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Forsyth man pleads guilty to helping Stryker try to escape after killing
Jerry Harper
Jerry Harper

A 79-year-old man tied to the gruesome killing of Hannah Bender has pleaded guilty to several charges, including helping Austin Todd Stryker evade authorities by taking him to West Virginia days after he killed the Lumpkin County woman in 2019, according to court documents.

Jerry Harper, of Forsyth County, pleaded guilty to violating Georgia’s street gang law for racketeering activity involving a homicide as well as hindering apprehension of a criminal.

Hannah Bender.jpg
Hannah Bender

Harper pleaded on Oct. 29, just days before the Stryker murder trial began. Documents related to his plea were not released until Nov. 15.

Stryker, 24, of Dawsonville, was found guilty Nov. 10 of 24 charges, including malice murder and three counts of felony murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced at the Dawson County Courthouse at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 15. Stryker faces life in prison without parole. 

Harper is scheduled to be sentenced at 3 p.m. on Dec. 14. Both will be sentenced by Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin.

Bender was killed between Sept. 14-15 while riding in a Mazda pickup truck with Stryker and Isaac Huff, according to previous court testimony. As the truck neared the Sweetwater Juno Road area of Dawson County, Bender was shot in the head without warning by Stryker, according to testimony given in a plea hearing in April. 

The gunshot wasn’t fatal. Stryker then later stabbed Bender 32 times. Bender was buried in a shallow grave in North Forsyth County. 

During the trial, Huff 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.

Harper’s indictment shows that he approved of Stryker killing Bender on Sept. 15, 2019 then took him to West Virginia in the days after the incident to help avoid arrest. Stryker turned himself into authorities on Sept. 2, 2019 in the Pittsburgh area. 

The state agreed to not prosecute Harper for charges related to theft of a vehicle and a street gang violation connected to that theft.

Gosselin said the maximum penalty she could impose on Harper would be 45 years. Previously, the court’s maximum penalty was “more like 65 years,” Gosselin said. 

“There is no negotiated plea agreement, nor is there a plea offer or one that will be made,” said Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer at the Oct. 29 hearing. 

Others involved in the killing have already been sentenced.

As part of a plea deal, Huff will spend 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation for his role in Bender’s death. 

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. 

Elizabeth Donaldson, Stryker’s wife, has been charged with concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. She allegedly helped move Bender’s remains to a Blacks Mill Road residence on Sept. 16 and strip interior parts from the truck where Bender was murdered. A trial date for her has not been scheduled.