Man accused in slaying of Estero High track star may testify Thursday

A Fort Myers man accused in the 2007 slaying of Estero track star Adam Cortes may take the stand Thursday, his lawyer said.

Abenamar Benavides, 27, faces a possible life sentence in prison as the first of three defendants in the case to stand trial. He is charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in the death of Cortes, a former long-distance runner at Estero High School.

Cortes’ body was found in his burning Lexus in Lehigh Acres in October 2007. He was beat and shot fatally in the head before his body was dumped, medical examiners ruled.

Robert Harris, Benavides’ attorney, said his client may testify on Thursday, when the trial resumes and the defense begins its case. The state rested its case after a full day of testimony on Monday.

“I think a jury wants to hear someone accused of a crime this serious say, ‘No, I didn’t do it,’” Harris said Monday morning.

Benavides’ trial began Nov. 17 but was recently postponed to allow a state’s witness time to return from Iraq.

Two other defendants await judgment. Dallas Brooks, 31, is appealing a life sentence he received after he tried to undo a plea deal last year. The alleged ringleader in the slaying, Cesar Contreras, 25, could go to trial next year. Prosecutors seek the death penalty for Contreras.

According to detectives, Contreras and possibly Brooks met Cortes by chance at a convenience store on an October 2007 night. After all agreed to go back to Contreras’ Fort Myers home, Contreras began acting erratically, prompting Cortes to call him “a loony,” reports said.

The comment set Contreras off, detectives say, leading the men, possibly including Benavides, to beat Cortes severely. Prosecutors say Contreras fired the fatal shot into Cortes’ head, after which the men wrapped the body in a rug and deposited it in Cortes’ Lexus. With Beanvides, they drove the car to a rural Lehigh Acres intersection and lit it on fire, reports said.

Harris said his client was forced at gunpoint to drive the body to Lehigh Acres, and that he feared for his life if he didn’t help.

Benavides “did what the man with the gun told him to, as most of us would, and then, when he got the chance, ran away,” Harris said. “That probably saved his life.”

Deputies nabbed Benavides shortly after the discovery of Cortes’ body, after a Lehigh Acres couple said the defendant frantically knocked on their door on the morning of the killing. The man said he had been forced to kill someone and was being chased, according to the couple’s statements to detectives.

The victim’s parents, Deborah and Robert Cortes, have by their own account attended every hearing involved in the three cases surrounding their son’s death.

“Our lives revolve around hearings, pre-trial conference, motions and appeals,” Deborah Cortes said when reached Monday. “It’s a real education in our judicial system.”

No punishment will ever suffice, she said.

“We know that we’ll never have any closure in this. Nothing will ever bring Adam back,” she said. “We were given a life sentence the day our son was killed.”

Deborah Cortes described her son as generous and friendly. He was an avid Boston Red Sox fan who excelled at high school sports.

"Adam had a big heart," she said. "He would do anything for anyone. He would want to make friends with anyone."

His college career ended abruptly after a diagnosis of schizoaffective bipolar disorder, an illness that left Cortes paranoid and alienated. He moved in with his parents and began taking medication. At times, he became combative.

Regular doses of Lithium seemed to calm him, and things began to turn around in 2006, the family said.

He began jogging again, and he worked at the family nursery. On the night of his death, Adam Cortes watched the Red Sox cruise through game 6 of the American League Championship Series before leaving home to go for a drive. He would never return.

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