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Witness Interview: Mallory Benson, Victim's Friend

Thursday, December 7, 2000 - 2:01 p.m.

This witness contacted the Yoknapatawpha County Sheriff's Office, through her attorney, John Welles. The interview was held at the Sheriff's Office with Det. Sam Murphy and attorney Welles.

SM = Detective S. Murphy
MB = Mallory Benson
JW = Attorney John Welles

SM: Please state your name and address for the record.

MB: Mallory Benson. I live at 721 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Oxford.

SM: Let the record reflect that Ms. Benson has come here voluntarily and claims to have further evidence in the Zoe Chase homicide, case number 003933-15J-2000. Let the record also reflect that Ms. Benson has legal counsel present, Mr. John Welles.

JW: Let the record also reflect that this is not a free for all, Sam. Ms. Benson has specific information she would like to divulge but is not submitting herself to endless interrogation.

SM: So noted, Mr. Welles. However, if Ms. Benson opens a door, I intend to walk through it, to the truth.

JW: Understood. Go ahead, Mallory.

MB: Are you sure, John? I don't even know if any of this is relevant.

SM: Why not tell me what you know and let me decide if it's relevant?

MB: All right. I happen to know that Peggy LeClaire has two guns. One, which I believe is not registered.

SM: Have you seen this alleged weapon?

MB: Yes, once. It was a couple of years ago.

SM: Under what circumstance did you see this weapon?

MB: I was at Peggy's and we got on the topic of guns, self protection, you know? Anyway, she showed me a .25 caliber Beretta she had.

SM: How did you come to the conclusion that the weapon was not registered? Did Ms. LeClaire say it was not registered?

MB: She told me it was her back up and then she winked.

SM: And from that you inferred it was not registered?

MB: Yes. She acted as if she were telling me some secret.

SM: To your knowledge, does Ms. LeClaire still have this weapon?

MB: I don't know. She might. Or she might have gotten rid of it by now. I just don't know. We haven't talked about it since that one time.

SM: We've interviewed you on two previous occasions. Why didn't you mention this weapon before?

MB: I just didn't think of it. It was a couple years ago... I don't know, just didn't come to mind. Then recently, with all that's been going on, I've been doing some thinking...

SM: Thinking about what?

JW: Mallory, remember to keep to the specific facts we discussed.

MB: I will, John. Peggy has just been plain peculiar since Zoe died. In lots of ways. She has barely spoken to me and after she told you all about the manuscript... I guess I haven't wanted to talk to her...

SM: So, are you admitting that the manuscript Ms. Chase planned to publish was your work after all?

MB: Yes, I believe it was. I can't be absolutely positive. I never was able to see the manuscript.

SM: Tell me the circumstances that led you to believe that Ms. Chase had plagiarized your work.

JW: I have to advise her not to incriminate herself...

MB: I didn't do anything. How can I incriminate myself?

SM: Please answer my question, ma'am.

MB: Okay. In late January, I asked Zoe to look at a manuscript I had written. It was a mystery, a genre I had never tried before and I felt unsure about it. I wanted her opinion.

SM: Was Ms. Chase an expert in the genre of mystery?

MB: No, but she was ruthless in her opinions. I knew she'd be honest and that's what I wanted. I wanted her to find any holes in the story that were there. Anyway, that's all writer talk. The long and short of it was that I asked her to read it and give me her opinion. She promised to read it right away and after a couple weeks I called her. She didn't return my calls and then I later learned she was in New York.

SM: Did you call her in New York?

MB: No. I had no idea why she was there or how to reach her. I decided to wait until she came back. Then I got that virus and my hard drive crashed and I lost pretty much everything I hadn't put on back up. I guess I thought I had the mystery on disk but then I was horrified to discover I hadn't saved it. Then I was really desperate to reach her.

SM: So when she returned to Oxford, you called her?

MB: Yes, she finally came back and I got ahold of her and told her what happened. She was very reassuring and told me not to worry. She had it and it was no problem. She said she hadn't read it yet, but she was going to and then she'd call me.

SM: And then?

MB: A couple days later, she called very upset and said she had virus trouble herself and said she'd lost the file too. I was frantic and upset. I tried to get a computer consultant in to fix the hard drive and get the files but they were lost - forever. So, I started to try to reconstruct the manuscript.

SM: So, if Ms. Chase also had virus problems and lost her files, how do you suppose she could have stolen your book?

MB: It was months later. I had gotten much of the manuscript reconstructed and felt I was very close to the finish line. Then I saw the article in the Eagle. About Zoe's new book. It sent up a red flag...

SM: Red flag? What do you mean?

MB: It was strange, Zoe hadn't shared anything with me about it. Then when I read the three line description of the story, I got a sick feeling in my stomach...

JW: Mallory, I have to caution you to keep to the facts.

MB: I was pretty sure it was my story. She'd taken my story and gotten herself a publishing deal.

SM: What did you do?

MB: I tried to call her. She dodged my calls. I couldn't manage to track her down. The fact that she avoided me made me worry I was right. Finally, we had a showdown in her garage.

SM: When did this showdown take place?

MB: Sometime around the end of September. I don't remember the exact day.

SM: And you said this happened in Ms. Chase's garage?

MB: Yes. I went to her house, early. I sat in my car until I saw she was getting ready to leave and I cornered her in the garage.

SM: Cornered her in what manner? Did you have a weapon?

MB: Of course not. I mean, I made her confront me. I told her what my suspicions were and she just smiled. I was shocked. That smile said it all. She'd done it and she had every intention of following through on the deal.

SM: Must have infuriated you?

MB: No, not at first. At first, I was hurt and stunned. I believed she was my friend. I couldn't believe a friend would do that. I begged her not to do it. Not to betray me, but she wouldn't listen. She tried to get in her car and I held the door open so she couldn't leave.

SM: What did Ms. Chase do?

MB: She turned into a different person right in front of my eyes. She became mean and shrill. She told me I couldn't stop her. She had only written a better story and it was too bad I was so late out of the gate about it. I said I'd go to the police and tell everybody what she'd done. She didn't care. She said no one would believe me and that I'd look like a jealous fool who couldn't stand that a friend had succeeded where I hadn't. She said I had no proof and no one would believe me.

SM: And what was your response to that?

MB: I knew she was right. I couldn't prove it. People probably would think I was just being jealous. I just crumpled like a paper doll. Didn't know what to do. I just walked away and went home.

SM: So you gave up and went home? To what? Plan the murder?

JW: Detective! I thought we agreed to keep this a friendly interview.

SM: I told you if she opened the door...

MB: No! I didn't plan her murder. I didn't kill her. Maybe I wanted to, but I didn't! I just got depressed every time I thought about what she had done to me.

SM: So, you did nothing?

MB: Yes, I did nothing. I cried a lot.

SM: Such as the time Ms. LeClaire found you upset?

MB: Yes. She came over to bring some pages for me that I'd asked her to edit.

SM: On the reconstructed book?

MB: No, the one I'm currently working on. She saw me crying and was concerned. I didn't mean to, but I told her the whole story.

SM: When did this happen?

MB: Sometime around the first week of October, I guess.

SM: And what did Ms. LeClaire do when you told her the whole story, as you say?

MB: She got angry. She ranted on and on about Zoe and how vile she was. Got off on a religious tantrum.

SM: What does that mean?

MB: When Peggy gets upset she quotes the Bible. She's very religious - it comes out when she's under stress.

SM: What else did she do or say?

MB: She rattled on about Zoe's betrayals of her. They didn't get on well. Zoe had been very critical of her work, her writing, her clothing, everything. Peggy doesn't take criticism well. She's very sensitive. She works her butt off for people and then they abuse her. Frankly, I think she's been a doormat all her life.

SM: Did Ms. LeClaire say she was going to do something about what Ms. Chase had done?

MB: No. She just said that the Lord would make her pay. She said the day of reckoning would come. You see what I mean about the religious thing?

SM: After Ms. Chase's death, did Ms. LeClaire say anything to you about Ms. Chase getting what she deserved?

MB: No, she seemed genuinely upset. But that threw me too. She hadn't liked Zoe in life, I couldn't understand why she would be so upset by her death.

SM: Did she mention her second weapon to you then or recently?

MB: No. But like I said, all the strange behavior... I don't know. I must be crazy to think Peggy might...

SM: What other behavior of Ms. LeClaire's do you think is strange?

MB: She's been spending money.

SM: On what?

MB: She bought a new coat.

SM: Lots of people buy new coats, especially this time of year.

MB: Not Peggy. She is very frugal with her money. Puts everything into her retirement fund. I guess she never had much as a kid and she was preoccupied with having savings. I think I've known her for five years and she had the same coat for that whole time, until recently. Then one day she had a brand new brown suede jacket from Neilson's. She's never shopped there before.

SM: How do you know where she got it?

MB: She told me. She was very proud of herself. Claimed she got a big dividend check and bought herself a new coat.

SM: Have you spoken to Ms. LeClaire recently?

MB: Not since she told y'all about the book. She goes out of her way to avoid me.

SM: Have you tried to talk to her?

MB: I did for a while, but it was clear she wasn't going to return calls. She stopped going to the meetings... I don't think anyone has seen her much.

SM: Are you accusing Ms. LeClaire of being involved in Ms. Chase's death?

MB: I'm not accusing anyone. I'm just saying her behavior is strange and I don't know... I just can't believe Peggy would be violent, but you never know about people. Maybe she was a time bomb waiting to go off.

SM: Do you know of any emotional problems Ms. LeClaire may have?

MB: If you're asking me if I know whether she sees a therapist or not, no I don't. I doubt it though. She looks to her church for guidance and the Bible, not analysts. I think she believes psychiatrists to be in league with the Devil.

SM: The Devil? Are you joking?

MB: I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not.

SM: One more question: did Ms. LeClaire mention where she got her "back up" weapon from?

MB: I think it was from her ex - Boyd somebody. Sometimes she talks about him as if he were around, but I don't think they've seen each other for years.

SM: I see. By the way, Ms. Benson, you mentioned you were working on a new book. Is that right?

MB: Yes.

SM: What is it about? Is it another mystery?

MB: No. I don't think that's the right genre for me. This one is a coming-of-age story about the teenaged son of a cotton farmer in 1950s Mississippi. I think it may be my best work yet.

SM: All right, Ms. Benson. I expect you to remain available if we have further questions.

JW: You can contact her through my office.

SM: Okay. Thanks for coming in.

End interview 2:57 p.m.

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