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'A voice of frightening evil' - Elderly defendant sentenced in Hannah Bender murder
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Jerry Harper listens to the prosecution during his sentencing hearing on Dec. 14, 2021. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Twenty-six months after 21-year-old Hannah Bender’s murder, the case’s eldest defendant was sentenced for his role in the grisly crime. 

On Tuesday, Dec. 14, Forsyth County resident Jerry Harper, 79, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his part in Bender’s death. 

Harper approved Austin Todd Stryker’s killing of the Lumpkin County woman on Sept. 15, 2019, and helped Stryker travel to West Virginia after her death. Stryker later turned himself in to authorities in the Pittsburgh area on Oct. 2, 2019. 

Last month, Stryker, now 24 years old, was convicted on all charges relating to the murder.

At the end of October, Harper pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering activity involving a homicide, hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal and a connected gang violation. The state agreed not to prosecute Harper on charges of theft of a vehicle and another connected street gang violation. 

Despite Harper’s attorney, John Warr, arguing for leniency given Harper’s multiple medical conditions, Harper received 20 years in prison for the gang charge involving racketeering and homicide.  

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Austin Stryker takes the stand Monday, Nov. 8, 2021, in Dawson County Superior Court during his murder trial for the death of Hannah Bender in September 2019. - photo by Scott Rogers

Northeastern Judicial Circuit Judge Kathlene Gosselin admonished Harper for his ties to the gang “THIS.” 

“I can’t understand how you engendered the blind devotion,” said Gosselin. “You had an opportunity ... to be a voice of good, and instead you were not. You were a voice of frightening evil and scary things.” 

Stryker will have his own sentencing hearing at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15 at the Dawson County courthouse. He faces a possible sentence of life without parole.

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Hannah Bender

Bender’s mother, Carol Gilreath, spoke during Harper’s sentencing. 

“We were robbed,” Gilreath said. “Everything was taken from us, from her being able to grow up to her having kids ... when they took her, they took a piece of me, too.”

Bender was killed in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 2019, 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, Stryker shot Bender in the head without warning, according to Huff’s testimony. 

After shooting her, Stryker stabbed Bender at least 32 times. She was later buried in a shallow grave in North Forsyth County, where her remains were found on Sept. 25, 2019.

Other members of the gang previously testified Stryker feared Bender would go to police about the gang’s criminal activity.

A different version of this story originally appeared at