Cayuga Heights, N.Y. — A well-known local. A Buddhist. The son of a man who was a high school principal. A worker at a daycare center who was great with kids.

Why I shop downtown — Naomi

[fvplayer src=”https://vimeo.com/112526950″ loop=”true” mobile=”https://vimeo.com/112526950″]

These are the associations that once came first to mind for those who know Benjamin Cayea, 32.

What Cayea’s friends and acquaintances said they never expected was the latest label now attached to the Newfield High School graduate: murderer. Cayea was arrested after strangling Cornell undergraduate Shannon Jones to death on Thanksgiving Day, according to law enforcement. He later reportedly admitted to the killing.

Benjamin Cayea

Cayea has been charged with murder in the second degree and sent to the Tompkins County Jail. Jones, 23, was Cayea’s girlfriend, records and friends say. The killing followed a fight, police records show.

Cayea and Jones had argued in the weeks leading up to the death. But news of Cayea’s arrest and charges came as a complete surprise to many of his friends.

“Ben was a great guy in a lot of ways. He had some eccentricities, but lots of people do,” said Ruben Arce. “This was completely unexpected.”

“I never thought he would hurt Shannon. That wasn’t even on my radar.”

Nikki Sayward had a similar reaction.

“He struck me as a little bit intense, but nothing too out of the ordinary, you know?,” Sayward said. (Sayward emphasized that she wasn’t best friends with either Jones or Cayea, noting: “It seems so hard to estimate how far someone can take an intensity or frustration without knowing them incredibly well.”)

Related: Family, friends, teachers mourn death of bright Cornell student

The apartment where the killing occurred. Photo from police records
The Westview Apartments on Sunday. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)
The exterior of the building

Cayea has worked at a bar in downtown Ithaca and at a local daycare center that has since closed, according to several friends. (14850.com also reported that Cayea worked in food service and childcare.)

One parent, who The Voice agreed to let speak on the condition of anonymity because he or she was speaking about a sensitive matter related to a child, said that Cayea was a trusted daycare worker in town.

“He once took care of a bunch of our kids who loved him. We trusted him, obviously,” the parent said.

“What makes someone one day snap that you trusted to watch kids? … I did see clues of his anger under the surface. But murder?”

Born July 31, 1982, Cayea was the youngest of three siblings who attended Newfield High School and the son of the high school’s former principal, according to Vanessa Ponton.

Ponton, who graduated from Newfield High School in 1994, said she knew Cayea’s siblings and thinks that Benjamin Cayea is the only one who remains in the Ithaca area.

“It was shocking,” Ponton said of learning about the murder on Friday. “It was the kind of family where you thought they had everything together, and then — boom. He’s in the newspaper.”

(A current school official and another Newfield High School graduate, class of 1995, confirmed that Cayea’s father was the school’s principal.)

The Voice was unable to find any criminal or civil court records for Cayea prior to the Thanksgiving Day incident. His name does not show up in the archives of The Ithaca Journal or The Ithaca Times, the federal court registry or in the Tompkins County civil court database.

Nobody answered the door of the last two public addresses listed in the city of Ithaca to Cayea’s name. A few neighbors at those addresses said they hadn’t heard of Cayea.

Police say the murder occurred at 400 Triphammer Road in Apartment 2-D of the Westview Apartments, near Cornell’s north campus, sometime around 7 p.m.

Records show that Cayea got in Jones’ car after the slaying and drove to the Newfield home of Jacob Ives, a friend of Cayea’s for 17 years. Ives later told police that Cayea is a Buddhist.

“Because of his religion, I thought him incapable of violence,” Ives said, according to police records.

Reached by The Voice on Sunday, Ives said he didn’t want to be interviewed about Cayea. But he called the death a “terrible tragedy” and said his thoughts were with Jones’ family.


From the advocacy center:

“There is a local 24 hour hotline that people can call if they are concerned about their own relationship or about a friend or family members.  Our hotline number is 607.277.5000 and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

From Cornell:

“Support services are available to all members of the Cornell community. Students may consult with counselors from Gannett Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155.

Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program at 607-255-2673. The Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.”


Follow The Ithaca Voice on Facebook | Twitter

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.