Preacher's son pleads guilty in Dorchester Co. slaying of girl

May 22, 1991|By Maureen McNeill | Maureen McNeill,Special to The Sun

CAMBRIDGE -- Benjamin L. VanZandt, the 28-year-old son of a Vienna, Md., preacher, pleaded guilty yesterday to first-degree murder and five other related charges arising from the death last July of 13-year-old Temira Elise Smith, the daughter of a family friend.

In a statement entered as evidence in Dorchester County Circuit Court, VanZandt admitted to stabbing the girl in the living quarters above his father's church, the Monumental Church of Love in Vienna.

In his statement to police made public yesterday, VanZandt suggested the murder was an accident. "Just like I said, we was horseplaying, when she was coming, I was going, with a knife. And I'm sorry that it stuck."

But Nicole Baltimore, VanZandt's girlfriend, to whom he ran for help on the day of Temira's death, told police that VanZandt had been talking to the girl and, somehow, lost control of himself and killed her.

"He said he slit her throat," she said in a statement read into the record. "He was talking and his mind just went blank . . . whatever," Ms. Baltimore said.

Temira, who lived with her family in Millsboro, Del., had been visiting with the VanZandt family.

The Maryland medical examiner ruled Temira's death a homicide and reported she suffered a stab wound to the neck and an injury to the head. VanZandt confessed to the crime when police arrested him six days later in Mansfield, Ohio, where he fled with his girlfriend in his father's car.

In exchange for the guilty plea, Dorchester County State's Attorney Michael Maloney agreed to withdraw his plan to ask for a life sentence without parole. A pre-sentence investigation has been ordered, and VanZandt is being held without bond in the Worcester County Jail. Mr. Maloney said VanZandt probably will be sentenced to life in prison.

The dead girl's parents, Darryl and Desiree Smith, said they had been consulted about the plea agreement and did not object. Mr. Smith said the families had been friendly since the Rev. Benjamin F. VanZandt became their pastor in 1989.

On the night of the murder, the VanZandts family left Temira at home while they attended a church service, according to police. They noticed Temira was missing the next morning.

The girl's body was found in a ditch beside a rural Talbot County road three days later.

Dorchester County Deputy Sheriff James W. Phillips, Jr., testified yesterday that the younger VanZandt's criminal history was one factor that made him a suspect early in the investigation. VanZandt was convicted of rape in the Midwest in 1980.

Temira's parents were among the dozen or so spectators who sat in the courtroom yesterday. They said after the proceedings that Mr. VanZandt misled them about his son's criminal record. The minister did not tell the Smiths that his son had been in prison for rape, Mr. Smith said.

Mrs. Smith said, "God has the last thing to say about this."

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