By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In her 31 years, the soft-spoken single mother of two has never been convicted of a crime. But on this day in February 1995, on the Texas visiting judge's orders, she had just completed four days behind bars.
"I just wanted you--I wanted you to have a lesson," Hoffman explained, "but I didn't want you to have that big a lesson, because I wanted you to get home to those kids."
Benge's offense was violating the judge's decree barring her from communicating in any way with her former lover, a married man named Carlos Minor Jr.
But her incarceration was but a single milestone in a five-year saga of passion and pain. Think about the story of Benge and Minor, former truck drivers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, as a blue-collar, real-life hybrid of Hollywood--one part Disclosure, one part Fatal Attraction.
Minor, 29, who lives with his wife and son in Euless, claims in court documents that after his "purely sexual" 18-month affair with Benge ended, she launched an obsessive, three-year campaign of stalking and harassment. He says Benge barraged his home and workplace with hang-up calls, affixed cruel messages about his wife to his car, peered into his bedroom window at odd hours, kept late-night vigils in the parking lot of his apartment complex, and left a pair of panties on his doorknob. Such burdens, Minor once told a supervisor, are the "Lord's way of punishing me for what I have done."
Benge denies ever menacing Minor, insisting she was the victim. She says that after she rejected Minor because the relationship had turned abusive, he became violent. Minor and three of his friends all sexually assaulted her, she claims. She says Minor and one of his friends threatened her with weapons to force her to perform oral sex.
Minor and the others have denied the charges. All failed to respond to requests for interviews.
Drawn to a stalemate, this tawdry tale is headed for its own denouement--not in a blood-filled bathtub, but in a rhetoric-filled federal court.
The case raises provocative questions about the nature of sexual harassment.
It will feature the Arlington-based corporation that feeds airline passengers across the country and by which both Benge and Minor were employed: Sky Chefs, Inc. With 24,000 employees worldwide, Sky Chefs, a former subsidiary of American Airlines' parent company, dominates the airborne-meals market at D/FW and many other airports. Sky Chefs' blue and white trucks dart among the huge jets parked on the airport tarmac. At D/FW, Sky Chefs employs about 1,100 workers, 150 of whom drive trucks.
Nationwide, the company has responded aggressively to court claims of sexual harassment. In Oregon, a female worker complaining of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination won a $625,000 jury verdict. The award withstood a company challenge all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In federal court in Cleveland, the company is fighting a lawsuit filed by its former local human-resources manager. Theodore Thelander, 60, alleges that the company fired him because of his age and in retaliation for his investigation of a sexual harassment claim. In his pleadings, he claims Sky Chefs fired a recently hired female employee alleging sexual harassment before her probation ended "as a means of circumventing her complaint." He also alleges a Sky Chefs labor-relations manager told him company policy was to generate no internal paperwork in response to sexual-harassment complaints. "The reason for this policy," according to Thelander, "was so that no documents could be subject to subpoena."
Since 1992, Sky Chefs has been the target of eight sexual harassment and discrimination claims in Dallas federal court alone. Sky Chefs settled three of those cases, but the terms remain confidential.
Benge has made Sky Chefs, rather than her former lover, the target of her litigation. On May 3, 1994, after failing to persuade the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to pursue her harassment and bias claims, she sued the company in federal court. Asserted Benge in her suit: "Her male co-workers habitually tried to force or coerce Ms. Benge into gratifying their sexual desires on demand and by treating her as a sex object rather than as a co-worker of equal standing." Benge has asked for back pay and damages for assault and battery, emotional distress, and negligence.
Sky Chefs is responsible, she claims, because she had complained to management about harassment, even assault, at the hands of Minor and others employed by the company, but supervisors had done nothing.
All in all, the case amounts to one massive corporate headache.
"Oh God," says Walter Siebert, the Denver-based outside counsel for Sky Chefs, when asked about Benge's allegations. "This is the case from hell. It's like a soap opera."
If Sky Chefs has unhappily found itself at center stage in this messy drama, it is not only because the company is a natural deep-pocketed defendant, but because it has sided against Tonjua Benge.
In May 1993, months after their affair was over, Benge and Minor accused each other of sexual harassment on the job. After a week-long internal investigation, Sky Chefs fired Benge. "They could have just as easily fired both of them," argues Benge's Dallas lawyer, D'Metria Benson. "I don't mean to say firing was appropriate but that they should have taken proportionate action." The company also paid some of Minor's legal bills when he sought court orders to restrain Benge from contacting him.