Denise Benson grew concerned when it was reported in late February that the acrimonious split between her second cousin, Rita LeBlanc, and her uncle, Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson, had its roots in a Dec. 21 confrontation in which LeBlanc allegedly grabbed Benson’s wife, Gayle, by the shoulders and shook her.
The incident, according to witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity, happened in the Bensons’ suite at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints were playing the Falcons.
But Denise Benson was at that game, and she recalls the matter differently.
She was “2 or 3 feet away” from the confrontation between LeBlanc and Gayle Benson, but she did not see LeBlanc forcefully grab or shake the other woman, Denise said in an interview with The New Orleans Advocate on Tuesday.
While LeBlanc had her hands on Gayle Benson’s arms at one point, Denise said, it appeared to her that LeBlanc was just trying to keep Gayle’s attention during a discussion about Renee Benson, LeBlanc’s mother.
Denise Benson, who works in the Houston area, said she has been heartbroken as she has watched the bitter legal dispute pitting Tom Benson against Renee Benson and her children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc.
Denise said she has “no financial gain or loss” at stake in the clash that became headline news in January. She said she decided to speak out about the Dec. 21 incident — cited by some as the precipitating event that set in motion Benson’s attempts to cut Renee, Rita and Ryan out of his billion-dollar business empire — simply because she hopes to set the record straight on “my family and my blood.”
“All I got at stake in this is my family,” Denise said. “The whole thing is just very unfortunate. I’m sad, and I’m in shock.”
Denise is the daughter of Tom Benson’s brother, Augustine Charles “A.C.” Benson, who died in 1983 at age 52. As she tells it, she was a guest in the Bensons’ suite on the 400 level of the Superdome when she spotted Rita LeBlanc and Gayle Benson having a one-on-one talk in a breezeway before kickoff.
Denise said she overheard LeBlanc saying to Gayle Benson something to the effect of, “Hey, I care about you. I care about (Tom Benson). But I’m worried about my mom.”
Benson’s now-spurned heirs have accused Gayle Benson of keeping them in the dark about the family patriarch, who had recently undergone numerous medical procedures.
During the verbal exchange, “Rita was facing Gayle (and) holding on to her arms, really just to keep her ... focused,” said Denise, who noted she was observing the event alongside Ryan LeBlanc, who was seated on a nearby couch.
“It was in no way aggressive — she wasn’t holding her tight,” Denise added. “Gayle was free to walk away if she wanted to. ... It was nothing disrespectful, and no way did she shake her.”
After the game, in which the Saints were eliminated from qualifying for the 2014 NFL playoffs, Denise said she watched Rita kiss both Tom and Gayle Benson goodbye.
The first public hint that the Dec. 21 confrontation might have had significant ramifications came in a courtroom in Texas, where Tom Benson owns several businesses. On Feb. 4, while on the witness stand, Renee testified that during the Saints-Falcons game in New Orleans, Rita had begged Gayle to permit Renee to see Tom Benson, her father.
Meanwhile, Phillip Wittmann, a lawyer for Benson, asserted in that same hearing that Rita said “some very unpleasant things to Gayle” and shouted profanities that day.
Less than a month later, nola.com published a report citing two anonymous Saints and Pelicans employees who said they saw Rita grab Gayle by the shoulders and repeatedly shake her on Dec. 21. Dennis Lauscha, president of the two sports franchises, eventually “restored order to the situation,” nola.com reported.
Lauscha did not respond to a message sent to him by The New Orleans Advocate after nola.com published its report.
A Saints and Pelicans spokesman declined an opportunity to comment Tuesday.
Randy Smith, the lead attorney for Renee Benson and her children, has consistently denied that Rita and Gayle ever had a physical altercation. Denise Benson said she recently decided to publicly back his version of events because she felt the situation had “gotten blown out of proportion.”
“I love my uncle; I love my cousins; and I hope my family can work this out,” said Denise, who is confident she witnessed the same confrontation that nola.com’s sources described.
The twice-widowed Benson, 87, revealed Jan. 21 that he had decided he wanted Renee, Rita and Ryan — once tapped to be his heirs — to have nothing more to do with his businesses. He said he wants Gayle, his third wife, to assume control of everything when he dies.
Since then, both sides have launched a number of civil actions in various courthouses in New Orleans and Texas.