The partner of a man recently sent to prison for more than 40 years after he tried to kill a co-worker is filing a complaint with the state claiming that she and her family were never notified when the attempted killer’s sentencing hearing would be rescheduled in Cochise County Superior Court.
Knowing the exact date of Bryan Benally’s sentencing hearing was crucial for Crystal Watson, who lives in the Navajo Nation in Tonalea, because getting to Bisbee where the court is located is practically an all-day drive.
The seven-hour trip would be complicated by the fact that Watson, 40, would be bringing her parents and her two toddler daughters so they could show their support for Benally, Watson’s longtime partner and the father of her two girls.
But the family never made it to Benally’s sentencing in February, Watson said, because Benally seemed unsure of the date when they spoke on the phone and Watson claims she could not get in touch with the Cochise County public defenders who were representing Benally.
“It looked like Bryan had no support and that no one cared about him,” Watson said in a recent telephone interview, referring to the sentencing hearing.
Watson said she is sending a letter of complaint to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office explaining that Benally had a sentencing hearing set for this January and that the date was changed without any notification to his family.
In November 2022 a jury convicted Benally of one count of attempted first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery, one count of assault and eight counts of aggravated assault for the multiple stabbing of Johnny Shaver, who was 18 at the time of the incident.
After the assault, Benally, who was inebriated, also rifled through the teenager’s pockets, taking his cell phone, wallet and truck keys.
The men were working together for a rancher near the Cochise Stronghold. They had set up a campsite and would only return home on weekends. The attack occurred at the campsite the morning of Jan. 5, 2021.
Benally was sentenced to 57 years in prison and must serve 85% of that term. Prosecutors attempted to settle the case with Benally, but they could not reach an agreement and the matter went to trial.
While she does not condone Benally’s actions, Watson said it was important that he have his family’s support during the most impacting moment of his life.
She blamed the Cochise County Public Defender’s Office for not keeping her better informed, and that’s the object of her complaint, Watson said.
But Assistant Cochise County Public Defender Cynthia Brubaker, one of two attorneys who represented Benally, denied Watson’s account.
In an email to a reporter, Brubaker said only: “Absolutely untrue.”
Watson, however, disputes that, saying she called the Public Defender’s Office and never received a response. She said she’s had the same telephone number for a decade and she has no messages from Benally’s attorneys in her phone.
“I have no emails and no letters,” she said.
Benally’s sentencing hearing initially was scheduled for Jan. 19. But because the county’s adult probation officials were backed up with other cases, a pre-sentence report and interview could not be scheduled in time for that date. The sentencing was then moved to early February.
Watson said if she had known that she could have arranged the long trip and the logistics involved in advance.
Benally and Shaver met in late November 2020. By all accounts, the two — 20 years apart in age — got along in their time together on the job, even becoming friends.
The pair spent several weeks at the work campsite, located atop the rugged, steep mountain at the Cochise Stronghold so they would not have to drive home daily after their long workday.
But on the night of the incident Benally began acting strangely, Deputy Cochise County Attorney Lori Zucco told jurors at Benally’s trial, prompting Shaver to text his sister and reveal that something was up with his workmate.
Benally sucker-punched Shaver after they reached their campsite, then told the younger man to call his mother.
Moments later, Benally started attacking Shaver with a knife, stabbing him in the abdomen, arm and back.
Shaver, said Zucco, had the presence of mind to play dead so that Benally would stop the assault. The defendant stopped, but then stole Shaver’s property.
Most of the knife wounds Shaver suffered were to his abdomen, one so deep the blood was bubbling, doctors testified. That means air was coming from the victim’s punctured lungs.
When the bloodied Shaver thought Benally was out of sight, he stood and began making his way down the steep mountain with a flashlight, but Benally spotted him and began throwing rocks at him, Zucco said. The younger man was able to continue his arduous trek until he saw a sign that indicated a trailhead and parking lot were close.
Shaver saw a camper, knocked on the door — it was just after 3 a.m. — and told a vacationing retired couple he was bleeding out. They called 911. Shaver was airlifted to Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson.
Benally told investigators when he was found later that morning at about 7:30 a.m. that a group of undocumented Mexicans on the mountain had ordered him to kill Shaver or they would kill Benally’s children.
Moments before the attack unfolded, Benally had called Watson, she said. Benally had been drinking and he wanted to speak to his daughters.
“It was midnight and I told him I was not going to wake up our babies,” Watson said. “He said he loved me and the girls. I told him he should not be drinking because he was there working to support us.”