On Thursday, nearly four-and-a-half years after the body of exotic snake guru Ben Renick was found in a puddle of blood surrounded by hundreds of custom-bred cobras and anacondas, his former wife, Lynlee Renick, has been convicted of the killing in a Missouri courtroom.
The jury in Boone County Circuit Court found Lynlee guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action, lesser counts than prosecutors had lobbied for. The same jury recommended 13 years in prison for the murder and three years for the armed criminal action. Had she been convicted of first-degree murder, Missouri law would allow only for the death penalty or life without parole; even for the lesser charges, Lynlee was eligible for a sentence of life plus 15 years in jail.
Testimony during the three-day trial featured all the tales of awful humans behaving awfully that anybody who’d followed the case since Ben Renick’s June 2017 murder could have hoped for. Michael Humphrey, an ex-boyfriend of Lynlee’s, testified in a prison jumpsuit and shackles about offering her “a pep rally”—slang for a dose of methamphetamine, the jury was told—hours before the shooting to give her the gusto needed to carry out the dirty deed. A pair of Lynlee’s cold-as-ice co-workers and confessed co-conspirators, Rachel Hunt and Ashley Shaw, nonchalantly testified about spending workdays plotting with Lynlee to murder Ben, as if their on-the-job chatter was as normal as talking about last night’s ballgame. And Lynlee was said to have texted nude pictures of herself to Ben hours before he was killed, and also texted sweet nothings to one of her boyfriends hours after the shooting, from the parking lot outside the building where her husband’s shot up body lay.
Co-prosecutors Kevin Zoellner and Kelly King told the jury that greed was the main motivation for the murder. As Lynlee Renick plotted to do away with her husband, Zoellner said, she expected to get proceeds from a $1 million life insurance policy and $1.2 million from the bulk sale of ball pythons from the inventory of Renick Reptiles, the family business, to known snake enthusiast Robin Lehner, goalie for the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Hunt and Shaw were given immunity deals in exchange for their testimony. Hunt testified that in the days before the murder she talked with Lynlee during smoke breaks at Ascension Spa, a health spa in Columbia, Missouri, about how she could kill Ben Renick. Shaw, who helped Lynlee Renick run Ascension Spa, got complete immunity despite being the only person in the whole mess who ever confessed to attempting to murder Ben Renick. Shaw testified that she agreed to help in the murder plot after Lynlee told her Ben had been sexually abusive and that she feared her husband would leave her and end up with all the money and the kids. Shaw said that in late May 2017 she had ground up “12 to 15” Percocet pills, a potent opioid pain reliever, which Lynlee then put in a protein shake hoping to fatally poison her husband. When the drugs only left him drowsy and sick to his stomach, Shaw testified, she immediately helped Lynlee find a hitman. By surfing Casenet, an internet database of court records, they found Humphrey, who Lynlee had briefly dated about seven years before the killing. Two weeks after the poisoning episode, Ben was killed.
Humphrey was also given a deal by Zoellner to pin it all on his ex. He’d been convicted a month ago by a separate jury of first-degree murder for his role in killing Renick. Humphrey’s defense at that trial was that he knew nothing about any plan to commit murder. But Zoellner offered to throw out that verdict and knock Humphrey’s conviction down to second-degree murder, giving him the possibility of freedom some day. So after spending years denying his role in the crime, Humphrey suddenly produced the murder weapon, and recently directed investigators to the gun, hidden in a case stored behind the wall of another ex-girlfriend’s house.
Humphrey testified that Lynlee initially asked him to kill Ben. He said he declined that request, but agreed to give her a gun and go along with her to the snake compound in New Florence, Missouri, on the day of the murder. Humphrey said Lynlee walked up behind her husband and shot him repeatedly. Humphrey said he fled the scene as soon as the shooting started.
Shaw testified that as the killing was taking place and in the hours afterward, she used Lynlee’s phone to send texts and post Facebook messages using Lynlee’s account to help the murderer establish an alibi, as per the plan they cooked up.
Zoellner said that if the murder plot concocted by Shaw, Hunt, Humphrey, and Lynlee Renick seemed destined to fail and stupid, that’s because it was.
“Prisons are full of geniuses like this,” he said.
Defense attorneys Timothy Hesemann and Katherine Berger argued that Lynlee Renick never planned any murder, and only planned to tell Ben that she wanted out of her marriage on the day he was killed.
The defense alleged that Lynlee sought out Humphrey only to provide moral support and physical security if needed when she went to talk to Ben in the snake compound to say she was leaving him and ask for a divorce. The defense argued that Humphrey decided to kill Ben on his own after hearing Lynlee talk of her abusive marriage, hoping to gain the favor of an old flame. Humphrey brought the gun to the snake compound without telling Lynlee, she testified. She claimed she heard the shots but ran from the scene without looking to see how badly her husband was hurt.
“I walked up right behind Michael,” she testified, “and then Michael turned around, and I saw a gun in his hands, and I screamed and ran outside.”
The defense said that Lynlee would have been in better shape financially with her husband alive. Lynlee testified that Ben was one of the few breeders in the world who could offer albino green anacondas, which as babies can go for $25,000 apiece. After his death, a litter of the unique anacondas that would have sold for $250,000 went to waste, she told the court. The bulk sale of pythons to Lehner, she contended, was only in its early stages at the time of the murder. Renick’s death caused the hockey player to pull out of the agreement, so she made no money on the deal. Lynlee also testified despite the state’s contention otherwise, the $1 million from insurance went to a trust for the Renicks’ children, not to Lynlee.
The defense claimed that the poisoning story told by Ashley Shaw was made up, pointing out that Ben Renick never went to any doctor and there’s no evidence of Percocet purchases or drugs in his system. Shaw only went along with the poisoning story and everything else the prosecution wanted her to, Lynlee’s attorneys claimed, because she feared she would be arrested for having hidden what she knew about Michael Humphrey’s involvement in the killing.
The only time Lynlee appeared to be near cracking on the witness stand was when she was forced to admit that when police questioned her about the crime, she tried to direct police to investigate the dead man’s brother, Sam Renick.
“I told a lot of lies,” she said.
Given the not-guilty renderings on the most serious charges she faced, and the relatively light sentence recommendations for the crimes she was convicted of, the defense’s tactics appear to have worked on the jurors, who deliberated a day before delivering the verdicts. Judge Kevin Crane indicated he will follow those recommendations when he hands down final sentencing on January 24, 2022. Crane is blocked by state law from doling out a more punitive sentence. Lynlee repeatedly mouthed, “Thank you!” in the direction of the jury as Judge Crane read the proposed sentence.
Bobbette Tucker, identified as a family friend of Ben Renick, was less enthused by how the trial ended.
“It seems like in the state of Missouri, a person’s life is worth 13 years,” Tucker told the Columbia Daily Tribune.