By Chris Bristol
A White City man pleaded guilty to a drug charge Thursday and was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for his role in the disappearance of a Phoenix teenager whose skeletal remains were later found in an orchard.
Phillip H. Bendell, 31, hung his head as members of Tommy Kelly’s family denounced him as an agent of death. As part of his plea, he admitted that he injected Kelly with meth hours before the 17-year-old disappeared in an apparent psychotic reaction to the drug.
"You didn’t load bullets into a gun, but you loaded methamphetamine into a syringe," the teen’s mother, Vicki Kelly, told Bendell. "You didn’t pull a trigger, but you pushed the plunger ... and shot him full of poison."
"You destroyed my family," sobbed Dannielle Trotter, the boy’s older sister. "Who are you? You’re not God. It was Tommy’s life, not yours."
Kelly was last seen alive Jan. 26, 1999, bloodied and covered in mud as he ran down Pioneer Road near his home, telling neighbors, "They’re after me." His remains were found in a nearby orchard creek bed June 12, almost 1½ years later.
After the remains were discovered, Bendell and co-defendant Tina Damon, 38, were arrested on charges they gave the teenager meth at a party the night before at Damon’s home.
Bendell and Damon each pleaded Thursday to one count of delivering a controlled substance (meth) to a minor. In exchange, prosecutors dropped less serious drug-possession charges against both defendants.
Jackson County Judge Patricia Crain sentenced Bendell to a stiffer-than-normal sentence of 2½ years in prison because he actually administered the injection. Damon provided the drug, and for her role was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years supervised probation.
Prosecutor Matt McCauley told the court the cause of Kelly’s death was never established. Sheriff’s detectives previously had ruled out foul play.
According to court records, Bendell has a lengthy criminal history dating back to 1990, including convictions for DUII, unlawful possession of a firearm, burglary, theft and attempting to elude police.
Damon’s criminal record exploded this year, including convictions for drug possession, DUII, forgery and theft. Her sentence includes in-custody treatment for drug addiction.
Neither Bendell nor Damon had anything to say for themselves Thursday. Instead, they sat impassively while members of Kelly’s family expressed hard feelings — especially for Bendell, once a friend of the family.
"When you look at me or my family, do you even care?" asked Katie Trotter, Tommy Kelly’s niece. "I hate you, and though God tells me to forgive, I can’t."
"He was just a boy, shot up with meth by a man who knew it could lead to his death," said Kelly’s aunt, Linda Whichard, who read from a poem titled "Taken From Me."
At one point, Vicki Kelly held aloft a photo of her son’s remains, as well as actual pieces of his bones and a jar containing dirt from his resting place in the orchard.
"Tommy paid the ultimate price for his bad choices," she told Bendell. "Legally, you will spend a small amount of time in prison for your actions. But morally you have a lifetime sentence of accountability in what happened to our son."
Lucille Harrell said she rested easy knowing her grandson was a believer in Jesus Christ and that he was waiting for her in a better place.
"I’ll see him again someday, waiting at the Pearly Gates, wondering what took me so long," she said. "Heaven is where he is now. I’m not going to cry."