A VA Loma Linda Healthcare System manager disclosed his murder conviction and successfully passed a federal background investigation before he was hired in 2013, according to the director of the system.
Karandeep Singh Sraon put to rest any concerns that the Veterans Health Administration might not have properly vetted Edwin Winslow Bennett, who served 22 years in prison for the 1989 gangland-style execution of a business rival.
“Mr. Bennett did disclose his murder conviction, time served, and parole status,” Sraon said in a letter last month to Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, who had asked about Bennett’s hiring after the Southern California News group inquired about his employment in April.
Bennett, 57, applied for a medical support assistant position with the VA Loma Linda system in May 2013, about 18 months after he was paroled from prison, Sraon said in the letter to Aguilar. In 2018, Bennett was promoted to project manager for the VA’s Ambulatory Care Center in Redlands, a 221,000-square-foot facility that provides veterans with dental, mental health and primary medical care.
Aguilar expressed satisfaction with Sraon’s explanation.
“It appears the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System followed Office of Personnel Management protocol when hiring Edwin Bennett,” he said in a statement.
However, Sraon said he was unable to provide Aguilar with a list of Loma Linda VA employees convicted of violent or nonviolent felonies because investigative files are destroyed after background checks are completed.
“The agency cannot retain the information on each employee’s criminal history and no database under the jurisdiction of the agency possesses this information,” he said in the letter.
Wade J. Habshey, a spokesman for the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System, previously attributed Bennett’s hiring, in part, to the administration of former President Barack Obama.
“This hiring decision was made under previous medical center leadership and under the previous presidential administration,” he said in a statement. “VA Loma Linda cannot and will not defend this action. However, under federal law, VA is unable to take any action against this employee based on conduct that occurred before his hiring.”
Bennett, an Air Force veteran, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
He was sentenced in Orange County Superior Court in 1992 to 27 years to life for the first-degree murder of 48-year-old James Busher. Flora Larson, who was 51 at the time and Bennett’s girlfriend, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to Busher’s murder and received a year in jail.
Larson met Busher while he was on work furlough from federal prison, where he was serving a sentence for tax evasion.
In January 1988, Larson and Busher formed Swiftrail Corp. to open the Clean Fun Laundromat in Hesperia.
Then, in February 1989, Larson became romantically involved with Bennett and, the following month, signed a document giving him authority to act on behalf of Swiftrail. Busher filed a lawsuit to gain control over Swiftrail and, on April 18, 1989, a trial court appointed a receiver to run the corporation.
That evening, Bennett and Larson waited outside of Busher’s mobile home in Santa Ana. When Busher drove up, Bennett shot him five times with a rifle.
Bennett testified in his own defense at trial, denying that he had killed Busher. He claimed that on the night of the murder he was at the home of some friends, drinking beer and using methamphetamine until about 4:30 a.m. the next morning, when he went home.
Jurors, however, rejected that story and took less than four hours to convict Bennett, who lived in a Victorville motel at the time.
Once he was released from prison, he eventually landed at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System in search of work. Bennett disclosed his conviction and parole status during the pre-employment process and his fingerprints were processed by the FBI.
Conduct issues uncovered during Bennett’s background investigation were ranked as minor by the the Office of Personnel Management, which would not disqualify him for federal employment, Sraon said in his letter to Aguilar.
Bennett deserves praise, not stigma
Dauras Cyprian, a convicted murderer and senior organizer for All of Us or None, an Oakland-based grassroots organization that focuses on the rights of former inmates, said ex-convicts like Bennett who are finding success on the outside should be applauded, not stigmatized.
“They should be judged on their merits,” he said.
Diana Williams, executive director of Prison to Employment Connection, a nonprofit that prepares those incarcerated at San Quentin Prison for the workforce, said former inmates often make excellent employees.
“They have learned patience and how to deal with authority,” she said. “If you believe in redemption, then everyone deserves a second chance.”
California VA officials knew of manager’s murder conviction at time of hiring