Benjamin Amato Murder: What Happened to Cheryl Ann Kunkle?

Image Credit: Pocono Record

Investigation Discovery’s ‘Heart Of Darkness: Murder In The Poconos’ follows the brutal murder of 52-year-old Benjamin Amato inside his Effort, Pennsylvania, residence in mid-November 2001. The homicide went unsolved for almost a decade before another double murder cracked the investigation open, leading to the arrest and conviction of Benjamin’s murder.

How Did Benjamin Amato Die?

Benjamin Joseph Amato AKA Ben was born to Lee Amato in Brooklyn in Kings County, New York, on September 19, 1949. He was a retired sanitation department mechanic from New York City who moved to Effort in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, in the early 1980s. He lived in his residence on 69 Sundance Drive, Lenape Hills, in November 2001. His partially incapacitated mother, Lee, lived two lots nearby at Sunnybrook Farms in Chestnuthill Township. Ben was married for 13 years to a woman he met in 1985, with two daughters.

He was very close with his two stepdaughters — Margaret Bohmann and Erin Stenger — and had their names on the deed with him as co-owners of his Sundance Drive home. After his divorce, Ben remained busy with his construction business and often volunteered for the fire department. The girls described Ben as nice and kind, thus earning the moniker “gentle bear” or “papa bear.” Hence, it was shocking when the police found the 52-year-old’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs in his Chestnuthill Township home on November 16, 2001.

According to the show, one of Ben’s concerned neighbors had called 911 after he got no answer despite repeatedly knocking on Ben’s door. He asked for a welfare check, and the Pennsylvania State Police went out to Ben’s home at the neighbor’s request. The officers entered the house through the garage and found his body at the bottom of the stairs inside a utility room. His autopsy report revealed he had suffered severe head trauma — the skull fractured in three different areas. The coroner believed Ben had been beaten with either a baton or a baseball bat.

Who Killed Benjamin Amato?

The initial investigation deduced Ben might have accidentally fallen down the stairs or died by suicide. The hypothesis was further confirmed when his stepdaughters informed the police about his battle with clinical depression for years and how he had attempted suicide twice already. However, an in-depth study of the crime scene dismissed that theory. The officers found a boot print at the top of the stairs, which did not match Ben’s sneakers. They also discovered an orange stain, which came from a mace, on the walls.

Image Credit: Pocono Record

The most damning evidence against the suicide theory was the over three dozen impact spots on the walls. The damage signified the murder weapon was blunt-headed — most probably a baseball bat or a baton. Based on the evidence, the police believed the attacker had been waiting for Ben, who had gone to buy medicines from a CVS pharmaceutical store. The presence of a CVS bag beside the body confirmed their hypothesis. The investigators also discovered Ben’s wallet, holding about $1,000 in cash, had not been stolen.

While the authorities initially thought Ben possessed limited financial means, they were shocked to discover he and his mother, then 85, owned $500,000, mostly in cash or liquid assets. His ex-girlfriend, Cheryl Ann Kunkle, told the investigators he always conveyed he lived on Social Security. The investigators pored over the records of Ben’s assets, hoping to find a motive for his murder. They found he rented a safe deposit box at the Brodheadsville branch of East Stroudsburg Savings Association, though it offered no additional clues.

The detectives looked through checking accounts, stocks, bonds, and real estate investment trusts in brokerage accounts, bank certificates of deposit, savings accounts in four area banks, plus U.S. Savings Bonds worth $76,000. However, they made a breakthrough when they discovered Cheryl had filed a home invasion report three months before the murder. The authorities interviewed the people she named in the complaint — April Steinhauser, who previously dated Cheryl’s brother, and her erstwhile boyfriend, Nathaniel Evans.

However, April alleged Cheryl had asked her and Nathaniel to kill Ben, allegedly offering them $1,500 upfront and another $1,500 after the job was done. However, the duo took the money, broke into Ben’s home, stole the safe box where he kept his cash, and fled without killing him. A furious Cheryl reported them to Pocono Mountain Regional Police Officer Marty Reynolds, whom she was dating then. Nathaniel threatened Cheryl he would inform the police about her murder plot, and a scared Cheryl left them alone.

The detectives ruled out Nathaniel as a suspect since he was in prison on unrelated charges when the crime occurred. Marty was also dismissed since his boot mark did not match the one on the stairs. The investigators focused on Cheryl and discovered she had a son, Jonathan Kunkle, with Ben and was embroiled in a custody battle in the months leading up to the killing. Meanwhile, Cheryl provided a tape recording to the police where April recanted her statements against her.

With no suspects or evidence, the case went cold till May 2004, when the Pike County police investigated a double homicide. They discovered the bodies of Kristin Fisher, 17, with a noose around her neck, and her 7-month-old daughter, Kaylee. The investigation revealed Gregory Rowe was the biological father of the slain infant. When they arrested Gregory as a suspect in the murders, he revealed he was the elder son of Cheryl and told the officers how his mother had confessed to him about killing Ben.

Where is Cheryl Ann Kunkle Now?

Cheryl was already in prison after being sentenced in 2004 for tampering with evidence and obstructing police while they investigated her son for the murders. Gregory, then 19, testified in her December 2005 trial how he was 15 in November 2001 and drove her mother to Ben’s residence on the night of the murder. He waited in a nearby wooded area for an hour before again picking her up.

He claimed she got in the back seat and changed her clothes, throwing the old clothes and a baseball bat through the window as they drove on Route 715. After the police questioned Cheryl about Ben’s death, Gregory confronted her, and she allegedly admitted to him about spraying Ben with a mace before beating him to death with a bat. Self-employed mason Gerard Terlesky also testified how Cheryl later made him drive her back to Route 715 and retrieve the items she dumped.

He alleged she burned the clothes in a plastic bag in a field behind her father’s Effort house and the bat in the woods off Hypsy Gap Road in Chestnuthill Township. Based on witness testimonies and circumstantial evidence, Cheryl was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole in June 2007. She appealed against her sentence but was turned down in 2016. The 54-year-old is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Cambridge Springs.

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