal attempt at homicide. The other 24 charges pending against him were dismissed as a result of the plea arrangement.

Police had reported in a criminal complaint that Benetas shot a silenced semiautomatic rifle at the van, which was carrying 7- and 8-year-olds to the Shenango Elementary School.

The van was hit twice by the gunfire, but no one suffered serious injury. A couple of children reportedly suffered minor scratches from glass shards, according to police reports.

Following the morning shooting, the police found Benetas hiding in the weeds on property near Mister B’s restaurant on East Washington Street, which is owned by his family. They reported that Benetas was wearing a woodland camouflage ghillie suit, commonly used by military personnel for concealment and evasion. He had the rifle and another handgun with him when they found him, and he also wore camouflage overalls, gloves, a camouflage hat and a face mask, and he carried two tactical pouches, they reported.

A black Ruger .22 long rifle with a sighting scope attached and a suppressor were on the ground near him and the rifle when police arrested him, they reported. The rifle had a “bumpfire” buttstock that allows a semiautomatic firearm to shoot more than one bullet with a single pull of the trigger, the report states.

In searching Benetas' clothing during his arrest, the police found extra batteries for the scope and a Walther .22 long rifle, semiautomatic handgun loaded with eight live rounds, the complaint states. Four rounds were jacketed hollow points and four were unjacketed standard rounds. The gun barrel was threaded to accept the suppressor that had been found, police said. The handgun was in a shoulder holster hidden by his outer clothing.

The police noted that Benetas did not have a concealed carry permit.

The police additionally found a 25-round rifle magazine, a 50-round rifle magazine, five .22-LR spent shell casings, a 23.5-ounce malt beverage can that was nearly full, and an 81.2 percent THC vape cartridge, among his other personal items, all where Benetas was apprehended, they reported.

They noted at least 15 impact marks on metal containers in the parking lot of Mister B’s, along with 12 bullet fragments and other evidence, the report says.

The officers secured Benetas’ house, where they noticed other possible incendiary evidence that prompted them to contact the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That investigation is ongoing.

Two investigators obtained a warrant to search the house, and Shenango police reported in the criminal complaint that they found several homemade suppressors, suppressor manufacturing equipment, .22 LR ammunition, .22 LR casings and additional malt beverage cans.

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Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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