Whether and why Michael Benningfield, on a bar floor, tore a man’s eyebrow from his face using his teeth were considerations in the distance at nearly every turn during a hearing in a conference room on the underground level of Fort Worth City Hall.
Those questions and the circumstances of the 2016 fight were not the focus of argument. The discussion Wednesday night at a Civil Service Commission session was esoteric.
As he sought to clarify his understanding of the legalities covering city employment matters that were displayed on a large screen, Ricky Torlincasi, the body’s chairman, tried unsuccessfully to get a Fort Worth assistant city attorney and a representative for Benningfield, a Fort Worth firefighter, to agree on in what way the text applied in the case.
“I’m just a guy trying to understand local government code more than I ever cared to,” Torlincasi said.
Three-ringed books holding exhibits and tiny water bottles were passed around over nearly four hours.
The result of the hearing, during which Torlincasi and a second commissioner, Jason Baldwin, were to decide whether Benningfield should receive back wages for a period of about three years during which he was suspended from the fire department without pay, was determined by the commission’s strict statute interpretation.
The fight itself has been considered previously in various domains. There remains disagreement on whether the bite was justified because Benningfield, who was off duty when he was involved in the fight, has at times been viewed as defending himself as the victim of an assault by Shawn Merriman, whose brow was lost.
The matter has been reviewed by the fire department, where an internal affairs investigator and two chiefs appeared to conclude that Benningfield was justified. Retired fire department Lt. Greg Russell testified that he began his investigation believing that Benningfield was likely the suspect and ended it finding that Benningfield was a victim, in part because of a police report that included a single consistent account from Benningfield and three Merriman versions of what prompted the fight. The alternate descriptions damaged Merriman’s credibility, Russell testified.
Fire Chief Jim Davis concluded, after Benningfield pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime in the case, that he should return to work with no discipline beyond a letter of reprimand that encouraged an outside review of his alcohol use and anger management. The criminal arrangement was a plea bargain. He was originally indicted on a felony aggravated assault charge. Merriman was not charged in the case.
Benningfield resumed full duty on Oct. 7, 2019.
Elements of the bloody encounter also were weighed by the firefighter’s homeowner’s insurance company, which paid $20,000 to Merriman in an exchange in which Merriman agreed to dismiss a lawsuit in which Benningfield was a defendant.
And the central questions of the fight were mulled by District Court Judge Scott Wisch, who in October 2019 accepted Benningfield’s guilty plea to assault with bodily injury, a misdemeanor crime, and sentenced him to to two years of probation.
The Fort Worth Civil Service Commission was asked to decide whether Benningfield was permitted under local government code to receive back pay for the period of three years and one month during which he was on administrative suspension from the fire department without pay.
Using what Assistant City Attorney Trey Qualls described as a novel understanding of the code that he said is a loophole, Torlincasi and Baldwin ordered that the city of Fort Worth submit to Benningfield a back payment of $159,625.76. The amount is less than the total that Benningfield sought for pay and benefits ($300,639.23) and more than the amount the city sought ($0). A third commission member was absent.
At the end of an executive session closed to the public, Torlincasi said that he and Baldwin had determined that the code calls for a firefighter not convicted of the crime on which he or she is indicted to be permitted to seek back pay. The commission reached its calculation after subtracting unemployment insurance payments and an estimate of what Benningfield would have earned in another job that paid minimum wage during the suspension period.
In his closing argument, Qualls had argued that Benningfield did not have jurisdiction to appeal because of his conviction of a lesser-included offense similar to the crime on which he was indicted.
“I implore you,” Qualls said. “Do not reward him for his misbehavior.”
Earlier, Benningfield testified that former Fort Worth Fire Chief Rudolph Jackson suggested to him he would not oppose Benningfield’s efforts to receive back wages if the criminal case was disposed of without a felony conviction.
“I think I deserve it all,” Benningfield said of his back pay and benefits.
In an interview with a reporter after the commission order was clear, Merriman said Benningfield should not receive back pay and should not be employed by the department.
“He doesn’t deserve a dime,” Merriman said.
Benningfield’s first public account of what occurred before the fight at the Whiskey & Rye bar at the Omni Hotel at 1300 Houston St. in Fort Worth emerged during his commission testimony. The firefighter said two men who had previously been sitting at a table with Merriman simulated a sex act behind Benningfield while he used a urinal. Benningfield told his wife of the restroom encounter, she alerted a bar security employee and the men were ejected from the bar. Merriman and a woman with him were likely upset by their friends’ removal, he said.
Benningfield said that he did not remember biting Merriman. After they were separated, Merriman said that he would rape and kill Benningfield’s wife, the firefighter testified. In his testimony, Merriman denied making the threat.
No clear surveillance video of the fight was recorded.
Jackson placed Benningfield on temporary unpaid suspension on Aug. 26, 2016, two days after he was indicted on a charge of aggravated assault with serious bodily injury.
The fight occurred about 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 10, 2016.
Off-duty Fort Worth police Officer Vernon Gray was working security when the fight erupted, according to his commission testimony and a police report.
Gray found Benningfield and Merriman on the floor facing each other. He yelled, “Fort Worth police! Break it up!” the report states.
Merriman, then 39, told investigators that he put his hands up when he heard the officer’s shout. That’s when Benningfield bit him on the forehead, Merriman said. The officer’s report states the bite took a “chunk” out of Merriman’s forehead, just above his right eye.
Unable to break Benningfield’s grip on Merriman, the officer placed his Taser on Benningfield’s stomach area and dry stunned the firefighter, causing him to release Merriman, the report said.
Merriman told police he was at the bar for a surprise party for his upcoming 40th birthday. He said he bumped Benningfield with his elbow as he worked his way toward the crowded bar to get a glass of water.
Merriman told police he had just told Benningfield, “Excuse me, I need to get in here,” when Benningfield turned around, punched him and grabbed him, and the two men fell to the floor fighting, Merriman said.
Merriman said that when the officer saw them wrestling on the floor and shouted to stop, he was ready for the altercation to end. But as he was getting up, Benningfield grabbed his head and latched onto his eyebrow, Merriman said.
When the officer deployed his Taser, Benningfield ripped off part of Merriman’s forehead and spit it on the floor, Merriman said.
At first it was not clear what had become of the skin. Once it was found, Merriman said he took his eyebrow to a hospital and hoped that doctors could sew it in place. The tissue was contaminated, and the doctors declined.