Lovers no more
"I do not like to put ladies in jail," Judge Leonard Hoffman told Tonjua Benge.
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.
After losing her job at Sky Chefs, Benge took a comparable truck-driving position with a competing outfit, CaterAir. But in striking a deal last summer to acquire CaterAir, Sky Chefs insisted that by September CaterAir terminate Benge and more than a dozen other workers who had previously been dismissed from Sky Chefs.
Siebert--Sky Chefs' spokesman for this story--is flat-out contemptuous of the very nature of Benge's claim. "Someone has to explain to me forced oral sex," he says.
Siebert says Benge fabricated her complaints."We could find no evidence to support her allegations," he says. "She's mistaken--and she's still trying to get back at Carlos." About Benge's court claims that she was a victim of sexual assault by Sky Chefs employees, Siebert says: "You should see some of these guys she is accusing. These are the nicest guys you'd want to meet."
Tonjua Benge does not immediately project the image of a dangerously obsessed woman. A native Texan, she lives in Irving with her elderly father and two sons, ages 4 and 11. She wears her straight, neatly brushed hair shoulder-length. Meeting for drinks, she appears in jeans and a T-shirt and orders herbal tea.
After earning an associate's degree from Mountain View Community College, Benge went to work at Sky Chefs in August 1989, attracted by the $8.80-an-hour pay offered to the company's truck drivers. Benge was one of only six female truck-drivers for Sky Chefs on her shift at D/FW Airport. Only 30 of the company's 150 drivers at D/FW were women.
Benge, who has never married, was pregnant at the time with her second child. She says the boy's father was a South American native named Francisco. She says she cannot recall his last name. Before the birth, Benge says, Francisco had proposed to her. The two had even looked at rings. But before they could be married, Francisco boarded a plane to South America to see his mother and never returned. "My mother wouldn't let me go because I was six months pregnant," Benge has testified. "So he went by himself and I don't know what happened to him." She speculates that the father of her child died in a plane crash.
Benge met Carlos Minor Jr. during a Sky Chefs truck-driver training class they both attended in 1990.
A native of Natchez, Mississippi, Minor attended Jackson State University and studied business administration. In a deposition, Minor said he had worked at a Church's fried-chicken restaurant in Mississippi and moved to Dallas "to make a better life for myself." In 1989, Minor started as a dishwasher at Sky Chefs, where his two brothers also work. In 1990, after seven months on the job, Minor was trained and promoted to the position of truck driver by Sky Chefs.
Minor had come to Texas with his girlfriend, Jacqueline, a nurse he had met in 1985. The couple had been living together for five years and had one child when Minor met Benge. (Minor and Jacqueline would marry in May 1992.)
After Benge gave birth to her second child, she and Minor became lovers. She says Minor "admitted to having children" but "didn't say" with whom. She also insists she didn't know, at least initially, that Minor was living with his girlfriend and had been doing so for years.
Though Minor visited Benge at her apartment regularly--two or three times a week for some 18 months--to have sex, Benge says their romance quickly began to surface as a problem with Minor's friends at work. "His friends started teasing him," she says. A number of the comments were racial, she says. Benge is white; Minor and his workplace friends she accused are black.
In a deposition, Benge said she began keeping a written record of his visits because Minor would deny to his friends that they had occurred. A co-worker told a Sky Chefs human-resources manager that when others on the job learned about the interracial affair, they began making joking references to a "milk-chocolate shake."
As their relationship began to sour during 1992, Benge claims in court documents, Minor threatened and physically abused her, both on and off the job, on about a dozen occasions. In an interview, Benge insisted she broke off the relationship in May 1992, when "he became real abusive both in and out of work."
In statements to Sky Chefs administrators, records show, Benge told them the consensual relationship had ended earlier, in January 1992. It was then, she later told company officials, that Minor developed a "fatal attraction" to her.
During the summer of 1992, Benge and her children were living in an Irving apartment. Minor knew the complex's security code, Benge testified in her deposition, and he would force his way into her home. "There would be a knock on the door, and I would tell him to go away and he wouldn't go away," she stated. "I would tell him that I was going to call the police and he would just--he would not leave...He would tell me he wants to talk to me and he would apologize. And we have this little latch up on top, and I would just crack it to see, and then sometimes he would break it; sometimes he would coax me into the breezeway." On one occasion during the summer, after talking his way into Benge's apartment, Minor threw her up against a couch and forced her to have oral sex, Benge testified.
Benge alleges Minor also sexually assaulted her that summer on the job, in the back of a Sky Chefs truck. She says Minor pulled out a sharp object that she could feel but couldn't see in the darkened vehicle. Testified Benge in deposition: "He asked me had anyone ever pulled a weapon out and asked me to have sex. My response was, 'no,' so he tried it, and he pulled my hair and just wouldn't let go. I was in tears, begging him not to, and he just was making remarks about it. And he succeeded that day because he would not let go."
During the winter of 1992, Benge testified, Minor pulled out a gun and pointed it at her nose to get her to enter his car.
Benge contends three of Minor's friends--all Sky Chefs drivers at the time--also attacked her.
In a deposition, she testified that one of Minor's friends, who had consistently bragged about having a gun, forced her to perform oral sex on him while she was on duty at work.
Another pushed her into the back seat of a car while at work one day, Benge testified; while a second man held her down, Benge testified, the Sky Chefs driver drove her to an apartment building she didn't recognize, where he wrestled with her for more than two hours, tearing her pants and grabbing her breasts before her struggling finally persuaded him to take her back to the Sky Chefs parking lot.
On another occasion, Benge testified, she was in the back of a Sky Chefs truck when one of Minor's friends pinned her arms, then kissed her and fondled her breasts before she was able to slip away and escape.
Minor's attorney did not return repeated phone calls. Messages left with a Sky Chefs supervisor for the supervisor and the two other men who still work there went unanswered. The fourth truck driver Benge names no longer works for Sky Chefs, and the company declined to provide his forwarding address.
It remains in dispute when the ugly fallout from the Benge-Minor relationship drew the attention of Sky Chefs officials.
Benge has filed no charges against Minor or his friends, but she says she made efforts to seek help, despite being terrified because Minor and the other men had threatened to harm her if she told anyone about their behavior.
Benge also claims that she reported the forced sex and assaults to D/FW Airport police officer Lloyd Wayne Duncan, to whom she says she spoke on three occasions shortly after the alleged attacks occurred. She says she believed he was investigating the matters.
An airport spokesman, however, says there is no record of any such complaints by Benge during that period. Duncan is no longer with the force and could not be reached for comment. He resigned in November 1993, following an earlier indictment by a Tarrant County grand jury on a child-molesting charge. He later pled guilty, accepted deferred adjudication, and is now on seven years' probation.
Benge also says she made some tentative attempts to discuss the assaults with Sky Chefs supervisors, but was reluctant to get specific because of threats from Minor and his friends. "I did the best I could without having somebody wait for me in the parking lot with a gun," she testified.
Benge says that in December 1992, she pulled out some written notes about the situation during a meeting with her supervisor, customer-service manager Tracey Fisher, but that Fisher ushered her out before Benge could bring up the subject. Testified Benge about Fisher: "She was always pushing me out the door. She didn't have time to talk to me right now. She had to go check on a flight or tend to other business. She would get to me later."
In an affidavit, Fisher denies that Benge ever attempted to inform her of any assaults. She concedes that Benge had told her other employees were "talking about" her and her relationship with Minor. But, Sky Chefs' lawyers contend in court pleadings, "No action could be taken since it did not appear that any actionable wrongdoing had occurred, and because Plaintiff would not provide the identities of people of whom she complained."
In fact, three Sky Chefs supervisors say Benge reported nothing more than teasing and gossip until the day she was fired.
One of the company's former personnel executives, however, acknowledges earlier knowledge of some of Benge's more serious allegations. Carolyn Bensel, then Sky Chefs' D/FW human-resources manager with responsibility for all labor-relations issues at the airport, states in an affidavit that she investigated the Benge-Minor relationship after hearing indirectly in July 1992 that the two were charging each other with sexual harassment.
Bensel's affidavit notes that during her probe, another driver, Raymon Edwards, passed on Benge's claim that Minor had attacked her. Both Benge and Minor told Bensel they had spoken to Edwards about the situation. According to Bensel's notes, Minor spoke to her in July 1992 about his relationship with Benge, saying, "I have to try and end it before someone gets hurt," and, "I have a breaking point." Four months later, notes show, Minor told Bensel he was at the point of "blowing."
Bensel says Benge did not tell her directly about being attacked by Minor. Bensel declined to pursue the matter, she says, having instead opted for limited intervention. "I did conclude that Mr. Minor and Ms. Benge were both inappropriately using the workplace as a forum for their disputes relating to their previous romance," Bensel explained in an affidavit. She stated she warned the former lovers to stay away from each other and stop the gossip. Said Bensel in the affidavit: "I issued both parties warning letters stating that further conduct of this nature--bringing personal issues into the workplace or permitting their personal relationship to impact the workplace, other employees, or their job performance--would result in discipline, up to and including termination."
In November 1992, according to Bensel's affidavit, Benge complained that other drivers were "making advancements" toward her. "She described that people seemed to believe that the termination of her relationship with Carlos made the other drivers think she was available and they were asking her for dates," Bensel states in the affidavit. But Benge again declined to disclose names and "did not indicate that she desired any intervention on my part," Bensel states.
According to the affidavit, Bensel responded to additional complaints from Minor by advising him that she "could not regulate his relationships or personal disputes outside work, and the incidents at work could not definitely be attributed to Ms. Benge, so I could not act on them."
Carlos Minor has a dramatically different account of his relationship with Tonjua Benge.
In court statements, Minor said their 18-month affair began in 1991 and was "purely sexual." He said they met as often as three times a week, always at her apartment.
By July 1992, after the relationship was over, Minor--who had recently married his girlfriend, Jacqueline--was telling Sky Chefs personnel administrators investigating the conflict that Benge had exhausted his patience. "She's going around like [we're] still hot and heavy--I try to ignore--I would hope she'd catch the picture," Minor said, according to one company investigator's notes. "It's not worth losing my job. I'm not one to be played with. I know what I did was wrong. I never lied to her. My opinion is she has a problem. I don't want to hurt her but she won't leave me alone...She promised she'd leave me alone but I knew it wouldn't happen. She's a compulsive liar. I have witnesses to back it up."
Minor apparently experienced at least one domestic conflict with his wife as well. In February 1993, records show, Bedford police officers went to the couple's residence to handle a domestic disturbance. The police report identifies Minor as the victim, though his wife told officers he hit her in the face with a boot. The report states that Minor told the officers his wife had grabbed his throat and struck him with a fork, but that Minor declined to press charges against his wife.
On May 12, 1993, Minor approached Benge with sentimental cartoons about romance that he had discovered in his locker at work. Minor says he believed they were only the most recent in a series of anonymous notes from Benge, who he had repeatedly asked to leave him alone.
An altercation ensued, and a Sky Chefs supervisor was required to separate the pair. Benge later told airport police that Minor had threatened her with his fists. Minor acknowledged to supervisors that he was incensed.
Under questioning by Sky Chefs human-resource manager Nancy Dugan, who had replaced Bensel (then on maternity leave), Benge and Minor accused each other of harassment. Dugan suspended both and conducted a one-week investigation.
During that probe, the company claims in court documents, other employees told Dugan that Benge had a "fatal attraction" to Minor and that she had always been initiating the contact with notes, as well as comments to him and to his friends. Perhaps most damaging for Benge, a co-worker reported that Benge had asked him to scribble notes to leave on Minor's car, presumably to keep her own handwriting from being recognized.
On May 20, 1993, Dugan and customer-service manager Fisher, the two women who had conducted the investigation, summoned Benge. They advised her that she had been terminated, effective two days earlier. It was only then, the company asserts, that Benge claimed Minor and his three workplace friends had assaulted her.
Dugan asked Minor that month if he had ever threatened Benge inside a truck. According to notes of the conversation, Minor said: "No. I have never threatened her. I have not been inside a truck with her in Lord knows when."
Asked if had ever threatened her with a weapon, Minor's response was less definitive. "At work?" he asked. "Anytime," the personnel executive responded. "Yes, I have," said Minor, "when [she] comes to my home. Wouldn't you?"
Notes of Minor's conversations with company officials suggest he was thoroughly exasperated with is former lover: "It doesn't matter to her what is going on or who is getting hurt," he said, according to the notes. "She wants to do what she want [sic] to do. I took it as long as I could." Added Minor: "She will lie right in your face."
Since her firing, Benge has filed at least 10 harassment complaints with the Irving police and three with the D/FW airport police, alleging that Minor and his wife have made threatening phone calls and followed her car.
Minor denies having done so.
Benge has still filed no criminal charges against her alleged attackers. Her attorney, who notes that victims of sexual assault are often reluctant to press charges, says Benge may still do so in the future. Why hasn't she already acted? "I can't really answer that," Benge says. By now, she adds, the authorities "would probably shrug their shoulders because so much time has gone by."
Minor, meanwhile, claims that his own nightmare--phone calls, unsigned notes, and strange messages--was just beginning. In February 1995, he went to state court, alleging that Benge had violated a court order he had obtained barring any contact with him. Benge's harassment, he testified, was "annoying, alarming, abusive, tormenting, embarrassing, and offensive."
Minor and his family had moved three times to avoid Benge, he testified during a hearing. He said he had changed his phone number several times, kept it unlisted, and even missed the opportunity to earn overtime pay because he didn't want to give his supervisors his number and risk the chance that Benge might discover how to reach him.
To try to halt the harassment, Minor said, he even visited with Benge's father, Robert. "I introduced myself and told him I was a co-worker of his daughter, that I was sexually involved with her, but no longer...I really felt that he did not know what his daughter was doing after she got off work or after hours because he was an elderly gentleman that would be asleep early and he really didn't know what was going on." Minor said he showed Benge's father letters and cards that Minor believed his former lover had sent him. "I just didn't want him to be surprised when he got a call from the police station," Minor testified in court.
In court, Minor played two answering-machine messages which he alleged Benge had left at his home. "Hey, Carlos," began one, which Minor said was recorded on Thanksgiving Day of 1994, "your friend really does care a lot about you but you must not care about her because you won't call her right now. Don't be afraid. Call her. She's not going to set you up, she's not going to get revenge, and she's not going to turn you down. She wants very much to make love to you, but you have to make the first move, not her."
On New Year's Eve, Minor testified, he received a second message: "Hey bro'," it began, "do yourself a favor. Find yourself a girl and go somewhere and make love with her for the New Year's. Forget about the one you're with and the one you've been with for seven years. She ain't worth nothin'. She can't give you nothin' but a bunch of hurt and a bunch of hell...Contact your girl and work something out. Because everybody at Sky Chefs knew you guys are meant for each other."
Rejecting Benge's denials, the judge concluded she had indeed left the message and he tossed her behind bars.
Benge continues to deny leaving the messages. But after her four days in jail, Benge explicitly acknowledged that she had violated the judge's order by expressing remorse for her actions. "I want to apologize for ever communicating or calling Carlos," Benge told the judge. "The time I spent in jail is on my mind every day when I get up and every night when I go to bed...and I will not violate a clear oath again."
That apology was enough to prompt Hoffman to probate her sentence and terminate her jail stay.
Within months of her firing from Sky Chefs, Benge had landed a job with its competitor, CaterAir. CaterAir had hired her as a truck driver, at pay comparable to her Sky Chefs wage. But she could not so easily escape her past.
In late 1995, Sky Chefs reached an agreement to acquire Cater Air. The company placed Benge, along with a dozen other terminated Sky Chefs workers then employed at Cater Air, on a roster of workers who had to go. Cater Air agreed to fire all of them before the merger was final. By September, Benge was out of a job again.
The single mother now works two part-time jobs paying about $4.50 an hour, about half her previous wage. She and her sons have moved into her father's home.
Benge also claims to suffer from the stress of harassment and abuse. "I can't sleep at night; I twist and turn. I'm afraid to answer the phone when somebody calls. When I drive anywhere, I look around to see if anybody is coming up that is going to hurt me," she testified.
But Judge Hoffman was not the only one who viewed Benge as a perpetrator, not a victim.
In June 1993, Benge filed a sexual-harassment and discrimination complaint against Sky Chefs with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--a necessary first step for filing suit on such claims in federal court.
The EEOC investigator on her case found no evidence to back her claims. It is not unusual for EEOC to conclude a claimant hasn't got a case; many who have received such findings have later won large awards in federal court. But the investigator in Benge's case also made an unusual point of noting her conduct during the probe, citing her nearly "daily telephone contact" with the EEOC and her attempts to "disguise" her voice.
In an EEOC pre-determination letter, senior investigator George Ashford alleged that Benge had made several phone calls during which she posed as others: "You called [Sky Chefs] and EEOC and have tried to disguise your voice. We have listened to you pretending to be three or more persons who you contend have more information to help your case."
Benge denies making such calls. Her attorney believes one of Minor's supporters set Benge up by making the calls.
In early March 1995, the Tarrant County district attorney's office charged Benge with class-A misdemeanor harassment for making obscene and harassing phone calls--including the ones that got her into trouble in the state court--to Minor. A trial is set for February 5. If convicted, Tonjua Benge could face a $4,000 fine and a one-year prison sentence.
Sky Chefs is placing its bets on Carlos Minor in this messy affair. "It appeared to us," says company spokesman Siebert, "that Minor had played no part in this except when he blew up over the cartoons left in his locker."
Everyone is expecting a comparably messy courtroom brawl. "In almost any case," says Siebert, "there is an opportunity for a settlement, but not with this one."
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