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In the weeks before Julia Dardar was found dismembered in a deep freezer, surveillance cameras recorded Benjamin Beale buying the items that New Orleans police think were used to cut apart her body, including blades for a reciprocating saw and cleaning supplies, a detective testified Tuesday night.
Beale, 34, is accused of killing Dardar, whose body police discovered Jan. 11 cut into pieces and stashed in a freezer inside a bus at Beale’s Pauline Street house. Police found a bloodied saw with human flesh near the freezer, the detective testified during a preliminary court hearing in Beale’s case. An autopsy showed Dardar had been strangled and beaten.
Police also found ingredients and equipment used to produce meth inside Beale’s house. Investigators initially booked Beale on counts of obstruction of justice, operating a clandestine drug laboratory and distributing meth. On Jan. 14, after Dardar’s body was identified, they booked Beale on a count of second-degree murder, and a magistrate court commissioner set bail at $1.4 million.
Beale appeared alongside two attorneys at the preliminary hearing, which stretched past midnight at Orleans Parish Magistrate Court.
Detective Rayell Johnson told prosecutors that receipts and video surveillance tied Beale to a west bank hardware store, where Beale bought items suspected to have been used to cut up and store Dardar’s body. Johnson said Dardar’s head and hands had been cut off and placed in a plastic bag, next to her torso, in the freezer.
Johnson said the items were purchased about the time that Dardar’s estranged husband, Michael Dardar, reported her missing on Dec. 23. That was the second time in 2021 he had reported her missing, said detective Michael Flores, who also testified.
When police arrived to search Beale’s property, the suspect reportedly gave them a set of keys that unlocked the bus and a padlock on the freezer. Asked what he saw when he first opened the freezer, Flores said, “A horrific sight of a headless torso. And then I closed the lid.”
Propane tanks, stored inside a freezer in the house, were one clue that led police to think the place also functioned as a meth lab, Flores said.
But as prosecutors and witnesses sought to paint a picture of a clearheaded killing, defense attorneys William Sothern and Christopher Murell began to offer a less stable portrait, one in which Beale was prescribed antidepressants and antipsychotics, and was involuntarily committed to a mental health center.
Flores testified that the defendant’s mother, Zeal Beale, had described Benjamin Beale as a troubled person with a history of drug addiction.Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.
Zeal Beale briefly attended the court hearing but did not speak. She watched as Benjamin Beale was led into the courtroom in handcuffs, then left. Members of Dardar’s family, including two sisters and a niece, monitored the hearing via a video conferencing platform.
Hair swept into a low bun and a single silver hoop dangling from the left ear, Benjamin Beale took copious notes on a yellow legal pad during the hearing. The defendant spoke only to the defense attorneys.
In initial conversations with police, Benjamin Beale expressed concern for Dardar’s life, floating a hypothesis that Dardar, 36, might have committed suicide or overdosed and died. But Flores said Benjamin Beale did not “reflect the kind of emotional response” he would have expected from someone who suspected a friend and housemate was missing or dead. Benjamin Beale, he said, “wasn’t distraught” but was instead “matter of fact.”
Sothern and Murell argued there was insufficient evidence to hold Benjamin Beale on the current charges, including obstruction of justice.
But Assistant District Attorney Sarah Dawkins balked. “I can think of little more obstructive to the investigation of a death than the mutilation of the body,” she said. “Ms. Dardar didn’t mutilate her own body. She did not cut off her head and hands and place herself in a freezer.”
At the end, Magistrate Commissioner Albert Thibodeaux found probable cause for each pending charge.
Dardar reportedly moved in with Benjamin Beale in 2021. She had traveled with her housemate, who also goes by the name Kelley Kirkpatrick, as far as California to collect a bus that had once belonged to a devotee of Burning Man, an art and music celebration held annually in the Nevada desert. They reportedly bonded over their love of the free-spirited festival.
Police identify Benjamin Beale as male, but acquaintances say Beale uses nonbinary pronouns.
Neighbors have described Dardar as a nice person who was often seen alongside Benjamin Beale walking their dogs throughout the neighborhood. Others have described her as a former car mechanic with an artistic streak and doting mother to two daughters, now 13 and 17 years old.
A second-degree murder conviction comes with a life sentence, while an obstruction of justice conviction carries a maximum prison term of 40 years.
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