Man to Stand Trial In Slaying of Former Pitt Star

Jan 23, 2003

CHARLEROI, Pa. (AP) - A man was ordered to stand trial Wednesday on charges that he killed former University of Pittsburgh football star Jo Jo Heath by stabbing him with Heath's own knife.

The defendant's attorney said it was self-defense.

Jason Allen Benner, 29, of Charleroi, is charged with criminal homicide, aggravated assault, robbery and theft. His wife, Estell L. Benner, 28, will be tried on charges that she lied when police inquired about a cut hand her husband sustained in an altercation with Heath on Dec. 30.

Two hunters found Heath, 45, of Fayette City, dead next to a creek near the Benners' home, and police followed a trail of blood to the home, according to court documents.

Police said Benner also took two rings from Heath, one from the University of Pittsburgh and another he got for playing in the Tangerine Bowl.

Heath starred for the Panthers as a four-year letterman from 1976-79. He was a defensive back on Pitt's 1976 national championship team and captained the 1979 squad that went 11-1 and finished ranked No. 7 by The Associated Press. Heath played briefly with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles, and in the Canadian Football League.

He last played as a strike replacement player for the New York Jets in 1987, and since had a record of drug and theft arrests.

An autopsy showed that Heath died of 26 stab wounds that penetrated several major organs.

State police Trooper Rebecca Loving testified at a preliminary hearing Wednesday that Estell Benner originally said her husband was at a hospital because he had cut his hand on some sheet metal that day.

But Loving said Estell Benner later said she saw her husband and Heath argue in Heath's car in the couple's driveway. Estell Benner said she checked the wounded Heath's pulse before Jason Benner came into the house and she bandaged his cut finger before the couple smoked crack cocaine.

Police said Jason Benner told them that he owed Heath $100 for drugs and argued over the debt before Heath pulled a knife and cut Benner's finger.

Jason Benner said he drove Heath's car to a wooded area and put Heath's body there, then walked home.

Public Defender Glenn Alterio argued that Benner acted in self-defense because Heath drew his knife.

District Justice James Ellis agreed with prosecutors that the self-defense question was best left to a jury, and ordered the Benners to stand trial. The Benners remained in the Washington County Jail early Thursday.

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