Ashley Benton, Houston’s most famous teenage killer, asks that we not take her photograph. It is February, and since her trial ended last summer, she has let her hair grow longer, and she has lost some weight. In a few weeks, her braces will come off. “I want people to forget the old Ashley,” she tells me, and then she sighs. “Maybe I’ll be able to walk down the street again and not have to worry about someone realizing who I am.”
Maybe, but it’s not likely. On a sunny afternoon in June 2006, twenty to thirty teenagers from two of the city’s Hispanic street gangs—MS-13 and Crazy Crew—confronted one another in Ervan Chew Park, in the Montrose area of Houston. Some of them were carrying bats, golf clubs, and tire irons. One reportedly had a machete. When the melee was over, a fifteen-year-old member of MS-13, Gabriel Granillo, lay near a basketball court, dead from a stab wound. The next day, police detectives announced that they had arrested his killer. It was Ashley, who was then sixteen. She had come to the fight, said the detectives, carrying a double-bladed knife with serrated edges, which she had plunged straight into Granillo’s heart.
That year, there had been several stories in the media about Houston’s growing gang problems, but this one sent shock waves through the city. In part, what surprised residents was that the fight had taken place not in the gang-ridden apartment complexes of southwest Houston but in the city’s center, midway between the Galleria and downtown. Yet what was really startling was that Ashley was a beautiful Anglo girl, with thick brown hair, full lips, and glowing amber eyes; newspaper accounts described her as an Angelina Jolie look-alike. She lived with her mother, a talented jazz singer who performed at local nightclubs and at society parties, in a fourplex not far from Ervan Chew Park. Until the confrontation, she had never had a serious brush with the law. Why, just about everyone wanted to know, would such a girl be involved with a gang?
I happened to be in Houston the week of the fight—I was working, ironically enough, on a story about the city’s gangs (“You Don’t Want to Know What We Do After Dark,” December 2006)—and I listened to dozens of outraged citizens on local radio talk shows demand that Ashley be put away for a long time. “We need to send a message to these gang kids that they are going to be punished, no matter who they are,” one man said, nearly shouting. “Throw her in death row and let’s go down the road,” someone else later wrote in to the Houston Chronicle Web site. “Just because she’s a young girl doesn’t make her special.”
Prosecutors with the district attorney’s office clearly got the message. Calling Ashley a cold-blooded gangbanger, they successfully petitioned a judge to have her tried on murder charges as an adult—which meant she could be sentenced to life in prison. “They’ve made her out to be public enemy number one,” her attorney Rick DeToto told me right after the judge’s ruling. “But they’ve never taken the time to find out who Ashley really is or what really happened out there that day.”
I first met Ashley when I went to cover her trial in downtown Houston in the summer of 2007. She was sitting in an office around the corner from the courtroom, flipping through a magazine she’d brought to read during breaks called Simple and Delicious. “I was just looking at a recipe for Rice Krispies peanut butter chocolate pie,” she said with a shy smile. I hardly knew what to say. I wondered if this was a setup staged by her defense team. (Besides DeToto, Ashley was represented by two other prominent Houston attorneys, Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice.) “It’s no joke,” said her mother, an attractive brunette who was also in the room, holding a copy of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. (Her mother asked not to be identified by name.) “Ashley is not some wild-child gang girl. She made one mistake—one mistake.” Her eyes filled with tears. “Is it worth throwing her life away for one mistake?”
Ashley’s mother told me that she and Ashley’s father had divorced when their daughter was two years old. She had done her best to give Ashley a normal life, but she acknowledged that as a single mother working two jobs—answering phones in a real estate office during the day and singing at night—she hadn’t been able to supervise Ashley as closely as she’d wished. By her freshman year in high school, Ashley was making poor grades and becoming rebellious, experimenting with alcohol and Xanax. She was breaking curfew, staying out late into the night. Hoping to give Ashley what she called “a fresh start,” Ashley’s mother sent her to live with her parents, both devout Pentecostals, in north Houston. But in the spring of 2006, unable to fit in, Ashley returned to live with her mother and enrolled at Lamar High School. There, she began to socialize with some Lamar boys who were members of a small, all-male neighborhood gang called Crazy Crew.
Compared with the city’s more established street gangs, Crazy Crew wasn’t much of a gang. According to the police, its members committed a few thefts, engaged in minor drug dealing, and did some spray paint tagging. Mostly, the Crazy Crew boys hung out at Ervan Chew Park or drove around the neighborhood, listening to rap and text-messaging their friends. “I had known some of those guys since I was a little girl,” Ashley told me. “And they made me feel safe. You have to understand—I didn’t have any older brothers or a father around, and in that neighborhood, you need someone to watch after you, to give you rides home at night and make sure you are okay.” She added that she had bought a double-bladed knife for $8 at a convenience store to protect herself during those times when she was alone. She kept the knife in her backpack, nestled among her schoolbooks. “But I never planned to use it. I thought if something bad was about to happen to me, then all I had to do was show the knife, and I’d be left alone.”
Ashley said she went to the park that June afternoon knowing there was going to be a confrontation between Crazy Crew and MS-13. (Apparently, MS-13 was angry because a Crazy Crew boy had been harassing a young cousin of an MS-13 member.) MS-13, an international gang also known as Mara Salvatrucha, is made up of mostly young males of Central American descent and is notorious for its vicious killings; in 2005, after the local faction was suspected of committing several murders, the Houston Police Department formed a squad designed solely to put its members behind bars. One of the gang’s stars, despite his young age, was Gabriel Granillo. “You didn’t mess with him,” one older MS-13 member told me. “If some putos threw down at him [flashed their gang sign], he went after all of them. That homey had no fear.”
Ashley told me she’d had no intention of fighting, but once the conflict began, she was so frightened she grabbed her knife from her backpack. Suddenly, she said, Granillo arrived, swinging an aluminum softball bat. “He shouted at me, ‘F— you, bitch. I’m going to f— you up.’ He swung at me twice with the bat, my head and then at my chest, and I got out of the way both times. And after the second time he swung at me, I just stuck out my knife and stepped forward. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was aiming. My eyes were shut when I did it.”
Ashley paused and looked at me. “Then everything just went silent, like a scene in a movie, and when I opened my eyes, there was blood on my hands, and he was falling . . .” She dissolved into tears, unable to finish her sentence.
When the trial began, assistant DA Mia Magness did her best to persuade the jury that Ashley was not an innocent bystander. She had a parade of MS-13 members who were at the fight testify that they saw Ashley attack Granillo as he was running away. Magness also played Ashley’s taped confession to the police, in which she said more than once that she stabbed Granillo after he had turned to leave.
But Ashley’s attorneys roundly ridiculed the testimony of the MS-13 members as nothing more than lies. (Schaffer got one of them to concede that he actually did not see Granillo running away from Ashley.) They also noted that a confused and frightened Ashley told detectives conflicting stories during her taped confession, which was conducted without a lawyer or even her mother present. Yes, she did say that Granillo was running away from her, but at another point in the confession, she said that Granillo was facing her when she stabbed him. Surely, the lawyers said, the latter version was correct. If Granillo had been leaving, then there was no way she could have stabbed him directly in the heart. And who really believed that an MS-13 gangbanger would back away from a girl?
Then, Ashley, looking very much like a proper high school student, in a black pantsuit and a green silk blouse, took the stand and recounted much of the story she had told me. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she said quietly. Rolling her eyes, Magness asked, “So you just landed a lucky shot?” “I wouldn’t call it a lucky shot,” Ashley replied, her voice trembling. The diminutive Magness, whom defense attorney Wice once called “a pit bull in stilettos,” glared at Ashley and snapped, “You hit him right in the heart and buried the knife to the hilt, didn’t you?”
After two days of deliberations, the jurors said they couldn’t reach a verdict. About half of them believed Ashley’s story; the other half were convinced that she knew exactly what she was getting into when she showed up at a gang fight with a knife. The judge called a mistrial, and for the next six months, Magness and the defense attorneys argued about a plea agreement.
Finally, this past December, Ashley pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, receiving five years of deferred adjudication probation (meaning that if she completes her sentence with no violations, the charge will be dismissed). She was also ordered to obtain a high school diploma or a GED certificate and perform three hundred hours of community service.
When we meet in DeToto’s office two months after her plea agreement, Ashley tells me, “I’ve been given a second chance to make something out of my life.” Now eighteen, she does indeed seem determined to start over. She has moved back in with her grandparents and faithfully attends their church. She is working off her community service at a nearby animal shelter, cleaning out cages, and she is not only studying for the GED but also taking a couple of English courses at a community college. She says she never goes back to her old neighborhood and refuses to talk to any of her friends from Crazy Crew. “I don’t even like watching violent movies,” she says. “I promise you, I had trouble watching the guys doing all that fake fighting in Grease.”
But her problems are hardly over. Shortly after she was arrested, police picked up reports that MS-13 leaders had sent out word to the gang that they wanted Ashley dead. When I interviewed one MS-13 member in the wake of the fight, he unabashedly told me, “We’re going to find that f—ing bitch and dump her body where no one will find it. Nobody does something like that to us and gets away with it.” During Ashley’s trial, the police were so concerned that MS-13 hit men would come after her that a squadron of pistol-wielding officers surrounded the courtroom. All would-be spectators at the trial were “wanded” with handheld metal detectors and their bags searched for weapons. Ashley herself entered the courthouse through a special parking garage and used a private elevator to get to the courtroom. Wherever she went during the trial, she was accompanied by at least two bailiffs.
Now she is completely alone. “I don’t go to the mall, I don’t go to movie theaters, I don’t go to parties, I don’t go on dates, and I don’t drive around,” she says. “When I’m not at my community service or at school or at church, I stay home.” Just to be on the safe side, she and her grandparents have moved into a new house with a good alarm system in another neighborhood. “But I still can’t sleep at night. I hear a car drive by the house or I hear a door slam and I think, ‘This is it. They’ve finally found me.’”
When her probation is over, Ashley says she plans to move to a state far from Texas, where she hopes to get married and have a family “and try to forget about everything that happened.” She is silent for a few seconds and shakes her head. “But I know that isn’t going to be possible. I still have these flashbacks where I see the blood on my hands. I see him falling . . .” Once again, she gets choked up and cannot finish her sentence.
She stands up and heads toward the lobby, where her grandmother is waiting. They walk to their car, and Ashley slumps down in the passenger seat, her head barely above the dashboard. “I can’t take the chance that someone might see me,” she says. “I just can’t take that chance.”