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Victims happy incident is now behind them

9/26/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

WaKEENEY -- When Gladys Sellers celebrates her birthday Sunday, she plans to simply enjoy a day of peace and quiet, exactly what living in the relatively remote area of Trego County offers.

She wouldn't have it any other way, especially now that she can put to rest a series of events occurring nearly 13 months ago -- events that shattered her otherwise idyllic slice of life.

Sellers, who will turn 83, wasn't about to miss Tuesday's sentencing of 38-year-old Benito Cardenas Jr., who walked into her rural home Aug. 12, 2012, brandishing a knife he took from neighbor Minnie Mong's kitchen, a knife she called her "watermelon" knife because of its long blade.

"I don't believe so," Sellers said when she was asked if she wanted to provide a statement to the court.

Mong wasn't able to attend Tuesday's hearing.

Both she and Sellers attended a meeting with law enforcement and the Kansas Attorney General's office to discuss the plea agreement, which she approved.

"Because he's going to be 98 or 99 before he's eligible for parole," Mong said of the agreement. "I said 'Gladys, when he's 98, you think we can handle him?' "

She said the officers attending laughed uproariously at her question.

* * *

While Sellers didn't want to make a statement in court, Cardenas did, reading from a handwritten sheet of paper he awkwardly unfolded as a result of the belly chain he was wearing.

He apologized to his victims, turning slightly to look Seller's direction.

"I do regret that night in August 2012," he said.

His actions, Cardenas said, were the result of fear -- of the life-in-prison sentence he had received for rape and aggravated criminal sodomy in a separate Ness County case.

Twice, during statements in WaKeeney and in Ness City, Cardenas said he's been referred to as a monster.

But he was quick to say "monsters kill and rob people. I never hurt any of my victims."

Mong suffered a small cut on her hand as she tried to push the knife away when Cardenas opened her car door as she drove into her yard south of WaKeeney.

"If he was wanting to get me, he would have already stabbed me," she said at the time. "No, he didn't want to hurt me. He was desperate."

Sellers agreed.

"Whenever he was in the house with me, ordering me around, he was not rude to me," she said.

But he still had the knife.

"He carried the knife with him and kept it in view," Sellers said.

* * *

She expressed relief after Tuesday's hearing, glad the entire incident was finished and pleased Cardenas took responsibility for what he did.

"He admitted to everything," she said. "How truthful he made it, I don't know. I don't know what kind of person he was before."

Cardenas walked into an unlocked door of her residence, Sellers said, a door she left open for a relative who was expected to stop by.

"The first thing he said is, 'I'm having car trouble,' " Sellers said.

She tried to explain there was gas outside if that's what he needed. She later learned he had parked a van stolen from Ness City inside an outbuilding.

But then he asked for money.

Cardenas tied Sellers up after he got the money.

"He tied me up in the house," she said, unaware of where he got the cord. "He did a really poor job of tying me up."

But then Cardenas untied Sellers and walked with her to an outside shop just yards away from the house.

"And he did a poor job again," she said of him tying her up.

So poor, in fact, Sellers said she was able to extricate herself as she walked out to meet a Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who was parked nearby.

"I decided I would be safer in his car," she said.

Cardenas apparently had gone back into the house, and when a neighbor called to warn Sellers the escapee was in the area, he answered.

"And he said, 'Tell them outside that I'm ready to give up,' " Sellers said.

Eventually, Cardenas walked backwards out of the house on instructions from a KHP trooper and was taken into custody.

For a time, Sellers said, there was talk of her serving as a hostage, but that never happened.

* * *

As he stood before District Judge Bruce Gatterman in Ness County District Court, Cardenas admitted he was a criminal but said he was scared about the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

While he was spending time in the Ness County jail, Cardenas served as a trusty for the sheriff's office, able to help with cooking in the community.

It wasn't until after he was convicted he lost that position, but he'd apparently already sawed through at least four bars on a cell housing four inmates.

It was late Aug. 10, 2012, when a dispatcher alone in the sheriff's office heard a "clanging on the bars" that sounded like inmates were "hitting it with something."

That's when she looked into the jail and saw someone in the booking room.

She immediately put out a call for help.

"Actually, I thought somebody had broken into the jail," dispatcher Donna Kraft testified earlier at a Ness County preliminary hearing for Cardenas. "I never dreamed that somebody could get out."

But one had, taking off through a back door before stealing a white van and heading north.

Now-retired Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Delbert Hawel investigated the escape and found bars had been cut on what is known as the day room.

He also testified finding a hacksaw in a storage area that could have been used.

"We did determine that Mr. Cardenas was on trusty status at the time of his incarceration," Hawel testified. "During the daytime, he was allowed outside of the cell, outside of the day room, so he would have had a chance to go in to that room where the hacksaw was."

Hawel couldn't say for sure, however, if that's how Cardenas was able to cut the bars.

When he was arrested by KHP trooper Shawn Summers at Sellers' residence in Trego County, Cardenas was read his Miranda rights.

"Just a few seconds after that," Summers testified, "he kind of looked at me and said, 'What would you do if you were looking at life in prison?' "

Summers said Cardenas was "tired, upset, just exhausted."

* * *

"I'm glad it's over," Sellers said. "It took them a long time to have the first hearing.

"We decided to do that rather than going to trial," the 66-year-old Mong said Wednesday of reaching the plea agreement.

A trial, she said, would have been so exhausting, and her doctor advised against it.

After everything happened, Sellers said, a son asked her if she was ready to move to nearby WaKeeney.

"I said, 'Oh, this could happen in town,' " she recalled saying. "I like the peace and quiet."

Mong agreed, saying locking doors only will keep out honest people. Cardenas broke a window to gain entry into her residence.

"I still haven't gotten my watermelon knife back," she said.

Kansas Assistant Attorney General Dennis Jones asked District Judge Glenn Braun to release it as evidence. Braun agreed to its release.

Mong said she planned to call Sellers soon to talk about everything that happened.

Sellers isn't planning a big birthday celebration Sunday.

"Oh no, just peace and quiet," she said.