Death Of A Snake Salesman
11:05 AM EDT on September 28, 2021
Robin Lehner’s passion for exotic animals got some attention last week when Las Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone told reporters that he found the veteran goalie literally digging for snakes in his backyard during a recent team party. The Las Vegas Review-Journal said the episode enhanced Lehner’s “reputation as the most interesting man” on the squad.
But digging holes at a party doesn’t come close to being the most interesting story involving Lehner and snakes. Lehner’s name also came up in a bizarre 2017 whodunnit following the murder of Ben Renick, a leading python breeder based in rural Missouri. That fantastical tale of reptile dysfunction allegedly featured adultery, embezzlement, poisoning, limbless incest and a spineless hit man, and lots of snakes—of both the caged and two-legged variety.
On June 8, 2017, police were called to the offices of Renick Reptiles, a snake-breeding operation in New Florence, Missouri, an agricultural community about 75 miles west of St. Louis. A breeder named Lynlee Renick told cops she’d just found the dead body of her husband, Ben Renick, the 29-year-old founder of the business and a celebrity among snake aficionados across America for peddling so-called “designer pythons,” pricey pets that sold for $15,000 and up. The snake king’s corpse was lying on the floor amid rows of cages containing several hundred of his prized creatures. And he had lots of bullet holes, including what a police report described as a “contact wound to the head.” In court filings, investigators with the Missouri State Highway Patrol said that “[n]othing was discovered to have been stolen during the commission of the crime,” and that led them to “suspect the killer was known to Renick.”
Robin Lehner was in the process of acquiring Renick Reptiles at the time of the murder. Lehner had agreed to buy the python-breeding portion of the business in early 2017 for $1.2 million, and according to court filings the hockey player still owed at least $600,000 to complete the sale. Lehner had associates staying on the property and working with the Renicks to help the transfer of the operation while he played hockey, but the murder disrupted those plans. Lehner stopped paying the estate when Ben Renick died, and lawsuits commenced. Renick’s lawyers alleged in one case that Lehner "stole a collection” of “pythons and anacondas” from the dead man’s business after the murder. The estate also sued in December 2018 to have Lehner’s associates evicted from the premises for non-payment. Lehner denied any wrongdoing in his legal response, and countersued the estate. In his legal complaint, Lehner argued that the agreement to buy the business was voided when Renick died and nobody else from the family provided proper care for the animals. With no qualified caretaker in charge, Lehner argued, the exotic animals “began breeding amongst one another in an unsupervised, uncontrolled manner,” and the incestuous behavior of the squamate saturnalia had diminished the value of the caged collection. Lehner demanded that the estate refund his payments and pay his legal bills.
Columbia ABC-TV affiliate KMIZ reported that Lehner and Renick’s estate settled the case in the summer of 2019, but no terms of the deal were included in court filings. (Lehner did not respond to requests for interviews about his snakes made through the Golden Knights' communication staff and his agent, Craig Oster.)
Lehner, who was playing for the Buffalo Sabres at the time of the killing, was never considered a suspect. Trouble was, while the goalie and the dead man’s estate battled it out in Missouri civil courts, local and state police couldn't find any suspects at all. As the investigation dragged on, the ugliest portions of the Renick family’s history were dug up.
Ben Renick’s father, Frank Renick, was a pet food magnate, as owner and operator of Spectrum Pet Care, Inc. He was also a con artist with lots of enemies. On Father’s Day in 2012, Frank Renick’s corpse was found with a bullet in his chest on the same property where Ben Renick’s bullet-ridden body would be discovered five years later. The elder Renick died during a criminal investigation into securities fraud and other financial crimes he was alleged to have committed. Less than two weeks before his death, he’d been indicted on federal mail fraud charges, amid accusations that Spectrum Pet Care was actually a Ponzi scheme. Prosecutors said Frank Renick had taken $7 million from dozens of Missouri investors and instead of putting the funds toward the business he had spent "substantial portions" of the kitty on vacations and assorted personal luxuries. He faced 60 years and jail and a $750,000 fine on the fraud counts related to that embezzlement. Frank Renick had also been involved in an insurance fraud case in the late 1990s, after the Renick family home was completely leveled by a massive and suspicious explosion. A federal court ruled in 1997 that the Renicks would not recover damages from the insurer, supporting its decision to deny coverage because “the explosion was intentionally caused by or at the direction of an insured.” Because of his shady past and the location of the fatal wound, there were suspicions Frank Renick had been assassinated as retribution for his shenanigans. But after an investigation, police eventually ruled Frank Renick’s death was an “apparent suicide,” and nobody was ever charged.
After Ben Renick’s death, some friends wondered whether the father and son’s demises were linked.
“I assumed that it was potentially a vendetta, related to the money the father had taken, and I think a lot of people assumed that,” says Sean Bradley, owner of Exotics By Nature, a breeder and vendor of rare reptiles based in Folsom, Louisiana, and longtime friend of the Renicks. “Friends of the family that were close to the incident, they told me the police weren’t doing very diligent investigations after Ben was killed, and because of the history of the father, they weren’t looking at it as hard as they could have.” (Ben and Lynlee Redick had both appeared on Bradley’s podcast, aimed at an audience of ball python enthusiasts, called BallShit.)
While Ben Renick followed his dad into the pet realm when he grew up, Bradley says, there’s no evidence he inherited any of his father’s fraudulent tendencies. “We were competitors, and if I had envy for any breeder in the business, it would have definitely been Ben,” Bradley says. “But you couldn’t have met a sweeter, nicer, more passive personality. He exhibited all the things you need to succeed in business. His death was a mega-loss for the industry. The whole time he was pulling money out of my pockets, I couldn’t not like him.”
Ben Renick’s peers remembered him as one of the good guys. "I think the world of Ben and his wife, Lynlee. They have always been exceptional folks in our industry," Robyn Markland, owner of a reptile-shipping business in Colorado, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after donating $6,000 to a fund for the Renick family. Bradley, too, was among the personalities in the reptile-retailing realm who sponsored fundraisers for Lynlee Renick and her children that raised a reported $40,000.
And the hunt for the killer went on. And on. But in early 2020, investigators got a break. An informant went to the Missouri State Highway Patrol and laid out an incredibly detailed story about the murder. According to the tipster, Lynlee Renick was the one who put a gun to Ben’s head and pulled the trigger as he tended to his animals, and she kept shooting as he fell.
The tipster, identified in a probable cause statement filed by cops only as “B.B.,” said Lynlee had been planning the killing for months, ever since Ben had gotten called by a local bank and told that his wife was failing to make assorted scheduled payments. Per the tipster, Ben thereby discovered she had been embezzling profits from the snake operation and funneling them to the Ascensia Spa, a failing massage business she’d opened in Columbia, Mo., about 50 miles from the New Florence compound. According to B.B., she figured Ben, whose family had already been shamed by an embezzler, would not put up with her "sucking money out of the business." Lynlee also feared Ben would take their children from her, the tipster said.
She had first tried killing him by lacing a protein drink with "an enormous amount of narcotics," B.B. said. But slipping him a mickey only made him ill for a day. Lynlee then allegedly decided to hire a hit man. She spent a night driving around Jefferson City, Mo., looking for a ne'er-do-well ex-boyfriend named Michael Humphrey, according to police. She eventually found Humphrey in a local trailer park, the probable cause filing says, and convinced him to do the dirty deed. Following Lynlee’s orders, said B.B., Humphrey brought gloves and a gun when he showed up outside the Renick's breeding barn on June 8, 2017; she had previously scheduled a "date night" with her husband for that night to make sure he'd be around for Humphrey to shoot. But according to B.B., Humphrey reneged at the last minute, telling Lynlee “that he did not feel comfortable doing it in case Lynlee later regretted the decision.” Humphrey allegedly handed over the gun and said that she’d have to kill Ben herself.
B.B. claimed that all the inside dirt he had on the murder came straight from the killer herself. He told cops he and Lynlee Renick were romantically involved for years, and had a child together in 2012, before she married Ben. He said they continued their relationship on and off during the Renicks’ marriage, and even hooked up after Ben’s murder. They ended the romance for good in mid-2019, mere months before he turned snitch.
B.B.’s tale was solid enough for Montgomery County prosecutors. Days after the Missouri State Highway Patrol filed its probable cause statement, Lynlee Renick and Michael Humphrey were both arrested and charged with first-degree murder in January 2020. Bail was set at $1 million apiece. Coincidentally, Ben Renick's brother, Sam Renick, told Court TV after the arrest that Ben had taken out a $1 million life insurance policy on himself not long before his murder. Sam Renick also hypothesized that the cash windfall from the sale of the python business to Lehner added motivation for his former sister-in-law to knock his brother off.
The alleged perpetrators will soon have their day in court, more than four years after Ben Renick's homicide. Humphrey is scheduled to go on trial on the murder charge on October 16. Lynlee Renick is on deck, with a December 6 court date. Because of the attention the arrests in the tabloid-friendly murder received around tiny New Florence (population: 726), their trials were moved out of Montgomery County. Humphrey's case will be heard in Audrain County; Lynlee Renick's trial will take place across the state in a Boone County courtroom.
Lynlee Renick’s attorney, Timothy Hesemann, says the state’s case is far weaker than the police filings indicate. “Our position is my client is innocent, and that the witnesses are not credible,” Hesemann told Defector.
In pre-trial filings in the murder case, Hesemann outed “B.B.” as a resident of Moberly, Mo., named Brandon Blackwell. And Boone County court records show that at the time he tagged Lynlee Renick as the mastermind of the assassination plot, Blackwell was involved in at least two adversarial court proceedings against her. Lynlee Renick had sued him for unpaid child support, and in May 2019, a family court sided with her and awarded her $760. Also in 2019, Lynlee Renick had sought and received a court order that prohibited Blackwell from having personal contact with her.
Hesemann recently divulged in court that Blackwell had been interviewed by police in 2017, shortly after Ben Renick’s killing, and at that time denied having any knowledge about who might have committed the crime. Blackwell changed his tune and gave police the story that Lynlee Renick had killed her husband, the tale recounted in the probable cause memorandum and that the prosecution's case seems largely based upon, while he was in jail without bond for violating that protection order. Blackwell, according to Hesemann, was granted his release just three days after giving the statement incriminating Lynlee Renick. Hesemann's request to depose prosecutors about how they made their deal with Blackwell, however, was denied by the court.
Sean Bradley says that he and all the snake people he knows are shocked by how the case turned. And as the trial approaches, he clearly has trouble believing both that Lynlee Renick did murder Ben Renick, and that she didn't.
“That just blindsided me,” says Bradley. “They were so public, going to [snake-breeding trade] shows together, and I was always incredibly envious of their relationship and ability to run a business together. I never ever felt like it would be her, like it would be like it is. I didn’t see this coming.”