Black, blue, beaten and broken
Life threw her the first curve ball before she could even walk.
Born Tammy Lynn Benge, she was only 6 months old when her parents, Jerry Wayne Benge and Sue Hicks, separated.
Sue already was caring for four children from a previous relationship, and the money was already spread thin. Still, they made several attempts to salvage the marriage, and had a son, Scott, who was born two years after Tammy.
When the marriage finally crumbled, Virginia Pope, Tammy’s grandmother, decided to raise Tammy and then Scott out in the country, between Collettsville and Gamewell. There were few friends but plenty of family. She and her three cousins -- Sharon Storie, Rebecca Gonzalez and Rachael Shehan -- were inseparable.
“Glenn Pope (her grandfather) would drive Tammy to our house, and we would walk to the Roller Palace every weekend,” Gonzalez recalls.
“I remember us going to school, working in the garden, picking green beans or shucking corn. We would go to family reunions and family picnics. She was a sweet, special young’un, never got in trouble and always made A’s and B’s in school.”
Kelly Greene, a close friend, had similar memories.
”She had good grades, sang in the chorus and showed school spirit at the pep rallies and games we went to at West Caldwell,” Greene said. “We spent lots of time on the weekends at the skating rink or Bart’s pool hall. She was a big part of my family. Tammy and I relied on each other.”
Gonzalez’s family moved from rural Lenoir to within the city limits in 1989. Gradually, the inseparable cousins began to lead separate lives.
Scott, whom she called Scottie, became her anchor. But even that foundation began to crumble when Scottie began suffering from blackouts and seizures. Doctors discovered a brain tumor in 2000, and two years later he died at age 26. Tammy was 28. The deaths of Virginia Pope and her mother Sue, which followed in the next two years, would further erode Tammy’s stability.
”The death of her mother and brother Scott devasted her,” Greene said. “Catina (Parsons Osborne, another of Tammy’s friends) and I moved away, as did the ones that she felt most comfortable with. Her safe havens had dwindled away.”
She began to party and drink heavily. In 2002, just months after Scottie died, she was convicted of driving while impaired.
“She had nobody to turn to,” Shehan said. “She turned to alcohol. She’d do things people wouldn’t approve of. She was looking for acceptance.”
”She loved people wholeheartedly and was starved for the same attention that she gave them,” Greene said. “She sought out that attention, and although it was negative attention it was still someone concentrating on her. That’s extremely twisted, but believe me I’ve been there.”
In 2006, Benge married Chris Cassels, a self-employed construction contractor. She began to fly right, according to Gonzalez, and gave up the boozing and partying.
“She seemed to have straightened up,” Gonzalez said. “She began to keep her hair fixed and would put on makeup.”
But before long, Shehan said, Tammy “started backsliding with the alcohol. She started running around with some bad people with bad pasts.”
Chris and Tammy separated after only three months. They never were able to scrape up the money for a divorce, and Tammy kept her married name.
Tammy Cassels met Michael Joseph Whisnant in 2010. That also was around the time that she started using drugs, friends said, and quickly became addicted to crack cocaine. Her friends say her addiction to drugs and alcohol made her more submissive to Whisnant. It wasn’t long before friends noticed Cassels often was injured.
Cassels’ cousin, Wendy Annas, had similar experiences.
Annas met Whisnant in 1992, when she was 23, and he was 16. The relationship was volatile from the beginning, Gonzalez said. “He would go all to hell, flipping chairs over.”
Court records show he once was accused of dragging Annas by the hair down a gravel driveway, and in another incident was accused of beating her and shooting her in the arm.
On April 5, 2006, Whisnant was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill after stabbing his father, Richard Whisnant, in the neck while traveling on Creekway Drive in Annas’ van. That case was dismissed because Richard refused to help prosecutors.
A month earlier, Whisnant was charged with assault on a female. That charge was also dismissed by the district attorney’s office.
On March 28, 2007, he was charged with communicating threats, again dismissed.
Just three months ago, he was found guilty of resistng an officer.
Annas and Whisnant had two children, Michael Jr., now 16, and Mindy, 15. They lost custody of the children to Whisnant’s mother, Patty. They still shared a mobile home but got behind on the payments, and it was repossessed. Meanwhile Annas began dating Whisnant’s uncle, Mark Whisnant, while Michael saw Annas’ cousin, Tammy Cassels.
It also was a volatile relationship.
Court records show that in August 2011, Whisnant was accused of hitting Cassels in the head with a hammer, breaking her jaw. He was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, felony habitual misdemeanor assault, and misdemeanor assault on a female.
“I took her to Winston-Salem for her jaw surgery right after it happened,” said Jessica Benge Berry, Cassel’s’ sister. “I told her, ‘If you go back to him, I won’t take you back to get your mouth wired.’”
But two weeks later, Berry said, Cassels was back with Whisnant.
”On the outside, she began to show signs of discouragement,” Greene recalls. “Many people would tell me that they seen her beat half to death, with black eyes and busted knees.”
Yet Cassels managed to hold down jobs, working at Golden Corral, Wendy’s, and Sonic Drive-in.
”We opened the Golden Corral together,” Greene fondly recalls. “Tammy was a hard worker, if she didn’t have a ride she would have walked to work.”
Berry saw her sister just two months ago.
“She was black and blue,” Berry said. “She seemed real timid, forgetful. She told me he beat her in the head so many times she couldn’t remember anything.”
Cassels called a taxi around 8 p.m. on April 5, a Friday, and asked the driver to take her to 810 Wild Cherry Place. By 11 p.m. Tammy Lynn Benge Cassels, 38, was dead, rolled up in a comforter in a back room of the house.
Preliminary autopsy findings reveal she died of blunt force trauma to the head. Police later removed two hammers from the house, along with two comforters, swabs of red stains, and cellphones.
A few days later, Gonzalez ran into the cab driver who had dropped Cassels off. “He said she (Cassels) told him that night that he (Whisnant) was going to kill her,” Gonzalez said. “He said he asked her, ‘Why are you going back?’ She told him she loved him.”
Whisnant was charged with first-degree murder and is now in the Caldwell County Detention Center, with no bond allowed.
At the time of the killing, he was under house arrest because he had violated a condition of his being out of jail awaiting trial on the felony charge he faced for the beating of Cassels in 2011.
”It’s easy to speculate and say this would have never happened had Whisnant been in jail,” Lenoir Police Chief Scott Brown said. ”However, we all know that would only be speculation. Unfortunately, Whisnant was not incarcerated at the time, for whatever reason, and now the Benge family is left to deal with a tragedy.
”Can I say I wish Whisnant would have been in jail? Absolutely, I do.”
When Greene got the call about her death, somewhere in the back of her mind she was expecting the news, and was not greatly surprised.
”In my opinion, she had lost the will to live,” Greene said. “She was tired of being beaten, the drugs and alcohol, no longer had the ability to ease her pain. ...
”I may go to my grave wondering at what turning point did she start to spiral downhill inside.”
Family members of Cassels are trying to scrape up enough money to bury her. But those who were close to her know she already rests in peace.
”She will no longer wake up with that ball of fire in her stomach from being a nervous wreck,” Greene said. “There will be no more black eyes, her hair will never ever be burnt or cut off again, no more cigarettes put out on her flesh, no more broken, wired-shut jaws. She will finally be safe and wanted and loved and happy, with all her innocence regained.
”She can once again hold her head up high and feel proud with all her beauty regained. She was precious and had so much to give. ... No one except for God, who gave us life, should be able to determine or take that from us.
”There are some mysteries about her death that I hope are solved, and all any of us want most is for justice to be served.”