An American Tragedy: Alamo 2009

An American Tragedy is the name of a very long, dense classic novel, published in 1925, about a man whose fierce but over-reaching desire to enjoy his share in the American dream ends in violence.

This novel, by Theodore Dreiser, was based on the true-crime 1906 drowning death of a single young pregnant woman at an upstate New York lake resort, and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of her lover. An Academy Award-winning 1951 film adaptation, A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor at their most beautiful, expertly depicts the young man’s yearning for material comforts and social status, and then his desperation when he feels those aspirations slipping away.

Clift’s (and Dreiser’s) protagonist comes from the poor side of a family. In A Place in the Sun, he goes to work in his rich uncle’s swimsuit factory, gets involved with a fellow factory worker (played by Shelly Winters), impregnates her, then tries to dump her when he meets and becomes involved with the town’s most desirable young debutante (Taylor). When Winters’ shopgirl presses him to marry her, he says OK, but let’s first take a romantic rowboat trip around a lake. Needless to say, she doesn’t make it back to shore, and he winds up arrested, put on trial for her murder, convicted, and then sentenced to death. Clift’s performance in the film and Dreiser’s long but riveting account of the police interrogation and trial testimony of the protagonist–in some ways, an American everyman–offer fascinating portraits of human desperation and a person’s descent into reckless, self-centered, cruel criminality.

I couldn’t help but think about the Dreiser book and A Place in the Sun (one of my favorites) while reading Friday’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about what led up to the shootout last Thursday night between an Alamo contractor and a jewelry store owner in his hometown.

Thomas Paul Bennett was not a hungry young man, but a man in mid-life, 50 years old. And, apparently, like a lot of men and women in our community he was hungry and perhaps felt entitled to a certain way of life. And he possibly got way in over his head, while seeming to have acquired the 21st century version of material comforts and social status that Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths was desperately seeking. Bennett had his own business, a wife, a son and a daughter, and a $2.5 million home in a cul-de-sac in one of the East Bay’s toniest zip codes.

But according to what prosecutor Bruce Flynn told the Chronicle’s Henry K. Lee, Bennett was on the verge of losing his home—and, one wonders, much more—so, he made a plan to rob a man who had been a friend “in a desperate attempt to stay afloat.”

On last Thursday evening, Bennett, armed with three guns—including a .22-caliber weapon outfitted with a homemade silencer—drove to Oscar Herrera’s jewelry store in the Alamo Square Shopping Center.

Herrera, 53, who was on a first-name basis with Bennett, told investigators that Bennett came into his store at about 7 p.m., pulled a gun and said he had to rob him to save the home where he has lived for eight years with his wife, son and daughter.

Somehow during this exchange, Bennett opened fire and struck Herrera in the chest, Flynn told the Chronicle. Herrera, pleading for his life, moved to the back of the store, grabbed his own gun, and shot back, striking Bennett in the neck, mouth, and wrist.

Responding Contra Costa Sheriff’s deputies pulled Herrera out, and got him to the hospital. Bennett refused to surrender for about an hour, at one point standing in the doorway, pointing a gun at his own head and threatening suicide.

Now, both he and Herrera are recovering from their injuries at John Muir medical center, and Bennett has been charged with attempted murder, attempted robbery, commercial burglary.

Meanwhile, his family is dealing the possible loss of the home Bennett was apparently trying to save. Lee says that public records that that “Bennett and his wife, Sutton, were notified in August that they were $35,631 in default on their six-bedroom, 6,200-square-foot home, which they bought in 2001 for $1.2 million.”

“On Nov. 27, the couple received a “notice of trustee’s sale” detailing an unpaid balance of $2.3 million and indicating that their home would be sold at public auction Dec. 21, records show.”

According to a realty website, the Bennett property is in pre-foreclosure. “The homeowner has missed at least one payment and may be willing to sell this home at an attractive price, in order to avoid foreclosure.”

21 thoughts on “An American Tragedy: Alamo 2009

  1. Whoa, baby, take it easy. I see now that you had read literature in your youth, but drawing this parallel is a bit too much. I think you and he read to much into his situation. Is losing your house worse than dying?

    People need to buck up and accept the reverses in life. What your friends and family might think about your being broke is not what is inside you.


  2. So why should I feel sorry? This nice gentleman has three guns and a homemade silencer? Lived for 8 years in a mansion he couldn't afford. Well not only lived for 8 years there but since the his debt grew from 1.2 milions to 2.3 millions he paid himself each and every month he lived there more than $11,000 in cash and now the public should pick up his tab. Oh and I guess as a little special holiday gift we can also pick up his and his victim's tab at John Muir.

    Sorry I feel more for a hard working illegal working the night shift at target than for this parasite.


  3. a little dramatic aren't we soccer mom? I thought it a might strange that you jumped in the car right after this happened just to eye spy his house and even tried to talk to his family? what's up with the fascination on this one? is your day job reporting? or are you just “curious?”


  4. I hate to state the obvious, but if Bennett came into the store with a silencer on his gun, it was not his intent to leave a witness who knew him on a first name basis. There is desperation and then there is premeditated [attempted] murder by someone who has decided his lifestyle, and that of his family, is more important than another man's life and in complete disregard for the other man’s family. I feel sorry for the Bennett mother and kids, but there is a lesson here for other children: appreciate your parents for the food put on the table and for not subjecting you to what is now, for the Bennett kids, a certain and difficult reversal of fortunes and the shear humiliation dumped on their heads by the selfish acts of their father.


  5. Agreed with the above. Maybe he should have downsized or sold the plane or something before trying to take money or life from someone else.


  6. How about downsizing? Sell the plane, house, boats etc. People would respect him if did that.

    He chose another path for which he and his family must pay the price.


  7. This is why my husband and I live below our means. Yes, it is hard to go into Nordstrom's and not yield to the temptation of buying a pair of $100 jeans. We just had a new driveway and patio installed and, yet our house payment is still lower than most of our neighbors. (We waited 10 years for the new driveway.) For Christmas I told my husband a new pair of shoes would be nice. Also, always have a Plan B in mind folks. What would you do if you lost your job? Lost your house? Lost your spouse?


  8. Sorry Jojo and December 11 3:29 p.m., but I do think there is something emblematic about this case. I just do. I know I have a tendency to get a bit dramatic, but…
    And, yes, I did swing by the house. Certain professional habits never die. And someone from the family said they didn't want talk.


  9. Professional habits???

    More like a vulture circling and picking the bones….chasing fire engines to view the distruction of someone's property….gawking at an auto accident….and some wonder why the “press” is not held in high regard!

    Put yourself in the family's position MOM…..would you answer questions from a stranger? Get a grip.


  10. Greed, pure and simple. Why all the toys, the multi million dollar house? All for what, now the humiliation and embarrasement to his family? Life in Prison? Greed, materialisim got this family where it is. Now time for change, people live within your means, always have back up savings and stop trying to out do the Jone's.

    We have always lived conservatively and have handled the down turn well. My husband was laid off 7 years ago and now is self employed. No one bailed us out 7 years ago, so there is no understanding or sympathy towards families that lived beyond their means and faced a job loss. Yes we struggled, but we were not in debt and are still able to put our children through College and they will graduate debt free. We live in a small home, own our cars outright and pay $950 a month just for health insurance. But we have our priorities down and have a healthy, happy family.

    This is not an American Tragedy, sadly this is what many Americans feel entitled too. Lush lifestyle and if faced losing it, they harm someone else. Must be somebody else's fault. Wake up America, own your mistakes and stop the blame.


  11. SM- In your short idea for a TV series screenplay, shouldn't you also liken Mr. Herrera to a drug pusher whose only reason for existence is to feed the needs of those addicted to greed ie. Bennett? And if you wanted to make it a full movie of the week you could add in more characters that drove him to rob and attempt to murder a man to satisfy his greed addiction such as Humvee dealers and Alamo real estate agents and let's not forget airplane salesmen. Yes, Tom Bennett is the real victim and we should feel sorry for him.


  12. You are a wonderful writer, but please remember that the past tense of the verb “to lead” is “led”, not lead. I know we have a weird language but I see this mistake often in the press and it drives me nuts!


  13. Mr. Cranston,
    You caught me. I ALWAYS make that mistake and I know better. I just forgot to catch it when I did a quick read-through. Thanks for the copyediting reminder!

    Meanwhile, I don't have intentions to write my screenplay. Not on this case. It seems I am either being a vulture, picking over the bones of this family's tragedy. Or I am showing Mr. Bennett too much sympathy.

    Well, I am afraid I have compassion for him, though I don't have sympathy for his NRA affiliations and his apparent belief in his right to own lots of firearms.

    Living beyond his means? If that's the case with him and his family, well, hasn't that been the American way for a long time?

    I'm sorry for his family, and I suspect–but don't know–that Mr. Bennett might feel great remorse for what he did to Mr. Herrera.

    I just think that must be one of the worst kinds of hell to live in–feeling overwhelmed by remorse and guilt by doing something terrible to someone else, and ruining the lives of yourself and everyone you care about. Sure, it's a hell that you put yourself into–and that can make it all the worse.


  14. Don't worry SM, I still respect you, I was just reacting to the dramatic tone of the article. I heard a home loan ad on the radio today that in the whispering stated “must have income to qualify”. Nearly drove off the road, so to speak.


  15. JoJo,
    I so much appreciate you posting here, whether you agree or not with what I've written. Your comments are always smart, thoughtful, and I like you saying if you think I've crossed a line… Sometimes I do!

    That's the whole point of comments.


  16. Soccer Mom
    You are a voyeuristic idiot
    Swung by their house….?
    You are not a journalist, nor professional – if you were, you would have swung by the hospital….focus on your own kid
    and teach him to play soccer


  17. Funny, I came across this searching for latest news about Tom… Im just floored by this turn of events. I actually have known Tom for a number of years and can honestly say this is not something I could have ever seen coming. Im a firm believer in reaping what you sow and taking account for your actions so I have to accept that Tom is going to get what he deserves, but the point here I feel Mom is trying to make is valid. Our society has created desperate monsters, as the economy worsens expect to see more of this. Desperate men take desperate actions. Clearly the case here, and for those of you so happy to trump your own horn of financial frugality and responsibility I say this. Look past your own indignation and look around. There are more people strapped around you than you think. Just because you were able to buy into a desirable neighborhood for your kids before the market went nuts doesn't mean that other hardworking and responsible people didn't overextend themselves to give it to thier kids as well. Don't be so quick to look down your nose at those (us) stuggling to make the mortgage of a home we cant afford simply because of the geography.


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