Suspect's mother fled with sons to end abuse

Staff WriterNovember 13, 2005 

CHARLOTTE, Mich. -- Sarah Chandler says she left her husband, Robert Planten, after watching him beat and verbally abuse their four sons. She later moved halfway across the country to Michigan so she and her sons could start over.

Chandler eventually flourished in Charlotte, a small town just outside Lansing, the state capital. She started a law practice, founded a domestic violence shelter and served on boards of nonprofits.

But her second-youngest son, Drew Planten, struggled. He finished high school and graduated from college, but befriended no one, never dated and rarely went out. He had trouble landing a job and was often so silent that it was painful to be near him.

"He was such an unassuming guy," said Robert Deitrick, an attorney in Charlotte who knows Chandler and Planten. "If he leaned against the wall, you wouldn't see him."

Planten's big break seemed to come in 2000, when he took a job at a state lab in Raleigh. Chandler told neighbors of her son's good fortune and thought he had found a place to make a home and career.

Instead, Planten, 35, sits in a cell at Central Prison in Raleigh, charged with murder. Police say he bound, raped and strangled 23-year-old Stephanie Bennett in her North Raleigh apartment in 2002. After arresting him last month and searching his apartment, police say Planten may also be a suspect in the killing of a 22-year-old Lansing woman in 1999.

To his mother, whose monotone voice rarely shows emotion, the news was painful.

"It's horrible," she said, her eyes watering. "It's just horrible."

The daughter of a Baptist minister, Chandler moved to New Jersey when her father took over a parish in Passaic County. There she met Robert Planten, whose family was "a pillar of the church," she said.

The couple married and had four boys in a span of seven years. Her husband, a graduate of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, worked as a surveyor and municipal works supervisor while Chandler ran a day care.

Violence marred the marriage, Chandler said. Planten beat and verbally abused the children. He never hit his wife, but he verbally abused her. Chandler thought he focused on the boys to keep a psychological hold on the family.

"I think he physically abused the children because he knew it would get to me," Chandler said.

Chandler knew she had to leave. But it was a hard decision for a minister's daughter brought up in a church in which divorce was frowned upon. She worked two jobs to support her sons, running the day care and waiting tables on weekends. She later enrolled in paralegal school and took a job at the phone company.

Life in New Jersey became even more difficult when her ex-husband was convicted of official misconduct in 1985. Robert Planten had received a $57 hood ornament from a builder in exchange for approving a set of site plans, according to news accounts at the time. The case was all over the newspapers, and kids made fun of the boys at school, Chandler said.

Move to Michigan

After rejection from several law schools in New Jersey, Chandler eventually got accepted at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing. She moved the family to Michigan, working as a paralegal during the day and attending school at night.

Drew Planten was upset by the move, angry about finishing high school at a new school. He enrolled at East Lansing High, a short walk from Michigan State University, and graduated in 1988.

Wally Juall, a counselor, recalled meeting with Planten a handful of times about "personal matters."

"He was kind of a quiet guy, not really wanting to disclose a lot of things about himself," said Juall, now retired.

School administrators told Chandler that her son was "immature" and suggested Planten attend Lansing Community College before enrolling at Michigan State.

He took pre-veterinary classes at the community college, then transferred to the university in 1990, according to school records. The family lived in East Lansing, a short drive from campus, and Planten lived at home. As in high school, he did not participate in any clubs, teams or organizations.

Planten's father faded from his life. Robert Planten eventually moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., where he died in a fire in 1993. His death had minimal impact on the boys' lives, Chandler said, because they were not close to him. Chandler doesn't try to explain how his beatings might have affected her sons, though she knows they suffered.

Jobs hard to find

In 1995, Planten graduated from MSU with a zoology degree. He worked briefly as a lab technician at BioPort, a company that develops anthrax vaccine, and Neogen, a food safety and testing company, his mother said.

Planten quit the jobs because of poor pay, then had trouble finding one in his field, Chandler said.

"I think it was because he was shy," she said. "He would get to the interview and they would pick someone else."

By now, Planten was living with his mother and younger brother in a quiet subdivision in Charlotte (pronounced Shar-LOT). The town of 8,400, just off Interstate 69, is anchored by the old Eaton County courthouse, a red brick structure with a white cupola on a grassy quad. Mayor Ken Wirt describes Charlotte as a "self-contained small town," and its Web site boasts of a "decidedly no-nonsense, Midwestern work ethic."

The Plantens lived in a gray two-story home with white shutters. Neighbors chat while walking their dogs or watching kids play basketball in driveways. Most knew Chandler, but said she didn't socialize much and stayed away from the annual summer picnic and neighborhood parties. Residents saw her when she mowed her lawn, cleared snow from her walkway or trimmed bushes.

"I always wondered, 'Why aren't those boys out there helping their mother?' " said Dale Land, who lives a few doors away.

Quiet and odd

Neighbors recalled Drew Planten as a lanky man slouched in a long coat who would stare down at the street while walking his Rottweiler. Michigan neighbors, like Planten's neighbors in Raleigh, described him as quiet, odd and even awkward.

"Drew's always been quiet," his mother said. "I think if Drew had been outgoing we would have thought that was strange."

While Planten withdrew, his mother flourished.

She was the driving force behind a domestic violence shelter and had the shelter's hot line routed to her office, where she fielded calls from battered women. Chandler went on to serve with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, the United Way and other charities.

"Volunteer work has always been my social life," she said. "I grew up in the church. I was never into partying."

She bought a Victorian home on Cochran Avenue, the main drag, and opened her office on the first floor. Now, as a "country lawyer," she sees clients about divorce, bankruptcy and real estate, she said.

Margo and Scott Ross, her neighbors, said though they always thought Planten was strange, his mother was helpful and civic-minded. When the couple's teenage daughter searched for work one summer, Chandler hired her as a secretary.

They describe Chandler as the backbone of her household. "I think she tried to hold that family together," Margo Ross said.

In spring of 2000, Drew Planten got a seasonal job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He moved to Oregon and spent his days in the water, counting salmon as they swam upstream. Soon after, he got a permanent job in North Carolina, with the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

In Raleigh, Planten would be closer to his brother, Donald, who lived in Asheville with his wife. The family was familiar with the Triangle because the oldest son, Ronald, had attended N.C. State University, according to a family history.

Chandler lent Planten money and helped him move into an apartment near Lake Lynn, a two-minute walk from where Stephanie Bennett lived.

He went to work as a chemistry technician in a fertilizer laboratory, and Chandler saw him three or four times a year when he came home to visit or when she traveled to Raleigh. The two talked regularly on the phone, Chandler said.

"He probably talked to me more than anybody else," she said.

Planten had stopped talking with his brother Ronald, who lived in Florida. In Raleigh, he eventually cut off contact with his brother Donald, in part because Donald had joined a religious cult and married a woman with similar beliefs, Chandler said. And, in 2003, when Asheville police arrested Donald Planten in a scheme that involved hiding video cameras in women's restrooms at his job, Drew did not reach out to his brother.

"It was a shame," Chandler said of the relationship. "Growing up, they were like two peas in a pod."

In Raleigh, Drew Planten found his job, analyzing the contents of fertilizer, a bit boring, Chandler said. But he had been promoted twice and wanted to eventually become a supervisor. Chandler thought he wanted to stay until he retired.

"I think Drew is the type of person that likes doing things where he knows the outcome," his mother said.

Instead, Planten's life changed abruptly on Oct. 19 when Raleigh police arrested him outside the laboratory. Police say a sample of Planten's DNA matched DNA left at Bennett's apartment. When they searched Planten's apartment on Buck Jones Road, where he had moved, they found an arsenal of guns, bullets and knives.

They also found documents that mention Rebecca Huismann, a topless dancer shot in the face with a .45-caliber gun and left for dead in her Lansing driveway in 1999, before Planten had left home.

Lansing police came to North Carolina after Raleigh investigators found the documents and two .45-caliber handguns in Planten's home, according to Raleigh police. The Michigan officers returned home with a gun; a week later, prosecutors said Huismann's six-year-old cold case was under investigation again.

A mother's pain

Chandler learned about her son's arrest when a television reporter called her office. During the next few days, she read news accounts online of Bennett's 2002 killing and Planten's first appearance in court, where he sat strapped to a gurney, eyes shut, silent and unresponsive.

Soon after the arrest, Chandler visited her son at Central Prison in Raleigh, she said. Planten encouraged his mother not to visit too often. He wanted to make sure she could focus on her clients and secure a future for herself.

"I think that was really thoughtful considering what he is facing," Chandler said.

She plans on returning to Raleigh to empty her son's apartment and meet with his attorney before taking Planten's belongings home to Michigan.

Chandler can't bring herself to go on the Web any longer to read about what is unfolding in Lansing and Raleigh. It's just too painful to watch the family she once kept together now fall apart.

(Staff writer Sarah Ovaska and news researchers Brooke Cain and Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.)

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