For the horrific slaying of a 21-year-old woman, Austin Todd Stryker will spend the rest of his life in prison without parole.
Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin said she was a believer in second chances and the ability for people to change. But the Dawsonville man’s testimony during his murder trial was “as cold and manipulative and smart as I’ve heard, which makes me believe that you are a serious danger at whatever age you are,” she said.
“I cannot in good conscience give you the hope of parole in this case,” Gosselin said Wednesday in Dawson County Superior Court before sentencing Stryker to life in prison.
Stryker, 24, was found guilty Nov. 10 of malice murder for Hannah Bender’s Sept. 15, 2019 death. The Lumpkin County woman was shot in the head while riding in a Mazda pickup truck with Stryker and Isaac Huff in the area of Sweetwater Juno Road, according to previous court testimony.
She was then stabbed 32 times before being buried in a shallow grave in North Forsyth County.
Stryker was convicted on 24 charges, which included aggravated assault, aggravated battery, violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.
“The state is thankful that Judge Gosselin gave the maximum sentence in Stryker’s murder conviction, the only one which would accomplish justice for Hannah Bender’s family,” Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh said in a statement. “All murder cases are horrible, of course, but the actions of this defendant were especially heinous.”
The prosecution did not present any new evidence at the sentencing, and no members of the Bender family spoke. Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva referenced Stryker’s alleged armed robbery in July 2019 at a Dollar General in Lumpkin County.
The defense brought Jason and Virginia Osborne, of South Carolina, who each told the judge about meeting Stryker at a South Carolina dojo. The two praised Stryker’s work ethic and drive as he learned then taught karate in Lexington, S.C.
Virginia Osborne said Stryker had never threatened her family nor made them feel unsafe.
“This is not a person (who) we should put in jail forever and throw away the key,” Virginia Osborne said. “He has so much potential.”
Defense attorney Brock Johnson said he felt the Osbornes’ testimony was vital to show a fuller portrait of his client and the chance for good within him. Drawing on the U.S. Army’s former slogan “Be All You Can Be,” Johnson said young men during their formative years are often eager and yearning for mentorship and guidance.
Johnson said Stryker’s co-defendant, Jerry Harper, 79, was “offering some kind of perverted tutelage in the ways of the world.”
“I would suggest to this court: But for Jerry Harper, Austin wouldn’t be here,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean he’s not responsible, but it is a causal connection.”
Harper received 20 years in prison and 10 years on probation Tuesday, Dec. 14, after previously pleading guilty to charges including racketeering activity involving a homicide.
Harper’s indictment shows that he approved of Stryker killing Bender then took him to West Virginia in the days after the incident to help avoid arrest. Stryker turned himself into authorities on Oct. 2, 2019, in the Pittsburgh area.
During the trial, Huff, who has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the killing, told about the months that led up to Bender’s death and their connection to a small gang called, “THIS.” The six alleged members of “THIS,” including Huff, each had a handprint tattoo with a number indicating their status in the gang. Huff said he was No. 5, with Stryker being No. 2 and Harper No. 1.
Dylan Reid, who also was a gang member, testified in the case as well. He pleaded guilty in April to aggravated assault, aggravated battery, a street gang violation, tampering with evidence and concealing the death of another. He will spend 20 years in jail and 15 on probation.
Stryker’s wife, Elizabeth Donaldson, has also been accused for her involvement in the case.
She was arrested in October 2019 on charges of concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence.
She’s accused of helping to move Bender’s remains and stripping the interior parts of the truck where Bender was murdered. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Dec. 20.
A second woman also faces charges for her role in the killing.
Bailey Williams, also arrested in October 2019, faces a tampering with evidence charge for helping to dispose of Bender’s belongings after her murder. Williams is also charged in the same 2019 Dahlonega robbery as Stryker. She has not gone to trial for either of those cases.
During the Stryker trial, it remained hard to understand a reason why Bender was killed.
At trial, the prosecution presented evidence as a possible motive for the murder that Stryker was nervous about Bender talking to police about the Dollar General robbery.
Sachdeva also considered Stryker’s testimony during the trial as perjury. Stryker made “an egregious statement” about Bender shooting herself, Sachdeva said.
Stryker also said on the stand that he stabbed Bender multiple times to drain her blood and make her body lighter.
“That’s what people do with animals after they’re done hunting them,” Sachdeva said Wednesday.
Before the sentencing, Johnson told the court he believed Stryker will “live a life of meaning.”
“At his core, judge, he is not beyond redemption,” Johnson said. “He is not evil incarnate.”
Reporter Julia Fechter of the Dawson County News contributed to this report.