Thriller Thursday: Murder in Southeast Iowa

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

Southeastern Iowa, where I grew up, is a farming community with lots of little towns scattered between cornfields. High schools are small, everyone knows your business, and a person usually has to travel ten miles or more to go to the “big” grocery store.


Murder doesn’t happen in the Villages of Van Buren County. But on October 14, 2006, five members of the prominent Bentler family (father Micheal, 53; mother Sandra, 47; and daughters Sheena, 17; Shelby, 15; Shayne, 14) were killed in their Bonaparte home.

A chilling 911 call from Shayne Bentler painted eldest son Shawn Bentler as a suspect. During the call, Shayne said her brother “was going to do something.” In the background were other horrifying sounds: a voice saying, “Shawn, don’t,” followed by a gunshot, and Shayne screaming, “Shawn, no!”

The line went dead after that, and call backs went unanswered. A second 911 call came from Sandra Bentler’s cell phone and went unanswered. Again, the dispatcher called back, but no one picked up.

When police arrived minutes later, all five victims were found dead along with spent shell casings scattered throughout the home. Immediately, the question everyone had was, why?

The answer seems to be money, although the reasoning is murky. Known to be affluent, The Bentlers owned a grain elevator and lumber company in Mount Hammil, and the businesses served much of Southeastern Iowa. The family also attended St. Boniface Catholic Church in Farmington, were regulars at sporting events and well-liked by neighbors.

Growing up, Shawn was never in trouble. He was considered a nice kid, and friends at John Wood Community college, which he attended for a few months, remembered him as a friendly guy. At one time, Shawn worked with his father at the family business, but at the time of the murders, he was living in Quincy, Illinois, about sixty miles away.

Michael and Sandra Bentler, 17 year old Sheene, 15 year old Shelby and 14 year old Shayne.

It seems that Shawn Bentler was the son who never lived up to his families expectations. After moving to Quincy, he floated from job to job and had money problems. Keith Gratz grew up with Shawn and lived with him in Quincy until just a few weeks before the murders. According to Gratz, Shawn was consistently behind in his bills and child support for his two young daughters.

During their time as roommates, Shawn often traveled to Iowa and returned with suspicious items like jewelry to pawn. After the murders, Gratz realized Shawn must have been taking it from the family’s home.

Gratz heard of the murders from his mother, and knowing his friend was the prime suspect, Gratz visited the residence he’d moved out of just a few weeks before. He found Shawn Bentler sleeping peacefully on the couch.

“I was sort of freaking out. I asked Shawn when the last time he’d talked to his family was, and he said it it had been the day before. I told him to call, but he said he’d lef this cell phone in his mother’s car. —Keith Gratz.

Bentler was arrested that morning and eventually charged with five counts of first-degree murder. His trial began in June, 2007, with Shawn waiving his right to a jury.

On the stand, Bentler was said to show very little emotion as he talked about his family, especially his father, calling him the best provider. He did admit his father often gave him money or paid for things he needed, and confessed to pawning his mother’s jewelry, as well as stealing money and gasoline from his parents.

A witness for the prosecution claimed Shawn often spoke ill of his father. Cornell Williams worked at Shottenkirk Chevy in Quincy with Shawn (until Bentler was fired).

“He didn’t like his father at all. He’d say he (his father) would be dead soon and that he would eventually inherit his money.” –Cornell Williams.

The mother of one of Shawn’s daughters also testified that Shawn claimed he would soon have plenty of money, specifically mentioning his parents death. But The 911 call detailed  above proved to be the State’s best evidence.

The State also had forensic evidence–the white ankle socks Shawn was wearing when he was arrested contained small amounts of Sandra Bentler’s blood. A DNA analyst claimed an impact would be needed to make the blood spatter on the socks.

It’s believed that his father was Shawn’s biggest threat, so he attacked him first, hitting him with the butt of a Remington .22 and then shooting him in the leg and head. Shawn then went after the rest of his family, and the State insisted the murderer had to be someone familiar with the house because of its unique design.

“How do we know that? From the accuracy of the shots. They were shot in the head. Someone would have to know their way around the property, to the house, and their way in that house to know how to get up to the upper bedrooms. Someone had to know where lights were located to turn them on and off.”
–Assistant Iowa Attorney General Scott Brown.

Shawn Bentler was found guilty of five counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to five consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. I believe Shawn is guilty, and the motive was the nearly 3 million he stood to inherit from his family’s estate (his daughters ultimately inherited it after a judge’s ruling), but Shawn seems to have jumped from petty thief to murderer so suddenly. What made him snap?

What do you think? Is this just a case of monetary greed? Could something have happened that’s never come to light?

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About Stacy Green

Stacy Green is the best selling author of psychological thrillers and mystery with a dash of romance. As a stay at home mom, she's blessed with making writing a full-time career. She lives in Iowa with her supportive husband, daughter, and their three fur-babies.
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30 Responses to Thriller Thursday: Murder in Southeast Iowa

  1. susielindau says:

    It’s hard to know what goes on behind closed doors…it may have been something as simple as jealousy.
    Great post Stacy1

  2. Karen Rought says:

    I definitely think there had to have been a trigger there. From what it said before, he seemed to have just been waiting for the inheritance. Unless he finally realized the 3 million had to be split five ways? Either way, he had to have known that he would’ve looked awfully suspicious to be the only one left to inherit. I definitely think something must have triggered him.

    • Stacy Green says:

      I do, too. To use a really bad cliché, he just went from 0 to 60 overnight, so it seems. He may have realized it, but I think he was in over his head and desperate. But I do think there’s more to the story than we’ve heard. Thanks, Karen.

  3. From what I’ve read and seen the pattern from petty theft to murder is usually dotted with harassment and assault and then moves up the chain with assault with a deadly weapon. That kind of jump usually indicates something happened that pushed him into action. It could have been stress – you mentioned that he had jumped from job to job and was behind on child support. I’m sure the feeling of not being “good enough” and “not living up to the standards of the family” may have been a contributing factor, adding to the financial stress. But to kill your family – that’s very personal. And in my opinion, he saw his father’s death as a “fix” to all his problems, financially and mentally. Killing him gave power and resolution. Killing the rest of the family could have been, in his mind, a way to cover his tracks and if he felt the rest of the family shared in the belief of him not being good enough, then he was “proving” his superiority to them as well. “Power to take life – now tell him he’s not good enough” sort of mindset, maybe?
    It was also mentioned that he showed little emotion during the trial. Psychopathic tendencies came to mind when I read that. No emotion, (what little he showed could have been false) could mean no remorse. So he might have felt justified in his own mind about what he did, and not caring about what he did to them, just that he fixed his problems?
    Can you tell I’ve read a lot of psychological thrillers??? LOL!
    Regardless of the motivations, it is still a sad story. So many lives lost, and by the hands of a family member. Its tragic.

    • Stacy Green says:

      You’re right, Jennifer. There had to be stressers, and it did sound – from what little I could find – that there were some standards set by his parents that he wasn’t living up to. And I agree, that’s exactly how he saw his father’s death. I’d like to say it wasn’t premeditated, but if witnesses were telling the truth, it clearly was. Shawn had a lot of underlying anger he never dealt, and it all came to a head. Very sad. Thanks for your great comment!

  4. tomwisk says:

    It’s always the money. The kid was a petty thief who took the fast track to instant wealth.

  5. Great post Stacy. sad story. funny how a man would ignore the obvious: if you’re the only one left standing, odds are you’ll be convicted. weird.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Thanks, Louise. This case has always baffled me. There just isn’t enough motive, or my expectations are too high. I just feel we’re missing something. And yes, I agree. Shawn didn’t think things through very well.

  6. Ruby Barnes says:

    Maybe he wasn’t very bright, or drugs were involved, or he heard voices. Perhaps a combination. There’s no way he could have expected to get away with it. Could have been an anger management issue that got out of hand. We need more info ;-]

  7. It makes me wonder if any of them had any warning he was slipping over into the state of mind where he could do such a thing.

  8. Catie Rhodes says:

    I did not get to reply to this yesterday. What an interesting case! I hadn’t heard about it, so that made it that much more cool to me. I always try to put myself in the victim’s shoes for just a quick second. I can only imagine the horror of their last moments.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Yeah, it was pretty shocking around there. And I know, their last moments had to have been awful. No matter how screwed up they may have thought Shawn was, I’m sure they didn’t expect that.

  9. It definitely sounds like there was more to the story but in the end, it was likely greed, impatience and a little bit of psychosis that made him leap to murder. How he thought he wouldn’t get caught and then NOT get the inheritance is beyond me. I am with Catie – those poor victims. My god. Here’s being thankful this guy is behind bars forever!

    • Stacy Green says:

      That’s what kills me – clearly it was premeditated, but he was pretty dumb for thinking he wouldn’t get caught. And he didn’t do a lot to cover up his tracks.
      Thanks, Natalie.

  10. 4amWriter says:

    Thanks for sharing this case. I don’t recall it, so this was interesting to read and try to understand the shaky motive. Hm. Money? power? Insanity? Probably a little of everything played into this.

  11. Julie Glover says:

    It’s always creepy to hear about a case where someone kills all of his/her family. What makes one turn on the people they grew up with like that? These families often don’t seem to be the abusive ones either, where you could understand why someone might crack and seek revenge. What a story, Stacy. I’m glad they found him guilty.

  12. Missy says:

    I don’t live too far from the town and the family was very well known. It has been said that Michael and Sandra had given Shawn money to help him out but shortly before the murders they had finally told him no more. There have also been claims that following his being told no he was doing some sort of drugs that lead to him killing his family. His parents were loving towards their granddaughters, but could you imagine being a mother to them knowing how these two very precious little girls inheritated their money. Also, when Shawn was sent to prison it was said that he could potentially be put in the Ft. Madison prison but there was concern about his life and not due to other inmates….I’m sure you know who could be the threat here, when his family was so well known around the area. I used to work with one of the first responders who arrived at the scene and did had business interactions with Michael, the gentlemen has made mention that no one who walked into the house that day has ever been the same. But may the Bentler’s rest in peace and stay in our hearts forever.

    • Stacy Green says:

      Hi there. Where do you live? I grew up in Van Buren county so this was a huge shock. Things like that just don’t happen around there, do they. Yes, it would be hard to be their mother, and I feel sorry for the girls having to grow up with that stigma on their back. Yes, big threat to Shawn in Ft Madison but after what he did it’s hard for me to feel sorry for him.

      Wow on your first responder story. I can only imagine. What a horrible memory to have to live with. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story.

  13. alexandra says:

    Crazy…I knew him and Keith and Nathan about 6 months before the murders… you never really know a person…

  14. Angela says:

    I knew Shawn. He was funny, smart, and just a really good guy. When I heard about this, we were all incredibly shocked. It really didn’t seem like something he would do. Someone mentioned him not being bright, which wasn’t true. He was not a genius, but he was far from a moron.
    We met through mutual friends, and immediately clicked. We shared our thoughts, dreams, and ambitions. He spoke fondly of his family, with the exception of his father, whom he rarely mentioned. The only clue I had that he was sad was a dark discussion after a night of drinking and post intercourse. It wasn’t violent talk, but very morose and depressing. Mostly about his children.
    When I moved, I vowed to stay in touch, and let life get in the way. Three months later, I got a phone call from my best friend telling me the news. My heart still aches for his family, but I still don’t understand. I’m furious at him for what he did and at my self for not keeping in touch.

    • Stacy Green says:


      Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. It’s always interesting – and heartbreaking – to hear from someone on the criminal’s side, because those lives often get overlooked in the aftermath. It’s got to be nearly as hard on his family and friends as it is the victims.

      I do understand your being angry at yourself, but you can’t carry the blame. This is one of those cases where no one could truly imagine what Shawn was capable of.


  15. Mr. J says:

    It’s human nature to try & come up with logical reasons why someone would act in such an illogical way. But sometimes there is no logical reason. Those most likely to shed some light are the ones that were killed. Perhaps other relatives, such as grandparents, have some ideas, but they may have been sheltered from all that was going on. Sounds like he had pretty long list of failures in his life. I guess this was just one more (and the worst) failure to do the right thing. I grew up in Jefferson County Iowa, about half an hour’s drive from this area, but I was not familiar with the family. Human behavior and the mind is one area of study that still remains largely unexplored & not well understood, even by the experts. Someday we may understand such things, but it makes no sense today. A young man with everything to be happy about – good looking, coming from a wealthy family with lots of opportunity (I would have given anything to have had the opportunities in life that this idiot just peed down a rat-hole), healthy (at least physically), two daughters, and yet, his answer is to murder his family & spend the rest of his life in prison. There’s no logic in that.

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