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Boater faces charges in theft of beer sign
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Forsyth County News

GAINESVILLE — After nine days on trial in Hall County Superior Court, Paul J. Bennett still has lingering legal issues.

The 45-year-old Cumming man faces four misdemeanor charges brought by the state in a prior separate incident.

Bennett was acquitted on eight felony homicide by vessel charges and convicted on four misdemeanor counts stemming from the investigation of a June 18, 2012, boating accident that killed two Buford boys, Jake Prince, 9, and Griffin Prince, 13.

Bennett was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail on Nov. 14 for boating under the influence, failure to render aid and two counts of reckless boating.

In June, Bennett was charged with homicide in the Prince brothers’ death, and in December, the state charged Bennett with theft and criminal trespass in the alleged May 3, 2012, theft of a sign from Big Creek Tavern.

The theft charges were the subject of some discussion in the courtroom this month as prosecutors sought to admit the charge as evidence in Bennett’s homicide by vessel trial.

Generally, evidence of a defendant’s previous charge or conduct is inadmissible.

At the Sept. 25 hearing, Assistant Solicitor General for Hall County Amber Sowers explained that the state wanted to include the charges because of the alleged role of alcohol.

“[The] state intends to show on May 3, 2012, [the] defendant operating a vessel to Big Creek Tavern, where he met friends there, he drank heavily, according by his own admission. Ultimately, he was observed alone, entering the bar and then exiting the bar with a neon beer sign that he stole without permission of the Big Creek Tavern owners.

“His name was given to the owner. They requested that it be returned. Ultimately it was returned, with his admission that he drank heavily,” Sowers said, and later clarified that the witnesses mentioned were not eyewitnesses to Bennett operating a vessel.

“That evidence is all circumstantial,” she said.

Barry Zimmerman, Bennett’s attorney in the boating accident trial, insisted the state present witnesses, and said Sowers’ account of events was false.

“He did not drive the boat on May 3. He was not alone on May 3,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said the sign was returned to Big Creek Tavern on May 7, according to the state’s evidence.

Judge Kathlene Gosselin made no ruling on the motion, and the state did not seek to admit the charges again.

Zimmerman implied at the hearing that the decision to press the charges was influenced by the much-covered collision.

“These [boating] charges were filed on June 20, two days after this incident happened ... and was published and on TV. And then all of a sudden this stuff is reported to the police or to the sheriff’s office,” he said.

Zimmerman could not be reached for comment on the charges.

Court documents filed on Nov. 8 indicated a motion hearing was set for next Tuesday in State Court on the theft and trespassing charges.