Bond granted to U-Haul robbery suspect

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A black jacket with a fur-rimmed hood kept Akeem Benjamin from sharing the holidays with his family, his attorney and family claim.

The 19-year-old Snellville resident fell victim last month to mistaken identity and a fatefully bad choice in attire, his attorney Mawuli Davis asserted in court Wednesday.

Benjamin's family staged a Christmas Eve prayer vigil at the Gwinnett County Jail calling for his charges to be dropped, and several showed their support in his probable cause hearing Wednesday. He's been jailed without bond since Dec. 18.

Good news for the family came when a judge granted Benjamin $5,000 bond, as his attorney had requested. His felony charges of criminal attempt to commit armed robbery were forwarded to a higher court, however, and a police investigation continues.

Police say Benjamin claimed he had a gun in his jacket and demanded money at a U-Haul on Hewatt Road at U.S. Highway 78. The robber left empty-handed when the store's general manager walked from behind the counter and shuffled a patron to the exit, police said.

Benjamin's physical and clothing description -- including the coat -- matched the suspect's. He was spotted with two friends and arrested at a Burger King about a mile from the attempted robbery scene moments later. The customer and U-Haul manager later identified Benjamin in person, testified Gwinnett police Detective A. Elkins.

Benjamin denied any involvement and later invoked his Miranda Rights, Elkins said.

An employee at a nearby NTB vehicle repair testified that Benjamin brought a car in for a wheel alignment with two young men at 4:30 p.m., chatted in the lobby for about 15 minutes before saying they were going to the nearby Burger King. That timeframe overlaps the time of the attempted robbery, said Davis, who specializes in human rights cases.

Davis produced a receipt from the NTB as proof his client was there. U-Haul surveillance images show the attempted robbery happened about 4:35 p.m.

Elkins, the detective, said similarities don't stop at the jacket. Surveillance video from the U-Haul shows embroidery on the suspect's pants matched what Benjamin wore upon his arrest.

Benjamin's best friend, Corey Brown, 20, accompanied him to NTB and Burger King and testified he was "shocked" by Benjamin's brief interrogation and arrest on the scene.

Magistrate Judge Kristina Blum determined that prosecutors had met the minimal burden of probable cause -- a lower threshold than the reasonable doubt standard for juries -- and declined to dismiss the charges.

"I'm not the jury," Blum told the suspect. "I'm merely here to determine if there was a reasonable basis for your arrest."

Blum set special conditions for Benjamin's bond to restrict him from having contact with witnesses he doesn't know. She also required him to continue living with his mother while free on bond.

Assistant District Attorney Carole Cox opposed bond altogether.

Davis said his client is employed at an electronics business and had planned to attend Gwinnett Tech prior to his incarceration. He has no prior criminal record.

Blum bound the case to Gwinnett Superior Court for indictment. Benjamin's next legal move will be to enter a plea at an arraignment, she said.