Crime & Courts

Weeks before wedding, Charlotte woman killed in burning home

Amanda Strous posted this picture on her Facebook page in February 2014.
Amanda Strous posted this picture on her Facebook page in February 2014.

A college counselor found dying in her burning apartment Saturday was killed by a man who lived in the same complex and who was captured Monday morning near Las Vegas, police said.

Shocked friends and family members tried on Monday to piece together any connection between Amanda Strous, 27, who was planning to get married next month, and Mathew Thomas Benner, 28, a field services representative for an air traffic control software company who police say confessed to the killing.

Even more troubling for those close to Strous: Why anyone would want to kill the ebullient former college athlete known for welcoming newcomers at Crossfit Pineville, where she was a regular and her fiance was a coach?

Benner was arrested in Nevada on Monday. His brother, Christopher Benner, a Las Vegas lawyer who said he was “addressing legal matters” for Mathew, declined to comment to the Observer.

Authorities in Nevada said Mathew Benner confessed to Strous’ killing after he was arrested outside a hotel where he’d asked to use the bathroom. He’s being held in Nye County jail, awaiting an extradition hearing. There’s no timetable on his return to Charlotte. Police have not released a motive in Strous’ killing, or said how she was connected to Benner.

Strous’ mother said Benner and Strous lived in the same apartment complex, The Enclave at Rivergate, but she said they weren’t romantically linked and she wasn’t sure how her daughter knew the man accused of killing her. A neighbor interviewed by the Observer at the apartment complex recalled seeing Strous and a man she believes to be Benner arguing loudly in a breezeway earlier this year. The neighbor said she couldn’t make out details of the conversation.

It’s unclear what, if any, connection that argument had to Benner’s killing.

Police were called to The Enclave around 5:30 p.m. Saturday by a neighbor who saw the fire. First responders took Strous to Carolinas Medical Center-Steele Creek, where she was pronounced dead.

Police announced Benner’s arrest about 40 hours later. Until Monday, records show, he had no criminal record.

‘The only weekend she was alone’

Amanda Strous’ Facebook page is filled with pictures of her with her fiance, Cory McCleaf. In one, they’re standing in front of a bridge, her hand on his chest, an engagement ring prominently displayed. Another shows him planting a kiss on her cheek as she wears a cap and gown and grips a college diploma.

Strous grew up in York, Pa., and went to college in Shippensburg, Pa., where she played field hockey from 2007 until 2010. She graduated with a degree in psychology and a minor in art. She met McCleaf during those years, starting a relationship that would ultimately bring her to Charlotte, friends said.

After graduation, she spent a year as an assistant coach at Hamilton College in New York. She returned to Shippensburg in 2012 to work as an assistant coach while studying for a master’s degree in counseling, according to a statement from the school.

She moved to Charlotte last year to be close to her fiance, and had worked for about six months as a student counselor at Central Piedmont Community College’s Harper Campus, off Nations Ford Road, college officials said. She helped students plan their academic paths.

Although Strous moved to Charlotte to be closer to her fiance, the couple chose to live separately until they were married.

Both Strous and McCleaf had roommates. Still, friends said the two were always together. McCleaf was a coach at Crossfit Pineville and Strous was a regular, there almost as often as her fiance, said owner Michelle Shuck.

Sometimes, they worked out together, Shuck said, especially on Saturdays when things were more relaxed. Other times, Strous would work out with women of a similar fitness level or try to help newcomers.

Strous “was super friendly, always smiling, joyous,” Shuck said. “She was a counselor, so she could talk to anyone. She was definitely empathetic and willing to lend an ear or help out.”

Staying in shape filled up a large chunk of Strous’ time, Shuck said. But the couple were also heavily involved in wedding planning.

The ceremony was weeks away. They planned to take vows on the last Saturday in July.

But last weekend, Strous had her apartment to herself. Her roommate was in Pennsylvania for a wedding, said Crystal Strous, Amanda’s mother. And McCleaf was in Maryland for a guys’ weekend with some of his groomsmen.

“This was the only weekend that she was alone down there,” Crystal Strous said.

Arrested without incident

Police haven’t detailed what they believe happened in Strous’ apartment on Saturday evening.

Firefighters were called to The Enclave at Rivergate, in the 12100 block of Toscana Way, at 5:36 p.m. Saturday. Strous was taken to Carolinas Medical Center-Steele Creek with what police described as pattern burns and was later pronounced dead.

About 35 hours later, around 4 a.m. on Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police advised the Nye County Sheriff’s Office that Benner was wanted on a murder charge and might be in the area.

The man they were looking for is a field service representative for Adacel, according to his LinkedIn page. The company produces aviation, speech recognition, defense simulation and security systems for governments and businesses, according to its website.

Investigators had tracked Benner’s cellphone to a location in Pahrump, Nev., about 60 miles east of Las Vegas. Deputies located Benner’s car parked at a Best Western and discovered that he had gone into the motel asking to use the bathroom.

Deputies found him asleep in his car and arrested him without incident. “An interview was conducted and confession obtained from Benner,” the Nye County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department detectives were en route to Las Vegas on Monday. Benner’s vehicle was towed away as evidence.

Benner’s family declined to comment. “There’s nothing that I can say right now,” Christopher Benner said on Monday.

‘Fly High’

Friends responded to news of Strous’ death with prayers and support for the family, including posts on Twitter using the hashtag #FlyHigh22. Her field hockey jersey at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania was No. 22.

A vigil was scheduled for 8:45 p.m. Monday in York, Pa. A page for the Strous family is raising money to help cover the family’s expenses.

Others planned to remember her with a bracelet that showed angel wings and #22. Proceeds from sales would be donated to the family.

Strous was the oldest of three children, and the only girl. She was competitive and athletic – a field hockey and soccer player.

But her competitive spirit was tempered by her regard for others, her mother said.

“She lived her life as graciously and as faith-filled as any parent could have asked for,” Crystal Strous said. “She was genuine and real and very compassionate. She was a wonderful listener.”

Shippensburg’s head coach, Bertie Landes, said in a memorial article that she still hears Strous’ voice and laughter.

“One life matters, and indeed, the life of Amanda Strous mattered to her teammates, friends, her family and her beloved Ship Family,” Landes said. “Her love, care and concern for each of us was reflected in her daily life while at Ship and in her move to North Carolina.

“Her memory will live in our hearts forever,” Landes said. “May the lessons she taught us through her passion for life guide us in the days ahead.”

Maria David contributed.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson