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Teacher says anger didn’t lead to fatal punch at Las Vegas casino

Teacher Faces Manslaughter Charges

Steve Marcus

Benjamin Gerard Hawkins listens to testimony during a preliminary hearing in District Court Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012. Hawkins, a Gainesville, Fla., teacher who was on vacation, is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of another tourist after an altercation at O’Sheas in July.

Updated Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 | 6:35 p.m.

Map of O'Sheas


3555 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas

Benjamin Hawkins, charged in the death of a man Hawkins punched at a Las Vegas casino, testified Thursday that anger played no role in his split-second decision.

Instead, Hawkins told the courtroom he felt threatened by 46-year-old John Massie, whom he had exchanged words with at O’Sheas. Hawkins testified he feared for his safety and the well-being of his wife and friends seated nearby when he threw the single punch.

“My alert level was through the roof,” Hawkins said Thursday from the stand.

Massie, a Utah resident vacationing in Las Vegas, died July 6, 2011, after Hawkins punched him and he fell, hitting his head on the floor at O’Sheas, a now-shuttered casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

The incident began minutes earlier in an O’Sheas restroom, where Massie made a comment about Hawkins, a black man, wearing a yellow shirt, according to the arrest report. The two men exchanged words, and the confrontation continued after they exited the restroom, the report said.

Hawkins, who at the time was a teacher and football coach in Florida, testified Thursday afternoon in Clark County District Court. It was the third day of his trial for involuntary manslaughter. Judge Valerie Adair is presiding over the jury trial.

Hawkins, 39, testified that Massie initiated contact with him in the restroom, saying something to the effect of, “And then there was a black guy in a yellow shirt.”

“I thought it was strange,” Hawkins said. “Why would you be focusing on someone’s race in the bathroom? ... I didn’t know what his intentions were.”

Inside the restroom, Massie patted or slapped him on the chest several times despite Hawkins’ orders to stay away, Hawkins testified.

Massie then left the restroom, followed by Hawkins a few seconds later — actions captured by video surveillance at O’Sheas. The surveillance video shows Hawkins stopped and turned near where Massie was standing outside the restroom.

Hawkins testified that, instead of continuing toward his wife and friends sitting at a gaming table, he stopped when Massie called out to him. That’s when the two men exchanged words again.

The surveillance video then shows Hawkins start to walk away, Massie take at least one step, followed by Hawkins turning and punching him. Massie landed flat on his back and was pronounced dead a short time later at Desert Springs Hospital.

Gary Telgenoff, a forensic pathologist with the Clark County Coroner’s Office, testified Thursday morning that Massie died from blunt force trauma caused by his head hitting the floor, not the punch itself.

Hawkins testified he felt threatened when he sensed Massie following him and was worried he would be seriously hurt if Massie attacked him first. Hawkins said he has a pre-existing injury on the back of his head, which could be fatal if punched in that spot.

“The last thing I wanted to do was harm anyone or even get into a fight,” Hawkins said. “I didn’t want him to harm me.”

Prosecutor Maria Lavell questioned Hawkins about why his testimony included more details than what he told detectives in the immediate aftermath.

Hawkins testified that his distress about the situation prevented him from thinking clearly during interviews with police.

During cross-examination, Hawkins also clarified that, although he said he had a “couple” alcoholic drinks that day, it could have been five or six. Even so, Hawkins testified that he never considered himself drunk.

Hawkins, who had traveled with his wife and two friends from Florida, arrived in Las Vegas midday July 5, 2011. The group took a nap in the early evening and then headed out to the Strip that night, Hawkins testified. They entered O’Sheas shortly after midnight.

Defense attorney Jack Buchanan is representing Hawkins, who has been out of custody on his own recognizance. Hawkins appeared in court Thursday wearing a black suit and glasses.

Lavell, a chief deputy district attorney for Clark County, is prosecuting the case along with Jonathan Cooper, a deputy district attorney.

After Hawkins’ testimony, the prosecution called a rebuttal witness, David Battle, to the stand. Battle, a black man who worked with Massie at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, said he never heard Massie make racist comments or jokes.

The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Friday.

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