The blue light flashed and the car in front pulled over. Sergeant Stacy Wyatt, of Weaverville Police Department, was conducting a routine traffic stop. Sergeant Wyatt had noticed that a vehicle was running without a working light over its license plate. It was a small misdemeanor, but par for the course in a normal day’s work for law enforcement officers in the small North Carolina town.
Wyatt approach the car with the usual caution, and proceeded to ask the driver his name. “Bill Sweet,” the man replied. As protocol then dictated, Wyatt asked for identification. But the man couldn’t produce any. Nothing at all. Wyatt was left with no choice but to arrest the man for not having a valid license on him while driving, a crime in the state.
Despite the arrest, Wyatt was at this stage still blissfully unaware of the hugely surprising story that he was on the verge of uncovering. A simple traffic stop was about to have massive repercussions for at least two families. What’s more, it would settle a mystery that had haunted individuals for 20 years.
Who was this Bill Sweet, and why didn’t he have any form of identification saying who he was? Full name William James Sweet, the man was purportedly a resident of Marshall, NC, although there was no administrative evidence to suggest that even this was true. In fact, there was no evidence at all to prove that this man actually existed. No birth certificate, no driving license, nothing!
There were a few things that could be established about the individual who called himself Bill Sweet. He ran a business selling NASCAR merchandise, and had a common-law wife. Sweet also had a teenage son, named William James Sweet. Or William James Sweet Jr.. The boy was 17 years old at the time his father was stopped by Wyatt.
As for Sweet Sr.’s partner, he had reportedly met her 19 years prior, in Alabama. Here was a man with a long-term relationship, a son named after him, and a respectable business, but no identity to prove who he was. It was a conundrum for Wyatt and the Weaverville Police Department, who were immediately suspicious of Sweet.
Wyatt ran Sweet’s name through all the official databases open to him as a law enforcement officer, but all efforts came up blank. There was no William James Sweet Sr., at least as far as Wyatt was aware. This was when his intuition kicked in. “I found it suspicious and believed it to be a false name,” Wyatt later admitted to news network CNN in 2009.
Having only been stopped on a minor traffic violation, the man who claimed to be Bill Sweet now found himself in a whole heap of additional trouble. At this stage he had broken, or potentially broken, two state laws: driving without having a license on his person, and giving known false information to a police officer. These were both considered to be misdemeanor offenses in the state of North Carolina.
Wyatt subsequently booked the man. But under what name? There was no Bill Sweet, or William James Sweet, as far as Wyatt could ascertain. The sergeant therefore went for “John Doe”, the classic name given to males in a case where identity is unknown, or deliberately being concealed.
Sweet, or whoever he was, was now in severe trouble. Much more so than when he had initially been stopped by Sergeant Wyatt. Realizing that he was digging himself deeper into a hole with Weaverville P.D., Sweet cracked, and came clean about who he really was.
The story that Sweet subsequently told the shocked Wyatt was described by the latter as sounding “kind of like a movie”. Wyatt revealed, “He told me he had been running for 20 years.” There were so many questions. Running from what? If not Bill Sweet, then who was he? And why did he have no I.D.?
As Wyatt had suspected, there was indeed no Bill Sweet. The man sitting in front of him in the interrogation room at the police station revealed himself to be 49-year-old Bennie Harden Wint. The name meant nothing to Wyatt, but Wint began to fill him in on who he was, where he had been, and why he was masquerading as someone else.
The suspect was now calling himself William James Sweet because Bennie Wint was dead. Or to be more precise, Wint had been reported missing, and was presumed dead, because that is what he had wanted people to believe. Wint had actually staged his own death in a swimming accident 20 years previously. The man thus began to fill in Wyatt with the almost unbelievable circumstances around his disappearance, and subsequent reemergence two decades later.
Bennie Wint, the 29-year-old, had been engaged. Wint was also a father to a then-four-year-old girl. The Wint of 1989 was also apparently involved in a drugs ring, and had been for some time. For one reason or another, he feared his choice of activities was about to result in major repercussions.
Wint explained to Wyatt how he believed he was wanted in South Carolina on charges related to his alleged involvement with a major drugs operation in the state. Fearing his chosen pursuit was about to catch up with him, one way or another, Wint hatched the elaborate plan to “kill” himself. And it appears no one else knew of his intentions.
Certainly it seems his fiancée at the time, Patricia Hollingsworth, had no idea. For it was Hollingsworth who was with Wint on the day he vanished. A disappearance that 20 years later was found to be staged. ABC News reporters were able to access a copy of the police report filed after Wint’s disappearance; Hollingsworth had stated that the couple had taken a trip to Florida from their home in South Carolina.
Hollingsworth reported that the couple were engaged, and had even discussed marrying upon that very trip to Florida. Alas, they never got the chance. Because on September 25, 1989, the pair took a trip down to Daytona Beach, in Volusia County. Wint entered the water for a swim, and he simply never came back.
The police report detailed how it had been around 4:00 p.m. when Wint entered the water. Hollingsworth stated how she saw him proceed out beyond the breakers, but then lost sight of her fiancé. She never saw him again. Frantic, she ran to a nearby lifeguard station, and declared Wint missing. According to the report, Hollingsworth “began to run north and south in the area”, and she was “very upset”.
Captain Scott Petersohn, of Volusia County Beach Patrol, had been on duty on that day in 1989. Although he hadn’t been one of the first responders to the call-out, he recalled developments once Hollingsworth had reported Wint missing. “We spent a bunch of time looking for him. We used helicopters, boats and boatloads of lifeguards,” Petersohn recounted.
Despite the thorough search, Wint was, of course, never found. But fast forward 20 years, and Sergeant Wyatt was able to reveal what Wint had told him about how he had got away with it that day at the beach. “He told me he swam to the shore in knee-deep water, walked off and never looked back,” Wyatt recalled.
Apparently Wint also had the not-insignificant amount of $6,500 stuffed down his swimming trunks to help set him up elsewhere. He exited the water at an unknown spot, purchased a t-shirt, and then caught a ride with a truck driver to Ozark, Alabama. It was here that he began his new life as William James Sweet, never filing for I.D. of course.
But as Wint, not only had he left behind a fiancée, but a young daughter too. Upon learning of Sweet’s true identity, Sergeant Wyatt conducted an online search of the name ‘Bennie Harden Wint’. “I found a daughter that was looking for him,” Wyatt told ABC News in 2009. That daughter’s name was Christi McKnight.
McKnight had been just four years old when her father disappeared. And unbelievably, just a couple of years before Wyatt’s discovery, McKnight had been actively looking for her father, a man who was presumed dead. In conducting his internet search, Wyatt stumbled across a PeopleSite.com posting in which McKnight appealed for information regarding her missing dad.
What compelled a young woman to seek out a father who most believed was dead? Obviously there was something that led McKnight to believe that maybe her father was not deceased. And she alluded to it on her post. “Benny [sic] is believed to have been seen in FL, back in 1989-’90 and some have said they’ve seen him in Hartsville, SC, where his family is from,” McKnight wrote.
Clearly the young woman felt that something didn’t add up when it came to the circumstances surrounding her dad’s death. Or perhaps she felt that the evidence suggesting he was alive was too compelling to disbelieve? Either way, she also stated her motivation for finding him. It was the dying wish of an old woman. Her grandmother to be precise – Wint’s own mother.
“Doctors say she should have been dead a year ago, but they say she’s holding on to one thing, and we believe that she is holding on to my father,” McKnight wrote on that same post. Alas, it is unknown whether the woman was ever reunited with her lost son. McKnight herself has so far declined to comment.
Hollingsworth has likewise failed to comment on Wint since his true identity was uncovered by Sergeant Wyatt in Weaverville, NC. Despite the insights that interviews with these two women would provide, it is not unreasonable to surmise that their lives were irrevocably changed on that September day in 1989 when Wint staged his own death. It was an incredible choice that Wint made.
Yet perhaps even more Incredible still, Wint had gone to those extreme lengths of faking his own death, leaving his fiancée and daughter distraught in the process, for absolutely nothing. Because when Sergeant Wyatt checked all relevant records, there were no outstanding warrants out for Wint at all. No one, at least from a law enforcement perspective, was looking for him.
For 20 long years, Wint, now Sweet, had been ducking and diving the law for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Wint intimated to Wyatt, in the confession of his true identity, that the decision to fake his own death had been driven by a fear of the authorities and those with whom he had involved himself in his alleged narcotics dealings. He thought that someone might be trying to murder him.
But Wyatt has his own theory. “It was merely paranoia,” the sergeant said. “He was running because of the prior life he lived.” But Wyatt didn’t arrest him. Indeed, the man who called himself ‘Bill Sweet’ wasn’t facing any charges at all, other than the original minor traffic violation. He certainly wasn’t one of the FBI’s Most Wanted.
Wint now lives in Marshall, NC, with the mother of his son. He is only willing to talk to the press for a fee. “I can live in seclusion forever,” he told ABC News when he was contacted for an interview. He also pointed out that his property was littered with signs reading ‘No Trespassing’.
Clearly many people have been hurt by Wint’s actions, even if he isn’t facing any criminal charges. His daughter and ex-fiancée may have not yet commented on him having turned up well and truly alive, but it’s hard to imagine those particular women would have been left impressed with his actions.
Yet there are others still who were impacted by the original case of what appeared to be a drowning, not least those who were involved in the search at the time. Scott Petersohn, the captain of beach patrol in Volusia County where Wint went missing all those years ago, said he remembered the incident well, having been part of the search.
What of the lifeguard who was on duty at the time? It must have weighed heavily on his conscience, knowing that someone drowned on your watch? Captain Petersohn confirmed he had been trying to locate that particular lifeguard, but as yet to no avail. “For 20 years, that man that works for us thinks he might have missed something in the ocean,” the captain told CNN.
But Petersohn also added that the impact of Wint’s supposed drowning had been felt more widely than just one individual. The beach patrol captain revealed that when someone drowns on a beach, “everybody feels it. Everybody takes it personally.” That was just another legacy of Wint’s apparent death.
Captain Petersohn did add, however, that the circumstances of the drowning did not quite add up at the time. He recalled how those who worked as part of the beach patrol were puzzled by events, which did not play out in the usual manner. “It is very rare to drown offshore and not wash back in onto the shore,” Petersohn commented. “Even back then, it struck everybody as odd that we didn’t recover the victim. That almost never happens,” he told CNN.
To compound matters, the lifeguard on duty hadn’t actually seen anyone swimming at the time Wint was reported missing. Captain Petersohn acknowledged, however, that under the circumstances, lifeguards would also possess “that little bit of doubt” that there was something they had missed. And the captain also added that the behavior of Wint’s fiancée at the time, Hollingsworth, didn’t lead him to surmise that she was in on Wint’s plan.
So it appears Wint hatched and enacted the plan all on his own, with his nearest and dearest totally ignorant of his intentions. Het got away with it too. Well, until that fateful day when Sergeant Wyatt pulled over a car in North Carolina due to a failed license plate light. In doing so, Wyatt helped solve a mystery that had so upset, and perplexed, Hollingsworth, McKnight, Captain Petersohn, and a number of those employed to maintain safety on the beaches of Volusia County.
As for Wint, or Sweet as he prefers to be called now, it is uncertain what he has to say for himself after 20 years on the run from precisely no one. Yet Captain Petersohn did confirm that Volusia County wouldn’t be pursuing him for expenses after the unnecessary search for his non-existent body. “It’s been too long,” Petersohn said.
In keeping with his role enforcing beach safety, Captain Petersohn sees the human element in the incredible Wint/Sweet story. “I’m glad the guy’s alive. I really am. … It’s unfortunate the way it went down at the time, people looking for a body that wasn’t out there,” Petersohn admitted. Of course, whether Wint’s estranged fiancée agrees is another matter entirely…