URBANA — A man who fired a gun at a Champaign County sheriff’s deputy who was going to give his girlfriend a traffic warning has been sentenced to 38 years in prison.
Judge Randy Rosenbaum said the sentence requested for John M. Bennett, 36, by the prosecutor for aggravated discharge of a gun at a police officer was “infinitely reasonable” and agreed with it.
“This is an incredibly sad case — the intersection of mental health, substance abuse and a criminal mind,” Rosenbaum said of Bennett, who must serve at least 32 years behind bars for shooting at Deputy Chelsey Keyes almost two years ago with an illegally owned AR-15-style rifle.
While many police officers complete entire careers without firing a weapon or being fired at, Keyes, a 10-year deputy, was shot at twice in the space of less than three months in late 2020 and early 2021 and escaped physical injury both times.
But she urged the judge to impose the maximum 45 years on Bennett on behalf of herself and the many other officers who helped capture Bennett uninjured on Feb. 21, 2021, including a Vermilion County sheriff’s deputy and an Illinois state trooper who lost control of their cars on slush and ice and wrecked.
“I ask you, do not take our sacrifices for granted,” she said. “When Mr. Bennett chose to stick a rifle out a window and shoot ... he was deciding his own fate.”
Keyes was first fired at on Dec. 4, 2020, before she even initiated a traffic stop on U.S. 45 near Thomasboro by a man now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Her encounter with Bennett began just before 11 p.m. Feb. 21, 2021, a cold snowy, rainy evening, when she pulled over a car for a traffic violation at a gas station on North Cunningham Avenue in Urbana.
Bennett’s girlfriend was driving. Six minutes after the stop began and while Keyes was in her squad checking the driver’s information, the car took off and headed east on Interstate 74.
Given that Keyes’ canine partner had alerted to the presence of drugs in the car and Bennett had refused to identify himself, Keyes decided to follow.
‘I could feel the percussion of the shot’
After just a few minutes on the interstate, the first of three gun blasts came her way.
“I could feel the percussion of the shot,” she said, adding she immediately questioned herself, having just been through a similar trauma 11 weeks earlier.
When a second round of shots came moments later, she saw the muzzle flash and knew for certain she was under fire and reduced her speed. On the third round of shots, she again saw a muzzle flash.
“A good portion of his head and torso were out of the window to be able to manipulate the rifle,” she said of the third round of shots.
Keyes did not know how many shots he fired on each of his three volleys.
Assistant State’s Attorney Tom Bucher played about an hour’s worth of body-camera and squad-car video of the chase for Rosenbaum. Keyes could be seen gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands as the wipers fought against the snow and sleet.
The upbeat Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars song “Uptown Funk” was one of the tunes playing as Keyes kept radio contact with her supervisor, Sgt. Ed Moody, who was talking to Bennett on a cellphone during the chase.
Moody learned during the pursuit, which turned north on Illinois 49 near Ogden, that Bennett had ordered his girlfriend to drive off and wouldn’t let her stop.
Meanwhile, officers from the Vermilion County Sheriff’s Department and Illinois State Police put out “stop sticks” on a western Vermilion County highway not far from where Bennett lived in Potomac that flattened the tires of the car.
The girlfriend got out and ran to waiting deputies, but Bennett remained inside the car threatening suicide and harm to others. He stayed in the car about two more hours while negotiators maintained contact. He eventually surrendered and was taken away unharmed.
‘Definition of dangerousness’
Vermilion County sheriff’s Deputy Chris Turner, who wrecked his car with his canine partner inside on Vermilion County Road 2600 North on the way to help, said several deputies knew Bennett from multiple prior calls to his home for domestic disputes and a Christmas 2019 chase involving Vermilion County deputies who had to use stop sticks that night as well. Charges from that case remain unresolved in Vermilion County.
Turner’s squad car rolled and his dog received a cut to the head, but he was just sore for several days. He urged Rosenbaum to give Bennett the full 45 years, calling him “so unpredictable and dangerous” that there is a rule in his department that any calls involving Bennett require two deputies to respond.
“John Bennett has a history of violence and total disregard of anyone but himself," Turner said. "He is the definition of dangerousness to society."
To mitigate Bennett’s sentence, Champaign attorney Jim Martinkus had one of his three children testify about the significant negative changes she observed in her dad’s behavior over the years.
“I watched my father turn into something I didn’t know,” she said. “The person I remember is so much better than this.”
He also gave Rosenbaum reports from Champaign psychiatrist Dr. Larry Jeckel and one prepared 20 years ago by University of Illinois Psychological Services.
Both alluded to serious mental issues, but Jeckel opined that Bennett, while suffering from antisocial personality disorder and severe methamphetamine abuse, was aware of the criminality of his actions.
‘The police officers played it cool’
Bucher argued for the “severe” sentence, seven years shy of the maximum in deference to Bennett’s willingness to plead guilty. He said a long sentence was needed to send a message to “people who have no inhibitions about firing at police officers.”
Martinkus apologized to the approximately dozen police officers who were also present for the 3.5-hour hearing but argued for a sentence closer to the 10-year minimum. He said Bennett had only two prior felony convictions for obstructing justice and selling cannabis.
“His situation was affected by horrific drug use. It is not an excuse. At least it is explanatory,” said Martinkus, who then enumerated the mental issues Bennett suffered as early as age 16.
When it was his turn to speak, Bennett apologized to the officers involved.
“I’m not blaming drug use, but it does play a part,” he said.
He also apologized to his children and parents who were present.
“I hope I can one day come back and be a part of this community again," he said.
Rosenbaum said the fact that Bennett was even alive was a tribute to the officers, noting that the spree that led to his arrest was not his first attempt at “suicide by cop.”
“You could have gotten your wish," the judge said. "The police officers played it cool. But for that, you would be dead."