Manager at Loma Linda VA center in Redlands found to be convicted murderer
Edwin Winslow Bennett was still on parole for the 1989 gangland-style execution of a business rival when he began a meteoric rise through the managerial ranks at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System.
Bennett, 57, who says on his LinkedIn page he has an MBA from an online school in Santa Ana called California Coast University and an honorable discharge from the Air Force, honed his skills during the 22 years he spent behind bars, including a stint at Soledad State Prison.
His online resume boasts myriad skills honed behind prison walls, including providing administrative and computer support to Soledad’s associate warden.
In 2013, two years after Bennett was paroled, VA officials took notice and hired him as a supervisor at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System’s outpatient clinic.
Then, in November 2018 — the same month he completed parole — Bennett was promoted to project manager for the VA’s Ambulatory Care Center in Redlands, a 221,000-square-foot facility that provides veterans with dental, mental health and primary medical care. He holds the same position today.
Bennett did not return phone calls or emails regarding his criminal history or job with the VA.
Several Loma Linda Healthcare System employees also declined to comment, saying they fear retaliation.
Hired under Obama policies
Wade J. Habshey, a spokesman for the VA Loma Linda Health Care System, said in a statement that Bennett will remain on the job. He partly blamed his hiring on the administration of former President Barack Obama.
“This hiring decision was made under previous medical center leadership and under the previous presidential administration,” the statement says. “VA Loma Linda cannot and will not defend this action. However, under federal law, VA is unable to take any action against this employee based on conduct that occurred before his hiring.”
The Obama administration was a proponent of the “Ban the Box” movement designed to give ex-offenders a fair shot at federal jobs. The campaign aimed to remove the checkbox from hiring applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record.
Habshey did not respond to questions regarding whether the VA knew about Bennett’s criminal history before he was hired or whether he underwent a background check.
Following an inquiry from the Southern California News Group, the office of Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, confirmed Friday the congressman had sent a letter to system Director Karandeep Sraon demanding answers about Bennett’s employment.
Bennett works in an office tucked away on the third floor where his day-to-day duties include performing inspections, coordinating emergency response programs, and maintaining reports on contractors.
Convicted in Orange County
That serene setting is a far cry from the bustling Orange County courtroom where, in 1992, Bennett was sentenced to 27 years to life for the first-degree murder of 48-year-old James Busher.
Flora Larson, who was 51 at the time and Bennett’s girlfriend, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to Busher’s murder and received a year in jail.
A 1998 California Supreme Court decision overturning an appellate court ruling that Bennett’s murder conviction should be set aside because his attorney bungled his defense offers a synopsis of the evidence presented during trial.
Larson testified she met Busher while he was on work furlough from federal prison, where he was serving a sentence for tax evasion. The two agreed to open a laundromat in Hesperia after Busher’s release from prison.
Larson, who acted as Busher’s chauffeur while he was on work release and in a halfway house, received $75,000 from Busher to invest in the laundromat.
Then, in January 1988, Larson and Busher formed Swiftrail Corp. as the sole shareholders and opened the Clean Fun Laundromat.
By the end of 1988, Larson and Busher’s relationship had soured and the pair were not on speaking terms. In addition, Larson had replaced Busher on Swiftrail’s board of directors with two members of her family.
In February 1989, Larson became romantically involved with Bennett and, the following month, signed a document giving him authority to act on behalf of Swiftrail.
Busher filed a lawsuit to gain control over Swiftrail and, on April 18, 1989, a trial court appointed a receiver to run the corporation.
That evening, Bennett told Larson to drive him to Santa Ana, and they arrived at a trailer park where Busher lived. Bennett then pulled out a rifle, told Larson to park the car with the lights out and the pair waited until about 3 a.m., when Busher drove up.
“Larson drove slowly past Busher while petitioner (Bennett) fired, killing him,” the Supreme Court’s decision says.
Busher sustained five bullet wounds from the .223-caliber rifle.
Bennett testified in his own defense at trial, denying that he had killed Busher. He claimed that on the night of the murder he was at the home of his friends, drinking beer and using methamphetamine until about 4:30 a.m. the next morning, when he went home.
Police arrested Bennett on Sept 27, 1989, at the Clean Fun Laundromat.
Did the VA know Bennett’s past?
Habshey, the VA spokesman, did not respond to questions from the Southern California News Group about whether VA officials knew about Bennett’s criminal history before he was hired and if he was required to undergo background check as a condition of employment.
Ex-offenders are permitted to work for the VA. The Office of Personnel Management, the agency that hires federal employees, considers the criminal conduct of job applicants in determining their suitability. The duties of the position, the nature and recency of the applicant’s misconduct, and any evidence of rehabilitation are weighed as factors.
VA medical facilities are required to initiate background investigations within 14 days of an employee’s appointment. However, the VA’s Office of Inspector General in a 2018 audit, estimated that about 6,200 VA employees, about 6 percent of the workforce, had not received the required checks.
In two examples, the inspector general found that a registered nurse at a VA medical facility in Dayton, Ohio, worked 1,452 days — nearly four years — while another nurse in Georgia went 747 days without background investigations
“In both of these cases, the individuals were employed to provide direct patient care to veterans, even though Veterans Health Administration had not initiated background investigations to determine their suitability for employment,” the audit says. “In the absence of a completed suitability determination, VA lacks assurance that the Veterans Health Administration is properly vetted and appropriate for providing health care to the nation’s veterans.”
Once a background check is completed and returned from the OPM, an “adjudicator” reviews the report and makes a determination about the applicant’s suitability for employment. That determination is based on an analysis of both favorable and unfavorable information about the individual’s character and conduct.
The OPM requires agencies to report adjudicative decisions within 90 days of the receipt of the final investigative report.
The inspector general audit determined that about 10,400 cases were not adjudicated within the three-month requirement and found problems at some VA medical facilities in Southern California. At the VA in Long Beach, the audit noted that 47 cases were not adjudicated in a timely manner, with processing times averaging 1,153 days or about three years.
The audit also determined that VA medical facilities did not consistently ensure that official personnel records accurately reflected the status of background investigations. At the VA in Los Angeles, certificates of investigation were not placed in personnel files for 24 of 26 cases analyzed in the audit.
The OIG recommended 11 improvements to the VA’s process in evaluating the suitability of potential employees.
Three of the recommendations have been implemented at the VA, including more robust oversight of hiring practices, said Michael Nacincik, a spokesman for the inspector general.