Porch lights barely broke the blackness. Beyond them, the freight lines pacing Pacific Street were dormant, along with the grizzled overhang and bayoneted marquee of a 90-year-old bar called Loree’s Little Shack by the Railroad Track. It was 2 a.m. in the oldest part of Rocklin. There was nothing in the late-hour hush to tell the seasoned homes here had digital eyes – appendages of that ever-watching surveillance universe so ubiquitous in the oceans of newer tract development swallowing most of the city. But two dwellings in this throwback neighborhood did have optics trained on the shadows. And between them, they caught a shuddering moment in time: They tracked a man stalking through the stillness, moving deliberately by lifeless trucks parked in driveways off the street. He was wearing a dark tank-top, long red basketball shorts, odd-looking tennis shoes – and an American flag mask covering part of his face.
The cameras framed him in their muted grayness. When he slipped from their range, they captured only sounds that followed him. They logged the crash of a door being kicked in – the violence of falling objects. They heard the zipping whorl of a collapsible baton extending its heavy steel. They clocked some faint, muffled voices. Then, they took in a roaring succession of explosive eruptions, a volley that signaled out toward the veil over gravel and railroad ties.
There was a slight calm that followed, broken by an amped voice of rage jeering, “That’s right, bitch!”
Seconds later, the same figure was trudging through the camera fields again. His passing movement was trailed by the blare of a car engine in the distance – tires ripping away from Pacific Street. And before the cyber-eyes had seen him return, they’d watched a frightened dog from the house just invaded go running out into the night.
What the tech couldn’t see that morning of July 24, 2021 – but what would be testified to last week in court – was how the man allegedly caught in those videos hopped into his dark Mercedes, turned to a petrified young woman he’d been brutally torturing over the last week and whelped out an exhilarated “Wooooo!” through his star-spangled mask. The girl would say, in that moment, she struggled not to throw up as the world went whistling through her skull, both eardrums completely ruptured from being repeatedly punched in the side of the head.
Three days later, a police dispatcher returned to his Rocklin home after being away. He saw that his front door had been smashed in. Past the threshold, his roommate, 48-year-old Cameron Gabriel, was laying on the floor. Gabriel was chest-up, his head slightly turned with one of his arms out in a flexing position: There was a large, oozing hole under his bicep. There was also a bruise on one of his kneecaps. Rocklin police detectives were soon going over every inch of the house, finding short-round shell casings from a 9mm, some spent slugs and video footage of Gabriel returning home on the last night of his life.
The rail lines near this street have seen their share of vicious murders over the years, though the worst crimes happened ten miles back around the switchyard in Old Roseville: When it comes to those killings, even the more-recent ones involved the century-old problem of absolute strangers passing through the area. Rocklin investigators had a similar situation on their hands, but instead of steam, iron and rails bringing a stranger into their town, it was a chain of events that started on two levels with a popular online platform taking over the modern dating scene. Yet, reminiscent of the theme to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” that app can bring outsiders into one’s world that you really know nothing about – sometimes with inalterable consequences.
From rustic walks to a night of terror
The story that the Placer County District Attorney’s Office laid out – and explored in methodic, painstaking detail – during an all-day hearing at Roseville’s justice center June 29, begins with a spirited 21-year-old woman living in the area. Because of how she was allegedly victimized, along with concerns for her safety and privacy, she’ll be referred to in this story as Julia (not her real name).
Julia was subpoenaed by Deputy District Attorney Jeff Moore in his case against Damon “Brad” Benson. As the hearing got underway, Moore asked Julia to begin with how she knew the defendant.
Julia testified she’d first met Benson, who is 29, when she’d “matched” with him on Tinder in February of 2021. After exchanging messages on the app for some days, they agreed that their first date would be a walk through Cronan Ranch out near Pilot Hill. The two found they had a shared interest in paganism, not to mention outdoor hiking excursions. They’d gravitated towards each other right away, Julia recalled. Benson lived at an apartment in Rancho Cordova. Julia remembered spending a lot of time there. She said that, though they bonded over shared passions, Benson and she were opposites in other ways. To start with, he had guns all through his apartment – mostly rifles. Julia noted she had no real interest in firearms. On the witness stand, Julia also alluded to aspects of the world that they saw “very differently.”
In the first days of the relationship, Julia recounted, Benson was gentlemanly. He acted nice and would open the car door for her on dates.
But then, things got dark – fast.
Julia told the court that Benson began hitting her in the face sometimes when she was late. The prosecutor asked Julia to tell him about “the swing incident” in March of 2021.
“The night before, Brad had hit me, and I asked my mom to come pick me up,” she replied. “And I left a note on my pillow saying, ‘I’m done.’”
Julia remembered that when she woke up the next morning, Benson was banging on her bedroom window. Julia lives with two family members, but she couldn’t tell if they’d been roused. She went out into the backyard. She said Benson grabbed her and pinned her on a tree swing.
“He held me down and said, ‘You know you’re not allowed to leave me, right?’” Julia recalled. “I was very scared, so I just said ‘yes’ in a very frail voice.”
Julia kept seeing Benson in the weeks that followed. But as the summer approached, she also started to have a relationship with one of her friends, Cameron Gabriel. She first met Gabriel through Tinder in 2020 while pet-sitting for friends in another state. Gabriel lived near where she was temporarily staying. The two had briefly dated then, she recalled, though it ended when she came back to Placer County. But when mid-2021 arrived, Gabriel was living in old Rocklin on the same side of Placer as Julia.
Julia testified that she and Gabriel were mainly friends, though they sometimes slept together.
Benson discovered what was going on around July 4, after noticing a mark on Julia’s back. Julia had quickly tried to invent a cover story. Benson didn’t believe her.
“Why did he not believe you?” Moore asked.
“Because I’m a bad liar,” Julia stressed.
Still, Julia maintained, she’d refused to tell Benson anything about who the other person was.
“I felt scared for retribution for Cameron’s sake,” Julia recalled.
Benson got more agitated in the coming days, but Julia stayed silent. As time went by, and Benson wouldn’t drop it, Julia tried to convince him that she’d slept with a woman.
“I thought it would be less enraging to him,” she reasoned.
Julia said that Benson stopped talking to her for a week, but then messaged her out of the blue on July 16, 2021. He told her to be waiting in front of her house for him to pick her up. Benson took Julia back to his apartment.
Moore asked what Benson’s demeanor was like. “It was tense, and it felt a bit off,” she responded.
Julia testified that Benson soon bound her hands with rope, against her will, and left her hanging, naked, from a ceiling hook. She could barely touch the floors with her tip-toes. Benson disappeared outside for a spell.
“I tried to jump and unhook the rope, but without letting Mr. Benson hear me jump,” she said.
It didn’t work.
Then Benson allegedly walked back in and put a cigarette out on Julia’s neck. Moore brought photos into evidence of a burn scar near Julia’s jugular. She said that Benson began punching over and over. Later, Benson resorted to using a pair of plyers on her nose. Finally, Julia reflected, he started electrocuting her with a stun baton. Photos of various marks on Julia’s body, Taser burns and a black eye, were offered into evidence.
Benson kept hitting Julia, demanding to know the name of the man she’d been with.
Julia didn’t break.
Things came to a head when Julia saw Benson get out a survivalist’s Rambo-style Bowie knife. Moore showed Judge Jeffrey Penney a photograph of the large weapon that Julia was describing.
Julia said that Benson got behind her and started cutting into her back. She relived how she knew as she hung there helpless, that Benson was running the knife in different directions.
“It felt like the unzipping of my skin,” she muttered.
When Benson finally let Julia down, about an hour later, after she pleaded that she had to go to the bathroom, she hurried to where his restroom sink was, closed the door and turned to look in the mirror. Only then did Julia realize that Benson had literally carved a giant swastika across her back.
Julia and her family are Jewish. She remembered starting to throw up all over the bathroom.
In the course of the hearing, members of Cameron Gabriel’s friends and family told SN&R that – after learning Benson’s name in September of 2021 – they’d seen online screenshots of him associated with White Power and Neo-Nazi organizations (he also appears to have, at one time, had Leftist sympathies). SN&R could not independently verify these images. At another point in Julia’s testimony, however, she referenced trying to warn Gabriel about the groups that Benson claimed to be involved with.
“I had spoken to Cameron about Mr. Benson’s affiliations, along with him as a person,” she said.
This came up after Moore asked Julia about a letter that Benson allegedly left in her mailbox, and then messaged about her through Tinder. Part of that letter read, “If this guy becomes a problem for us, we’re going to solve that problem. Completely. We’re not going to drive by his house and shoot-out the windows. We’re going to kick down his front doors with rifles in our hands and exterminate every living creature inside.”
Julia’s testimony suggested that the “we” Benson mentioned in his writing referenced his “affiliations.”
The darkest night
At first, Julia’s family didn’t know what happened. Benson put bandages and ointments across the disfiguring wound carved into her back. Julia eventually got a ride to the emergency room days later after brown fluids from the gashes warned she had an infection. Julia had spinal injuries from behind being suspended by the rope, too. Reliving it all on the witness stand, she mentioned that – nearly a year later – the back injuries were still causing her “extreme pain.” As if that wasn’t enough, Julia’s front teeth were chipped from being repeatedly hit in the face. Despite everything Benson allegedly did to her, Julia still hadn’t given up any details about Gabriel.
On the evening of July 23, Benson got Julia to return to his apartment. She remembers him drinking Vodka and Red Bull and suddenly exploding: She testified that he palm-punched her in the face, causing blood to start streaming down. Julia said she tried to get away, but Benson grabbed her ear so hard that she thought he might rip it off. Then, Julia recalled, Benson began choking her and spitting in her eyes. She said that he was demanding the name and address of the person she’d been with.
Julia told the court that as the strangling intensified, she was sure that she was fighting for her life.
“He would hold me down so that I was choking on my own blood,” she explained, re-creating the death grip she said Benson used with his fingers around her larynx. “He would squeeze and press into my throat.”
At that point, Julia cracked.
According to her, sometime after midnight, Benson forced her into his Mercedes: He kept coercing her to search her phone for Gabriel’s address. She said he was watching over her shoulder.
“He repeatedly told me that he was going to beat Cameron, but not kill him,” she recalled. “It felt very clear to me that I was going to die.”
From the witness stand, Julia described Benson steering his Mercedes towards Rocklin, all the while sporadically hitting her in the side of the head. That’s what caused both of her eardrums to rupture. Julia’s testimony is that, as they got closer to South Placer, Benson promised that he’d kill her family if she didn’t do exactly what he said. She described passing landmarks beyond the Sacramento County line, including Golfland Sunsplash, as they went from Citrus Heights into Roseville. Then the car stopped on a darkened street off Rocklin’s East Midas Avenue. Julia said she watched Benson grab a leather satchel that he carried everywhere. She mentioned Benson had somehow got a conceal-carry permit for his gun – and that he always had it in the satchel. According to Julia, Benson pulled a tubular American flag mask onto his face before disappearing into the night.
Julia couldn’t hear what that happened beyond the shadows, possibly because of her decimated ear drums. She says she only knows Benson returned two-to-five minutes later, bursting with excitement as he gushed, “I just fucking shot that guy!”
“He was wondering if I could smell the gun powder,” she recalled.
Julia was crying and trying not to throw up.
At one point, Benson’s defense attorney, Brad Whatcott, asked Julia why she didn’t run from the car while he was gone.
“He would have found me, and he would have come for my family,” she answered.
Julia testified Benson’s adrenaline was so super-charged that, at one point, he drove on the wrong side of the road as they sped back for his Rancho Cordova apartment. But once they arrived there, Benson couldn’t find his keys to get inside. He realized that he’d left his leather satchel back at Gabriel’s bedroom.
Julia said Benson ordered her into the Mercedes again as the car headed for old Rocklin.
“He was frantic,” she recalled. “He was concerned that the police would have been there by now and that they would have found his satchel … [the drive] was erratic and fast … He thought that, if there were police there, that he would have to fight them and that he might die.”
Julia said they parked again near Gabriel’s house and she watched Benson pull a long rifle from behind the car seat. He was gone for a handful of minutes: When Benson returned, he had the leather satchel with him.
“He was surprised that no one had called the police and they were not there,” she testified.
Moore asked if Benson told her that he’d said anything to Gabriel when he went back into his room.
Julia nodded. “I think he said, ‘Are you dead yet?’”
Two counties, two investigations
Rocklin police conducted an exhaustive canvass of Gabriel’s neighborhood after his body was discovered on July 27, 2021.
Investigators located surveillance videos that caught the assailant approaching, and leaving, the scene. They located additional video evidence from a nearby business that caught the killer’s vehicle.
Rocklin detective Justin Infante was soon meeting with Placer County pathologist Greg Reybar, a veteran physician who has conducted more than 11,000 autopsies. The doctor found that Gabriel had at least six entrance wounds from gunshot, as well as several exit wounds. Infante and his partners had located six 9mm shell casings. They’d also found three spent pistol slugs.
Around Aug. 4, Infante got a call from a Sacramento County Sheriff’s detective. He learned that Julia – a person unknown to him until that moment – had recently tried to escape Benson’s grasp, messaging her mom that she needed to get out of his apartment. This call for help sent Rancho Cordova police officers to Benson’s door while he was sleeping.
After talking to Julia, the officers took Benson into custody. He was ultimately charged with torture and mayhem for what he’d allegedly done inside the apartment.
Infante was told that Julia might have information about a homicide he was working.
The detective soon met with the victim, listening to her entire story from the beginning.
For Rocklin police, what came next was studying how the various pieces of evidence collaborated Julia’s violent tale.
“I found a text thread conversation between [*Julia’s real name] and Mr. Gabriel that dated back almost a year,” Infante said on the stand. “There were several photos from [‘Julia’] that were of an intimate nature, and there was just a lot of conversation … About an hour before Mr. Gabriel was killed, there was an exchange between him and [‘Julia’], and he was asking about a video game, and whether it was the right one that he should get.”
Infante also testified that the Roseville Police Department has license plate-reading technology positioned around its city. Some of Roseville’s neighborhoods lie between Rancho Cordova and Rocklin. Infante said that the scanners had gotten a “plate-hit” that matched Benson’s Mercedes within a timeframe that backed-up Julia’s memory.
Beyond that, when Julia was recounting how things went down, she’d mentioned to Infante that Benson took a collapsible baton with him. The distinct sound of a baton unfolding was caught by a surveillance mic. Julia also told the detective that Benson had hidden the pistol he’d murdered Gabriel with under a floor vent in his apartment. Julia had no way to know, but Sacramento sheriff’s investigators had already found a 9mm pistol stashed down in one of Benson’s floor vents. They had also found every single weapon, and tool, that Julia described as being used in her torture sagas, along with the collapsible baton.
Finally, Infante testified that a California Department of Justice criminalist had found blood stains inside Benson’s Mercedes. Julia had said her nose continued to spout blood over and over, as Benson kept hitting her in the face on the ride to Gabriel’s house.
During cross-examinations of Julia and Infante, defense attorney Brad Whatcott asked a lot of informational questions, though none appeared to undermine the basic testimony.
Leading up to the hearing on June 29, Benson was a problematic prisoner. In all but two out of ten court appearances that he needed to make he’d simply refused to come out of his cell.
As last week’s hearing began, Benson spent the morning in his white-and-orange jumpsuit, displaying an upbeat demeanor and even occasionally smiling. However, after listening to Julia’s testimony for hours, Benson had an incident with the jail staff during the lunch break. He’d reportedly stripped naked in his cell and was refusing to leave it. When the hearing resumed, Benson was brought back into the courtroom in a wheelchair, wearing only a black pair of shorts and a padded suicide vest. He immediately looked up towards Julia and the judge and said, “We had a misunderstanding.”
“Your Honor, that is the second time the defendant has tried to talk to the witness,” Moore stressed, forcefully.
Benson was relatively sedate for the rest of the afternoon. That is, until the proceeding’s end, when an attorney who represented Julia informed Judge Penney that Benson had been trying to call her from the county jail. Penny issued an order that blocked all contact with Julia, causing Benson to become visibly distraught – acting beside himself.
In the end, Moore summed up his case for the court, saying that Benson had destroyed two lives “when he planned with premeditation to execute Cameron Gabriel in his bedroom while he was at his most-exposed, with no way to defend himself,” and that “the bottom line is the domestic violence in the case was to punish [‘Julia’] for having a relationship with Cameron Gabriel, and for the purpose to get information about him, to commit premeditated murder.”
Moore finished on the note of what Julia had been through, emphasizing, “She has permanent scarring on her back in a manner to disgrace her Jewish heritage … If you want to talk about disfiguring a person of Jewish heritage, what more of a way would there be than to carve a swastika on them?”
The judge held Benson to answer on charges of murder, torture, aggravated mayhem (intentionally disfiguring a victim), inflicting corporal injury on a dating partner, false imprisonment by violence, and making criminal threats. He is scheduled to face a jury trial later this year.