When Austin Todd Stryker’s trial began Tuesday afternoon, 20-year-old Isaac Thomas Huff took the stand as the state’s first witness to prove that Stryker murdered Bender in 2019.
As part of a plea deal, Huff will spend 12 years in prison and 18 years on probation for his role in the murder.
Huff recounted the alleged activities of he and several others in the months leading up to Bender’s murder.
Per discussion in earlier hearings, the prosecution wasted no time linking the events surrounding Bender’s murder to Stryker and others’ participation in a small gang called “THIS.”
Huff said to Assistant District Attorney Shiv Sachdeva that he joined the gang roughly six months before the September 2019 incident. The six bonafide members of “THIS,” including Huff, each had a handprint tattoo with a number indicating their status in the gang. Huff said he was number five, with Harper and Stryker being numbers one and two respectively.
Huff had also heard rumors about other members of “THIS,” beating people up or buying and selling cars, but nothing concrete.
About a month before Bender’s murder, Huff said Reid, Stryker, Harper and he hosted a ceremony in the basement of his grandmother’s house to swear loyalty to “THIS.”
They each swore loyalty oaths by pricking their fingers and dropping blood onto a piece of paper before Stryker burned it.
“He said that if we’d betray the gang, we’d burn in hell like this piece of paper,” Huff said to Sachdeva and Stryker’s defense attorney, Brock Johnson.
Huff went on to say that the gang members allegedly committed two armed robberies at the Dawsonville and Dahlonega Dollar Generals during summer 2019.
Stryker is only a defendant in the Lumpkin County robbery case. However, Huff alleged his own involvement in the first robbery and Stryker’s involvement in both.
Night of the murder
Before picking up Bender from her Dahlonega residence on Sept. 14, 2019, Huff had already had a busy night. He went for a late-night swim with Reid, Stryker, Elizabeth Donaldson and their child; stopped at Walmart and McDonald’s; and visited Bailey Williams, who was allegedly the getaway driver for the Dawsonville robbery, as well as visiting another Dahlonega friend.
Huff also said Stryker had been drinking and using meth that night before they went to see Bender, while he only got something to drink and smoked a cigarette.
Reid stayed at Huff’s house while Huff and Stryker went to pick up Bender.
In his testimony Tuesday, Huff initially alleged that he didn’t know much about Stryker’s plan to kill Bender, including any conversation until they reached her home.
However, ADA Sachdeva reminded him of his statements from the plea hearing saying that the conversation revolved around “sending a message to Bender” and “showing people that they (THIS) are not a joke.”
In his comments to the court, Huff said Stryker first called her a “blonde snitch” either right before or right after Huff went to spend time with his mother in Colorado a couple weeks prior to the murder.
Huff added he did not think Bender was a snitch or that the gang considered her one.
He also said he knew before arriving at Bender’s that they weren’t going to Florida and that he heard Stryker express a desire to kill the girl.
When they arrived at Bender's home, Stryker went inside and talked to Bender for close to an hour before they came out, with her carrying a duffle bag.
They stopped at the Ga. 400 Shell before going to Stryker’s residence so Stryker could change into non-ripped jeans and a t-shirt. Huff wasn’t sure why his friend was changing but later learned that Stryker feared identification from camera footage.
It was only about a two-minute drive between Stryker and Huff’s residences. As the trio headed back to Huff’s place, the conversation in the truck seemed lively to Huff, with Stryker talking to Bender and her laughing up until seconds before the shooting.
Stryker asked Huff to slow down, not an unusual comment given prior drives together, and then without warning, the deadly shot rang out in the vehicle.
Huff said the ringing from the shot spooked him and caused him to temporarily lose control of the truck before regaining his bearings.
Brock Johnson asked Huff if he saw the Ruger .380 handgun at all during the time of the shooting, including whether or not Stryker or Bender held it. Huff replied, “No” to all of those questions.
"After she's shot in the head, we know that she was alive briefly,” Senior Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer said at an earlier hearing.
Both Greer and Sachdeva cited the autopsy report, which they said showed that Bender had been shot in the head once and stabbed 32 times.
At the April hearing, Huff and Reid denied stabbing Bender and said that they were instead preparing to wrap and dispose of her body when the second violent act occurred. Huff was inside his house when Reid and Stryker entered, both with blood on them.
They then allegedly put her on the ground, wrapped her head up and buried her in Huff’s backyard fire pit. Stryker instructed Huff to make sure nobody walked behind the home to the fire pit. Huff’s involvement waned with the act of disposing of evidence.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody else after that happened,” he said.
Bender’s remains were subsequently put into an old toolbox, which was buried at a shallow grave site in northern Forsyth County.
In particular, Huff did not want to go to the gravesite every few days to cover up Bender’s body with dirt, something that Reid allegedly ended up doing instead. Indeed, ADA Greer said Reid was the one to lead law enforcement to Bender’s body on Sept. 24, 2019, the day before the remains were exhumed.
Defense’s forthcoming narrative
Johnson said that his client, Stryker, was not going to hide from or deny his role in Bender’s murder.
“It takes courage to own up to the horrible mistakes he’s made,” Johnson said.
He alluded to this case’s evidence being a big point of contention and offered an alternative theory for how the murder of Bender and the disposal of her remains occurred.
As the prosecution said, Johnson put Stryker and Bender in the backseat of the Mazda truck leading up to the shooting. The attorney posited that the shooting was accidental, as Bender instead could have pulled the gun’s trigger, which led to Stryker’s response that “snowballed into more bad decisions.”
“What he didn’t do is murder Hannah Bender,” Johnson said. “He didn’t shoot her or stab her. He had a plan that involved money, not murder.”
Johnson cited his client’s need for money, as Stryker has a several-month-old son to support. He also explained that the son is also part of the reason Stryker turned himself in and came back to Georgia, not wanting to set a bad example for his kid.
What to expect
On Wednesday, Dylan Patrick Reid as well as multiple law enforcement officers are expected to testify. Thursday, technology will play a key role as the state’s medical examiner takes the stand.
Story originally appeared in the Dawson County News.