The Arkansas Parole Board has rejected a commutation request from a Southeast Arkansas man serving a life sentence for the 1991 murder of a Desha County convenience store employee and attempted murder of a store customer.
The board found Benny L. Cleveland’s application “without merit” and forwarded its recommendation to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for a final decision.
Cleveland, 50, was convicted of the 1991 shooting death of a McGehee convenience store employee, the attempted capital murder of store customer, kidnapping his former girlfriend, aggravated robbery and theft. The kidnapping and aggravated robbery convictions were merged with the murder conviction.
Cleveland, then 26, already had a lengthy criminal history which included burglary convictions in Desha and Drew counties and theft convictions in Drew and Cleveland counties. He was on parole when the 1991 crimes occurred.
According to court records, Cleveland in 1991 had been involved for about two years in a turbulent relationship with a woman who was employed as a cook at Cash’s Quik Check in McGehee. The relationship ended in December 1991, but Cleveland persisted in attempting to contact the woman. The attempts to contact the woman was a violation of orders from his parole officer.
On December 29, 1991, Cleveland and a male companion drove to Cash’s Quik Check. He was armed with a .22-caliber pistol while his companion carried a shotgun. His companion went inside the store, purchased some ice cream, then returned to the car to report that Cleveland’s former girlfriend was in the store. Cleveland and his companion then entered the store with their weapons.
Cleveland’s former girlfriend, a co-worker, Michelle Nagel, and a customer, Willard Blackmon, were all seated in a booth inside the store. Cleveland approached the table and fired a shot a Nagel, killing her where she sat. Blackmon tried to escape, but Cleveland shot and wounded him.
Next, Cleveland chased his former girlfriend through the building and ordered her to come out of a cooler where she had attempted to hide. He took her outside and ordered her to get in the car. He then returned to the store and emerged with a handgun and box containing cash.
Cleveland then drove to Little Rock, where he left his male companion, and began an odyssey that would eventually take him and his former girlfriend to New Jersey where they were arrested by a state trooper on January 4, 1992.
A Desha County jury in July 1992 convicted Cleveland of murder, attempted capital murder, kidnapping, aggravated robbery and theft.
The kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges were merged in the murder conviction, and Cleveland was sentenced consecutively, under an amended judgment, to life without parole for the murder of Michelle Nagel, 30 years for the attempted capital murder of Willard Blackmon, and 10 years for the theft of property.
Cleveland appealed his convictions to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but it was denied. He currently is in the Department of Correction’s East Arkansas Region Unit at Brickeys.