‘Law & Order’ Actress Says Magician Ex Stalked and Assaulted Her, Maimed Her Pets
Diane Neal, who played prosecutor Casey Novak on “Law and Order: SVU,” is accusing her celebrity magician ex-boyfriend of physical and sexual abuse—and of hurting her pets.
The first time actress Diane Neal saw the illusionist, she was at a ski resort in frosty Park City, Utah, in December 2013. Neal had come for the 22nd Deer Valley Celebrity SkiFest, an annual fundraiser for Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Waterkeeper Alliance, involving several celebrity-themed events—Celebrity Poker Night, celebrity slalom races, a gala dinner, and a celebrity auction. This year, word had spread of a celebrity magician. Neal remembers her friends asking, “Did you know the world’s best magician is here and he’s doing a secret show in the private library?”
One night at dinner, RFK Jr. approached Neal. The auctioneer hadn’t shown up for the auction, he said. Could she improvise and take bids? Neal, a natural fast-talker who played prosecutor Casey Novak in Law & Order: SVU for 11 years, agreed. She climbed onstage and helped raise $700,000 from stars like Dr. Oz, Cheryl Hines, Rachel Dratch, Jason Alexander, and Miranda Lambert.
As Neal vamped on stage, she won an admirer in the crowd that night: JB Benn, the so-called world’s best magician, who happened to be at a front table with her friends. A few days later, Neal prepared to leave the five-star resort, chatting with a group of her friends. Benn approached her and interrupted. “He’s very ballsy,” Neal recalls. “He’s like, ‘Hi, do you live in New York or L.A.?”
The magician was cute, the actress thought. He wore a dapper ski outfit, and seemed brave, flirting in front of her friends. “Didn’t seem like a weirdo,” Neal said.
In a scene more rom-com than police procedural, Neal’s friends cheered noiselessly behind him, pointing and mouthing, “That’s the magician! Say yes! Say yes!” Neal, newly dating and in the middle of a divorce, told Benn, “Get my number from one of the ladies. I’ve got to go.”
Within two months, Benn—who is friends with Hollywood A-listers and has family ties to the industry—was practically living with Neal at her New Jersey brownstone with her three small dogs. “It was romantic,” Neal says. “It was a different kind of romance. It wasn’t like hot-fire passion. But it was sweet and it was simple.”
But Neal now believes Benn’s love for her was more illusion than magic. According to litigation that started last year, she claims Benn was a dangerous con artist who targeted her, isolated her, physically and sexually abused her, and worked to dismantle her career.
The accusations on both sides read like a saga ripped from a Law & Order episode. In an amended complaint filed Tuesday against Benn as part of a nearly two-year court battle, the 43-year-old actress describes him as a “manipulative and maniacal fraudster” who allegedly “defrauded her of millions” and “violently inflicted emotional distress” on her via “a campaign of isolation, terror and (physical and sexual) assault, and destroyed her reputation by doing so.”
According to Neal’s lawsuit, Benn refused to put her on the title to a secluded home they purchased together in upstate New York; sent emails and text messages impersonating her to her friends and entertainment contacts; threatened her; abused her; and intentionally harmed her pets.
In the complaint, Neal says the magician slashed her beloved toy poodle’s throat, and told her that a cat caused the injury. Benn, the complaint says, also allegedly “bragged that he ‘bashed the cat’s brains in.’” (Neal told The Daily Beast her feline vanished while it was nursing kittens.)
On another occasion, Neal’s lawsuit states, she awoke to Benn sexually assaulting her while appearing to record the act on his cellphone. This alleged attack came days after Neal broke up with Benn in March 2018.
In a January 2019 affidavit filed at an earlier stage of the litigation, Benn called Neal’s accusation of sexual assault “completely false and outrageously interposed as a tactic to cloud the fact that, on the merits, [Neal] has no entitlement to the relief she seeks.” Neal “will say whatever she believes is necessary to gain sympathy and to support her ongoing vendetta against me,” Benn stated.
“I fear that as this lawsuit progresses, [Neal’s] accusations will grow increasingly outlandish, and will be even less tethered to the supposed matter at issue here—the ownership of the [upstate] property,” he added.
Benn denied Neal’s other accusations in court filings, chalking them up to a “bad breakup” that Neal was supposedly molding into a real-estate dispute. “The only thing that [Neal’s] papers prove is that she is so beholden to her anger over our failed relationship that she will swear to anything, without regard to the truth, to paint me in a false light and to try get [sic] from this court what she wants...”
On April 1, Benn was arrested by state troopers for misdemeanor stalking. A criminal complaint, filed in Ulster County by New York State Police, states Benn attempted to “initiate unwanted contact with Diane Neal via email on 3/15/19 and 3/23/19 causing harm to the mental and emotional health of Diane Neal.” Benn also allegedly drove past her residence seven times in 15 minutes while Neal was in her driveway, and showed up at the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office while she was there, “causing Neal to fear for her life,” according to the charging document.
When a Beast reporter approached the 44-year-old Benn in court on Tuesday—where he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a noncriminal violation, in a deal that came with $200 in fines and fees, and a two-year order of protection for Neal—he declined to comment. (Neither he nor his attorneys returned multiple messages left by The Daily Beast.)
Diane Neal says her “high tolerance” for eccentricity comes from her upbringing and the entertainment industry. “The business is very weird. People that are the best at what they do are extra-tasty crispy weird. And then—you’re a magician, you’re even weirder,” she said of her initial attraction to Benn. “The image he was putting forth, I understood on a cellular level.”
Neal trends eccentric herself, boasting a long résumé as an actress, commercial model, stand-up comic who once opened for Louie Anderson in Vegas, amateur archeologist, and independent congressional candidate in New York’s 19th District. The 5-foot-10-inch actress has a shock of red hair, a husky voice, and a labyrinthine storytelling instinct, prone to digressing into side tangents on her Jewish-Mormon upbringing, her extensive list of celebrity friends (she says Fred Armisen based an SNL character off her), and her knowledge of biblical archaeology.
As a self-described nerd growing up in Colorado, “no one spoke to me in high school unless they needed their homework done,” she said. “I would literally go home from school and hang out in my closet and write treatises on the state of the American educational system.”
The actress was 16 when her parents shipped her off to Brigham Young University-Hawaii. Her father, a federal attorney, and her mother, a math teacher, converted to Mormonism after an older sibling died of cancer. Neal dropped out of BYU, where she says she studied astrophysics, not long after another elder sister entered her into a modeling contest.
Months later, she was signed with IMG, lived in Japan, and traveled across Europe, but felt modeling was a bore. “All I ever wanted to do was go to school, so everything I was doing was just to make money to go to school,” she said. She spent one semester with BYU in Egypt and Israel and returned home to find a pamphlet for Atlantic Theater Company Acting School—founded by playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy—on her dining room table. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I cannot believe people get paid for this,” she said. “Game on.’”
Neal’s first Law & Order: SVU break came in the 2001 episode “Ridicule,” in which she played a suspect accused of raping a male stripper. She returned to the show two years later, replacing prosecutor Alexandra Cabot, played by Stephanie March. “I was all these other people and then became [the character] Casey [Novak]. I loved Casey,” Neal said. “She was fierce and she was intense.”
Neal Baer, a showrunner on SVU for 11 years, told The Daily Beast that Diane Neal’s acting chops impressed series brass, so they hired her following March’s departure. “I’ve always been a fan of hers. She’s really bright,” Baer said. “I think the intelligence is really critical. She is smart and sharp and fair.”
“I could count on her to be there on time, to know her lines, and to act really well,” Baer told The Daily Beast. “There were never problems as to her performing.”
One actress, Alisha McKinney, lauded Neal in a 2006 essay about her SVU appearance for the Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas. McKinney was struggling with a simple scene: opening a door and delivering her line to Novak. “You know, on my first day I thought I was going to poop my pants. Honest to God, I didn’t think I was going to make it… [Neal’s] generosity and sense of fun were infectious—it was clear the crew adored her,” McKinney wrote.
Neal’s last appearance as an SVU regular came in 2008, during a Season 9 subplot in which ADA Novak was censured for Brady violations. Neal said she learned she was being axed from the series via the makeup room’s tabloids. “It was a surprise to me that I was being let go. No one called me,” she said. (NBC declined to comment for this article, while a source close to the show said, “It would be accurate to say that Diane was a valuable member of the family for a long time.”)
In 2009, Neal decided to go back to college, enrolling at Harvard's Extension School. She returned to SVU for five episodes in 2011 and 2012, before going on to play Special Agent Abigail Borin in NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans, star in Hallmark drama This Magic Moment, and make a steady stream of smaller appearances on shows like Suits and Power.
Neal said she empathizes with those considered socially awkward, off-beat, misunderstood. It was with this mindset that she embarked on a first date, arriving to a friend’s ugly sweater Christmas party with an enigmatic magician.
JB Benn specializes in what he calls organic magic. “Our magic,” Benn told Philstar Global of his 2004 series Mondo Magic “is organic.” He’s said variants of this same quote countless times. “What I love about the magic we do,” he told The Malaysian Star in 2006 for a Singaporean reboot of the same program, “is that it is organic.”
For Benn, organic means showing up with nothing—no props, no cape, no assistant—and crafting deceptions from whatever is available. “I can show up at somebody’s house and have nothing with me,” Benn says in his website bio. “I can borrow a cup. If I went into your kitchen and took a big coffee mug and told you to stare at this thing you’re used to seeing every day, then I lifted a grapefruit out from underneath it, well, people have been known to run out of their houses.”
It’s a fitting specialty for a man who now stands accused of actually forcing someone from their house. Benn declined to be interviewed for this article, as did a few of his friends, including the artist Chuck Close. But those that did speak with The Daily Beast said the magician is somewhat organic himself—appearing to come from nothing and divulging little about his family, childhood, or social world, even with those close to him.
“I have never met his mom and stepfather, despite asking numerous times,” Neal wrote in a timeline of their relationship submitted to local authorities. “He has never, since the first few weeks, ever spoken about his sisters again… He never talks about friends... About past friendships, I only heard about how the other person blew them up.”
One neighbor who sees Benn on a regular basis in upstate New York echoed Neal’s analysis. “I don’t even know that he has any friends,” the neighbor said. “He lives in that house by himself without any furniture. There’s not one piece of furniture in that house except for the bedroom.”
Even the opening of Benn’s personal TV series, Magic Man, which ran on the Travel Channel in 2013, reveals stunningly little about its star. “I’m JB Benn and I’ve traveled to some of the most exotic and remote destinations in the world,” Benn recites in the opening credits. “But the way I experience traveling is through magic, and the way people from all different backgrounds react when they see something amazing, something unreal.” The voice-over plays behind photos of Benn in “exotic” locations as anonymous audience members croon: Are you real? You are awesome! Get out! Throughout the show’s eight, 20-minute episodes, that’s pretty much all the bio you get.
But from interviews, court documents, and research, it’s possible to piece together a rough outline of Benn’s personal history. The magician is a short, unremarkably handsome man with a substantial collection of hiking boots—a dead ringer for George Stephanopoulos, if he wore more surf clothes instead of suits. According to Neal, his mother, a Dutch woman named Vera Krijn, met his father, an older man from Baghdad named Charles Benn, in Spain. They married, had Benn in 1975, and split when he was a toddler. Not long later, the magician then moved to New York with his mother, where she remarried a man named William Wood Williamson and sent Benn to boarding school. (Krijn and Williamson did not respond to requests for comment.)
By Neal’s account, the magician was not close with his mother, father, or stepfather, but he did admire his stepfather’s brother, Robert “Bob” Williamson. Williamson was a diminutive man with Coke-bottle glasses, a fascination with beetles, a photographic memory (he could recite long swaths of Finnegans Wake off-hand), and no job. As a young man, Williamson had worked at a textbook publishing house, but he quit when he met his wife, the model and actress Lauren Hutton. From then on, Williamson’s job was managing Hutton and her finances—his hold over her was so intense and unwavering the actress nicknamed him “Bob God.” While Williamson served as her accountant, Hutton estimates she once netted some $35 million. But in a 2001 Vanity Fair interview, the model revealed that after Williamson’s death, she discovered he had squandered her fortune away on girlfriends and the stock market, leaving her with nothing. (In the same sitting, Hutton also claimed Williamson had pressured her not to have kids and spread rumors she was gay. She did not respond to requests for comment on Benn.)
According to Neal, Benn knew Williamson as a charismatic traveler, always off on some adventure, who had helped him move to New York and pursue a career in magic. Once in New York, Benn has claimed in several articles, he trained under René Lavand, an Argentinian magician with one arm who was well-known for his mastery of “close-up magic.” Lavand specialized in intimate, meticulous sleights of hand—his catchphrase was: “It cannot be done any slower.” Benn adopted that style, and by at least Hutton’s account, he wasn’t too bad at it. One of Benn’s older work bios cited a quote of hers in Women’s Wear Daily: “I’m from the South,” Hutton allegedly told him. “Where I’m from, they’d burn you for being able to do that!"
Benn’s career started with some luck. According to a 2013 article in the South Africa Sunday Tribune, the young magician performed his first show in 1991 at age 16, when he walked into a random restaurant in Gramercy Park, picked a table, flipped some cards, disappeared some silver coins—and then realized his audience was The Cars frontman Ric Ocasek and Czech model Paulina Porizkova.
In the years since, Benn has had several celebrity run-ins. The magician’s website cites a motley crew of high-profile endorsements, from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, to filmmaker J.J. Abrams, to masked singer Sia, to Moby. “I’ve seen JB do magic at least 250 times,” Moby said, according to Benn’s website, “and each time I’m just as stunned as the last. Some of his magic shouldn’t be possible, and it makes my brain hurt in the best possible ways.” (All but Schmidt confirmed their quotes to The Daily Beast; Moby declined to explain how, exactly, he came to see Benn 250 times.)
It’s hard to say how Benn broke into the fringes of Hollywood, but he did have some TV exposure himself. In 1995, Benn made a cameo appearance in the Harrison Ford remake of Sabrina, playing a dinner party magician. In 2004, he got a bigger break co-starring alongside magician Chris Korn in A&E’s Mondo Magic, where the pair performed street magic in different countries. The show got mixed reviews in the magic community (“I feel JB Benn’s performance skills lack,” one guest user wrote on a Genii forum). Some critics even devised a drinking game for Benn’s awkward tics, at times nervous or intense: “Every time Benn takes someone by the arm and drags them to a different location or camera angle (seemingly against their will),” user Dave1216 wrote on a Magic Cafe forum, “you drink.”
But the show did well enough to get renewed for a second season, this time funded by the Singapore Tourism Board to air on AXN-Asia. Mondo Magic Singapore, which debuted in 2006, is a wild ride of mid-aughts graphics, time-lapse montages of crowded streets, and fairly generic magic tricks. Still, it ranked “Highly Commended in the Best Entertainment Program” at the 2006 Asian Television Awards.
In the following years, Benn worked corporate gigs and private events, racking up a client list of names like Warren Buffet, Bono, Oprah, Nelson Mandela, Donna Karan, HBO, Goldman Sachs, and Vanity Fair. In 2013, Benn returned to cable again, this time as the star of his own series, Magic Man. The Travel Channel production was nearly identical to Mondo Magic, but with more domestic destinations—like Miami and San Francisco. (While performing at the Giants’ baseball stadium, one player told Benn to “quit looking at me with the creepy face.” Later, after Benn performed a card trick in his mouth, the player added: “That’s kinda creepy, I can tell ya.”)
The series did well enough that, the same year, Fox ordered a reality special called Unreal With JB Benn, where he would perform for celebrities, touring star-studded events, and pulling coins out of famous ears. It was Unreal that brought Benn to the Deer Valley Celebrity SkiFest in December 2013. And it was there that Benn laid eyes on a red-haired woman in a strapless black dress named Diane Neal.
The year leading up to the Park City meet-cute in 2013 was laden with challenges for Neal. That May, she fractured her spine in a car wreck with an uninsured drunk driver in Los Angeles. The motorist sued her, she claims, even though she says she wasn’t at fault. She was also in the midst of an acrimonious divorce with her former husband, Irish model Marcus Fitzgerald, and her lawyer advised her to move from Studio City back to the East Coast. She’d been renting out her renovated brownstone in Jersey City, only to discover the tenants had allegedly caused thousands of dollars in damages, leading to more litigation.
“It was the first time I remember being exhausted. The first time I remember being depleted,” Neal told The Daily Beast. Benn became “the most comfortable place in what had become a very uncomfortable life,” Neal recalled. “It was sweet and comfortable and it was easy. He would just listen and talk.” They escaped the high-octane world of stardom, laying in bed watching Netflix with her dogs—Winnie and Father Ted, two toy poodles, and Charlie the Maltipoo.
While Neal traveled for NCIS, Benn would stay at her Jersey City home and watch the pups. Although Benn owned an apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, he stayed at her townhouse almost full-time. Looking back now, Neal claims Benn enjoyed “unfettered access” to her home office, her computer, and even her finances.
Two months into their budding relationship, Benn talked about moving upstate. He would also tell her “the world’s craziest stories,” she says, though she recalls he seemed to have photos to back them up. “So he would tell me, after Bob [Williamson] died, he wandered around Papua New Guinea for like a year,” Neal said. “He goes to this tribe and does all this magic. They want to kill him and then they want him to run for parliament representing them eventually.”
Neal said Benn didn’t seem to have many friends and didn’t invite her to visits with his family. Within the first two years of dating, Neal claims she only met Benn’s godmother, the writer Jane Lancellotti—who’s married to Dexter showrunner Clyde Phillips—and his friend, artist Michael Kramer. One New Year’s was spent at Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany’s place in Vermont. “But no one there really knew him. He was there to do magic,” Neal said. Benn would also send Neal pictures while visiting Moby’s house, and “Sia would call and be like, ‘Hey can you do the wedding? I got your number from Moby.’” (Neither Lancellotti, Phillips, Kramer, Connelly, nor Bettany responded to requests for comment.)
The longer the relationship went on, Benn became more entangled in Neal’s friendships and business affairs. If a friend was trying to reach her, they’d call Benn and he’d say “Oh, Diane’s on set. Just tell me and I’ll pass it on.” But he never relayed the messages, Neal says. Sometimes, he’d tell her friends that Diane was suicidal, homicidal, and an alcoholic, and he needed to get her help.
According to Neal, the couple planned to move upstate, putting offers on homes as early as June 2014. That fall, according to Neal’s lawsuit, Benn was “aware of Neal’s considerable assets” and “successfully persuaded Neal to consider purchasing a residential property in the Hudson Valley.” One year later, they bought a $529,900 home in the woods, on a winding, dead-end country road.
The crux of Neal’s original lawsuit, filed in April 2018, hinges on that house. It claims Benn agreed to add her name to the title once her divorce was finalized and after she reimbursed him for her portion of the house. Neal says that she repeatedly asked Benn to put her on the title, and he lied about meeting with a lawyer to do so.
Neal’s divorce was resolved and her Jersey home sold in January 2016. In the complaint in the original lawsuit, Neal claimed she wired $100,000 to Benn for her share of the purchase price and spent more than $259,000 on renovations on the property, believing she’d be made co-owner. (For his part, Benn claimed the $100,000 was payback for a loan, an allegation Neal denies.)
In an affidavit in response, Benn countered that Neal had merely helped him look for his own upstate home. She “was also helpful in moving the purchase of the property forward, and did participate in emails with counsel related to that purchase,” Benn claimed, but added that he never agreed that Neal “would be a co-owner.”
What was supposed to be their forever home quickly became a source of contention, according to one of Neal’s longtime friends. Neal felt insecure in her own home, the friend said, while “JB was able to hold over her head this sword that he could kick her out at any time.” The confidant became involved as a mediator in the couple’s crossfire over their property. The situation, he said, “undermined any chance of them having a successful relationship.”
The friend said Benn phoned and texted him constantly. “I think part of it was him trying to create a narrative and win the favor of Diane’s friends,” he said. During one call, Benn allegedly told him Neal was “suicidal, crazy, and narcissistic.”
“I thought about that afterward,” the friend said. “I know Diane isn’t suicidal. She’s almost empathetic to a fault. She gives so much of herself to others, it’s the opposite of narcissism. I felt JB was off the mark. I blocked his number.”
After the purchase of the rural home in June 2015, Neal agreed to take a six-month break from acting for back surgery and physical therapy. She said that around this time, Benn persuaded her not to rent her Jersey City house to her friends and to sell it instead.
Eddie Applebaum, a music executive and friend of Neal’s, said he was supposed to rent her brownstone two months before his wife was due to give birth. “We already agreed to move in. JB started sabotaging that, telling me that he was just doing Diane’s dirty work,” Applebaum said of the conversation that caused a years-long rift between him and Neal.
Even before the fight, Benn would call and text Applebaum at 4 or 5 a.m., warning that Neal was having a meltdown. “This was constant,” Applebaum said. “I said, ‘If you really think there’s something going on with her, call the police.’” When Applebaum would speak to Neal separately, she seemed OK and would tell him, “I’m a little stressed out here and JB and I had a little tiff, but I don’t know why he’s bothering you with this stuff.”
While Benn and Neal were on a trip to Iceland in February 2015, Applebaum says, the magician called him and said, “Diane is in the woods and I don’t know when she’s coming back.” He added, “He was incessantly texting me. I had to tell him to stop.”
Benn’s calls and texts indicated he was concerned for Neal’s safety. “I would say, ‘Why? What is she doing? He would say, ‘Nothing, but she just seems like she’s on the edge.’ It was a very strange situation. I will never be able to make sense of it.”
“I’ve always said it’s life imitating art,” Applebaum said of Neal’s relationship with Benn. “It’s a Law & Order: SVU story that’s playing out in real life.”
By May 2017, renovation on the couple’s upstate home was complete—but their relationship was becoming increasingly volatile. For one, there was the alleged animal abuse. “Benn—in order to deter Neal from leaving him or crossing him—slit the throat of Neal’s dog, Father Ted,” Neal’s lawsuit states. “Benn’s explanation was incredible: claiming Neal’s cat had attacked Father Ted.”
Father Ted survived after Neal rushed him to a vet. Kitty Kyle, a nursing mother cat that Neal took in as a stray, vanished soon afterward. The kittens started to disappear, too, Neal claims in her lawsuit. In January 2018, the lawsuit adds, “Benn broke the back of Neal’s other dog, leaving the dog severely handicapped.” Neal told The Daily Beast her vet ruled Winnie, the toy poodle, had suffered a severed spine from blunt-force trauma. (The vet did not respond to requests for comment.)
More disturbingly, Neal claims Benn physically and sexually abused her on several occasions. In August 2017, Neal’s amended complaint states, “Benn instigated an argument with Neal, then violently assaulted her, repeatedly kicking her. Benn left Neal bruised on the floor. After Neal begged that Benn leave the home, Benn refused and spent the remainder of the evening in the driveway [in] order to prevent her from fleeing.”
In an interview, Neal said, “I’m so upset because it’s the first time that anyone has raised a hand to me… and it wasn’t a hand by the way. He never uses his hands. He kicks.” (Neal told The Daily Beast that Benn often wore gloves to protect his hands for magic.)
Neal told The Daily Beast she thought Benn had left. She was furious, she says, and grabbed a golf club from the garage and smashed a set of exterior lights on the house. Benn, who was allegedly watching from a vehicle in the driveway, flashed the car’s lights and revved the engine while filming her. “I thought he was going to run me over,” Neal said. “I’m screaming, ‘Leave! Just leave!’”
According to Neal, Benn physically attacked her a second time that Thanksgiving, as they planned to drive into the city to spend the holiday with friends. “Benn offered to drive her, and encouraged Neal to take a muscle relaxant,” the amended complaint states, but then “refused to drive Neal to the gathering… after a brief verbal argument, Benn again attacked Neal, again kicking her until she was black and blue.”
Neal told The Daily Beast she later learned Benn was texting her friend, from Neal’s phone, saying “D’s a disaster. She’s not going to make it.”
Neal’s lawsuit alleges Benn abused her on a third occasion in February 2018, kicking her repeatedly while wearing a pair of hiking boots—an attack that caused “widespread contusions and/or hematomas” on both of her legs. (In a reply to Neal’s original complaint, Benn denied abusing her and countersued her for defamation, but withdrew his counterclaims a month later as part of a stipulation that also consolidated two of Neal’s lawsuits against him.)
In an interview, the actress said that this last alleged incident occurred as she plotted her run for Congress. Her mother, Colleen, had traveled to New York to watch the dogs. Evelien Kong, a producer friend, was visiting, too, and prepared to film video clips of the actress discussing her political platform.
Neal told The Daily Beast that Benn sent Colleen and Kong away for a long lunch, then physically assaulted her in their absence. “He kicks the bejeezus out of me. I’m begging, ‘Why? What do I have to do to get away from you?’” Neal recalled.
According to the actress’ lawsuit, Benn later contacted Kong and told her that “Neal was suicidal.”
In a written statement about the incident that Colleen provided to Neal’s attorneys, she said her daughter needed more time to get ready for the video interviews, so she and Kong left. “While we were eating, the producer got a phone call from JB saying Diane was trying to kill herself and we needed to get back to the house immediately,” Colleen stated, adding that Kong was “really upset.”
“We hurried back to the house and found Diane still sitting in the chair in the living room exactly where we had left her. JB told the producer to leave. He did not want Diane to have a campaign interview. He was lying to the producer to upset her and have her leave and she did leave and Diane has not been able to do that interview since.”
Neal says that when Kong and her mom returned from lunch, “Evelien and I sit there and she wants to talk. I’m upset but it’s almost more humiliating to just admit that you’d just take it and not run... I didn’t tell anyone that he kicked the shit out of me. I just said we got into a huge argument. I was humiliated for anyone to know I’d literally had my ass kicked three times and had taken it.”
To Neal, the relationship was over. But she said she’d soon unearth more disturbing revelations about the man who’d been her partner.
“In early 2018, while Benn was traveling, Neal discovered documentation in Benn’s home office in the [upstate] Hurley Residence that revealed that Benn—without Neal’s knowledge or consent—had fraudulently transferred monies from her bank accounts, stolen her personal checks, and used her credit-card accounts to pay for his personal expenses,” Neal’s amended complaint alleges. “In total, Benn has robbed Neal of hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Neal would also discover that Benn had secretly transferred the title of her car to himself in October 2014, the complaint states. In an interview, Neal said she was vacationing in Peru with a friend when Benn allegedly stole her vehicle.
And Benn changed the trigger locks to her firearms, “stripping her of any means of protecting herself,” the complaint alleges.
Finally, in March 2018, Neal’s complaint alleges, the actress woke to Benn sexually assaulting her. She said the magician was digitally penetrating her vagina with one hand, while holding a cellphone in another. She screamed and woke her sister Leigh, who was visiting the house at Neal’s request for protection. Leigh ran downstairs to Neal’s room. “Mr. Benn was smirking and laughing and it appeared to me he was enjoying the fact he had done something to hurt Diane,” Leigh stated in an affidavit, which Neal sent to Ulster County investigators. “Diane told me she and Mr. Benn had not been intimate in a long time and he did not treat her like a girlfriend. This was also apparent to me by Mr. Benn’s words and actions.”
Neal fled to a house she was renting for her congressional campaign. Soon after, she phoned Tim Hardiman, a former NYPD commander and private investigator whom she’d befriended during her SVU days, to discuss how she should report the alleged attack. Hardiman began looking into which law-enforcement agency would have domain over the alleged assault. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Hardiman confirmed Neal called him for help “before she went to the police” and said the sexual-assault probe is with the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office. “I gave her some advice on gathering some evidence, preserving her phone and doing stuff like that,” Hardiman said. “She had determined that her electronics were compromised.”
After the actress fled, Benn refused to allow her to recover her belongings and furniture from their upstate home and his New York apartment, her lawsuit states. (The owner of the moving company that Neal hired said his men were also stymied by Benn.) Neal told The Daily Beast some of those prized possessions include a collection of loose gemstones and a Salvador Dali painting called The Black Devil.
When Colleen intervened to collect her daughter’s items from the upstate property, as she later told Neal’s legal team in a written statement, Benn at first wouldn’t let her in the house, then relented and confided that he worried that Diane was suicidal, claiming she’d tried to hang herself from climbing ropes she used to hang ceiling lights.
“Diane is way too smart to use a climbing rope and, anyway, would never kill herself,” the mother wrote, adding that she was shocked by Benn’s persistence in his wild claims. “If he had really been worried about her, he would have called 911 or her parents as he had our phone numbers. He continued to get me alone and pump me for information and tell me again and again that Diane had tried to hang herself and he had rescued her and I should be grateful.”
Colleen told The Daily Beast that Benn had previously called her and argued Neal shouldn’t run for Congress. “If she runs for Congress, she’s going to get killed,” Benn said, according to Colleen, who added that he claimed he wouldn’t put Neal on the title to their home because she could lose it to creditors. Colleen said Benn also suggested that Neal should draft a will and leave everything to him in case his election prophecy came true.
At one point, Colleen said, Benn informed her he’d “gotten rid of the mother cat,” referring to Kitty Kyle. Colleen added: “I didn’t ask how he got rid of her.”
Neighbors say they were also roped into the pair’s convoluted conflict. One neighbor told The Daily Beast both Benn and Neal “just wanted to vent about” each other. He said the magician “tends to go around videotaping people and taping phone conversations, and obviously not telling you and trying to use this against you. Even though I repeatedly told him I didn’t want to see any of the stuff he recorded about Diane, he would just put the phone in your face.”
In one of the recordings, the neighbor said, Benn was egging Neal on when she was having a rough day. “She was upset, and he was videotaping it,” the resident said. “He showed it to me. I just found it sad.”
“He comes over frequently at very strange hours,” the neighbor added. “I think he thinks she’s here, which she never is. He just shows up at my house unannounced.”
A second neighbor told The Daily Beast that more than a year ago, Benn tried discussing the conflict, asking whether he’d seen any strange cars cruise past Benn’s home. “He explained that their relationship blew up, police got involved, he starts to elaborate and I was like, ‘I don’t want to get involved,’” the neighbor said.
“I don’t know who the hell to believe,” he said. “Either one of them could be telling the truth but I would never know.”
In the spring of 2018, days after Neal picked up some of her belongings from the house, the actress and magician each filed for restraining orders. Family Court granted both requests, ensuring the couple maintained a legal distance from one another until the end of 2018. Benn and Neal weren’t talking, but they were still connected through the upstate house. Neal tried to get a judge to name her as an equal owner of the property, as Benn put the house on the market in April 2018.
Meanwhile, Neal’s acting career had imploded and she’d fallen off the Hollywood audition circuit. Her longtime agent, Ro Diamond, declined to comment for this article, but said they had not worked together for some time. Another of Neal’s talent agencies, Osbrink Talent Agency, also said they no longer represent her. Neal blamed Benn—she claimed in the lawsuit he had secretly blocked contacts from her phone, impersonated her in texts and phone calls, and spread rumors she was a suicidal alcoholic—and believed she’d been “blackballed.”
So Neal threw herself more deeply into a project that had been percolating for months: running for Congress. On May 2, 2018, Neal filed for candidacy in New York’s 19th Congressional District. It was a competitive race—several Democrats, including progressive wunderkind Antonio Delgado, were running to oust one-term incumbent John Faso, a Republican. Neal’s campaign got off to a rocky start. In August of that year, the New York State Board of Elections rejected 1,852 of the 4,181 signatures on her petition, leaving her 1,171 short of the mandatory number. Neal appealed to the courts, which ruled in her favor a month later.
But the campaign struggled to take off. Neal had never been especially clear about her platform—in one of the few TV interviews she gave about her campaign, the actress described herself as “mostly liberal with a bit of libertarian.” When pressed about her issues, Neal responded: “Well, it’s all the issues.” Elsewhere, she elaborated on her platform: a unified single-payer health-care system; universal pre-K; protecting “the First Amendment at all costs”; and supporting “responsible gun ownership.” Under her Second Amendment plank, she elaborated: “The dude who perpetrated the massacre in Las Vegas had 47 guns. No one needs 47 guns. No one needs 47 American Girl dolls. No one needs 47 anything! We could set a reasonable limit. If you want more, you can have them, you just have pop down to your local police station to check in. Not a big deal, but a smart idea.”
On another occasion, the actress described her key concern for upstate New York as telecommunications infrastructure—specifically, WiFi. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but I’ve been back in school, because I couldn’t do much with this back injury,” Neal told newscaster Katy Tur. “And I got a C-. I was like, ugh, a C-? I don’t get a C-! No one gets a C-! And it’s because the internet—the maximum I could pay for—was three megabytes per second.”
If WiFi was a key concern in her district, it didn’t register with voters. “She definitely does not have a clear agenda on issues,” Amy Dooley, a member of the New Paltz town Democratic Committee, told the Daily Freeman. “It was kind of Trumpian how she just kind of threw out these populist type of ideas that don’t really work.”
Neal told The Daily Beast, “I don’t enjoy politics; I enjoy governance.” To prep for her candidacy, Neal says she read Plato’s Republic and works by “Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Paine, Hamilton…” taking notes and writing a draft of her own unpublished book, Empathy and Reason: A Non-Psychokiller Manifesto. (“Empathy & Reason” became her campaign slogan.)
After Delgado secured the Democratic nomination, Neal announced she would run as an independent, opening her to charges that she was trying to split the vote. (Neal claims she actually helped Delgado’s campaign by siphoning votes from Republicans: “You’re welcome Antonio!”) But on Nov. 6, it appeared her campaign had little effect at all. Delgado won with 51.4 percent of the vote; Neal came in with just 1 percent.
On Feb. 15, 2019, a year and a month after Neal and Benn broke up, the actress filed her second civil lawsuit against the magician, accusing him of 10 charges, including sexual battery, assault, fraud, defamation, identity theft, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Two months later, Benn responded in court, vigorously disputing all charges, and accusing his ex-girlfriend of spinning “a web of half-truths and outright misrepresentations.” Neal, Benn’s lawyer claimed, “seems incapable of telling the whole truth (despite being under oath), no matter how important or unimportant the matter at hand.”
Meanwhile, Neal reported Benn to local law enforcement for behavior she described as “stalking.” On March 28 of this year, Benn was charged with misdemeanor stalking for “driving by Neal’s residence seven times in 15 minutes for no legitimate purpose while Neal was in her driveway,” according to the charging documents.
Neal claims Benn had been “hunting” her since the day the order of protection expired in December 2018. “I would wake up in the middle of the night to pee, he would be outside the bathroom window. I pull around the curve, he’s there in my stolen car,” she said, adding that Benn once called her shrink 20 times, from four different numbers, over a two-day period. According to her lawsuit, Neal “noticed that Benn’s car repeatedly would patrol her home on a nightly basis.”
And, in a handwritten deposition filed as part of Benn’s stalking case, Neal said Benn “parking outside, sneaking into the yard to look through the windows, emailing, calling my doctor, my vets, my family, my friends—many times a day…”
Yesterday, during Benn’s court appearance at which he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, his defense attorney A.J. Iuele told The Daily Beast that prosecutors “did their due diligence” in investigating Neal’s claims. “She came out with some horrible accusations and the result was akin to a parking ticket."
Before the magician showed up in court, one of his supporters, a septuagenarian who said his name was Hank Williams, chatted up Tim Lawson, the Ulster County assistant prosecutor on the case. The men were discussing The Daily Beast’s forthcoming story when a reporter approached. Williams muttered that Neal was trying to resurrect her career through her litigation against Benn. He declined to comment further.
When The Daily Beast asked about Lawson’s friendly chat with Benn’s supporter, the ADA said,“I have never met them before this.” But later, he recanted and admitted, “We have met each other at a previous court appearance. He had wanted to tell me his perspective before.”
When Benn arrived, he was quiet and collected, whispering to Williams and giving a thumbs up to his lawyer while seated inside the tiny town hall—a building that also houses the tax collector, town clerk, and assessor. At one point, a divider-on-wheels was pulled out to separate the criminal proceedings from a local government meeting.
After the magician signed his paperwork and headed out, Lawson patted Williams’ arm. “Good luck! And I hope to never see you again. Especially you.” Benn declined to comment to a reporter, answering with a smile: “Got litigation pending, so I’ll have to contact my lawyers.”
Lawson told The Daily Beast that securing an order of protection for Neal and “making sure the parties stayed away from each other” was the prosecution’s “primary interest” in the plea agreement. Asked if Neal knew about this deal, Lawson said the DA’s office had discussed potential violations months ago. (For her part, Neal says she tried repeatedly to reach Lawson for an update “since the one, non-final, discussion in early June.”)
Indeed, Neal says her relationship with local authorities has become fraught. Since moving out in March 2018, she had been in an extended correspondence with the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney, requesting an investigation into Benn’s activities. Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the district attorney responded to multiple requests for comment on this story, but Neal forwarded dozens of emails she sent over the course of 2018, recounting her story in excruciating detail. She claims they responded with minimal action. “I know you guys are busy, and that my case is not a priority,” Neal wrote in a Nov. 29, 2018, email, “but I’ve been reaching out, leaving messages, for months, trying to get ahold of you guys so that I can know what is, or isn’t, going on and take action based on that.”
In another email, she wrote, “Estranged from loved ones, always honest but painted as a liar, I am not by the bedside or shouldering the burden of family members in need, unable to work for a thousand reasons and thereby unable to help others financially. Homeless so I cannot offer shelter to the many who have called my homes theirs freely and without cost. Everyone’s most capable, loyal and true friend reduced to wracking sobs…”
In March of 2019, the Ulster sheriff reached out to Neal’s sister Leigh, who had witnessed the aftermath of the alleged sexual assault, for a statement to aid the investigation. She provided a sworn affidavit. “In my opinion, [Benn] is a kleptomaniac and master manipulator,” the sister wrote in her statement, “Tools of a trade he’s perfected since childhood as a now professional magician.” The following month, authorities arrested Benn on a second charge of misdemeanor stalking.
Neal went so far as to request a meeting with the New York Attorney General Leticia James (that didn’t pan out) and less official legal figures, like her former co-worker, actress Mariska Hargitay, who plays New York Police Department Captain Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU.
In an email (subject line: “Joyful Heart”), Hargitay responded to Neal: “I’m so very very sorry for what happened to you and what you’ve gone through and have had to endure. I send you love and care and comfort and courage.” In an unfortunate coincidence, Hargitay then signed off, “With much love, Mariska Sent with magic!”
Frustrated by a lack of movement on her case, Neal visited the Ulster County DA’s office on a whim in March of this year and broke down in the rotunda. “I’m here to ask why my life doesn’t mean a thing to you guys,” Neal cried. A secretary offered to look up Neal’s case—but according to Neal, it didn’t exist. “There were no complaint numbers in the computer,” Neal said. “Not one complaint number, not one case number. Nothing. Not a record of me,” she said.”
“And guess who walks in? JB Benn,” Neal said. “He comes upstairs. He has no appointment to be there. Do you know what excuse he gave to be there? ‘Oh, I just came to get her forwarding address.’”
Trooper Steven Nevel told The Daily Beast that according to his agency’s reports, Benn flagged down a postal worker and asked for Neal’s forwarding address. A trooper spoke with a detective from the Ulster County DA’s office, who stated the postal employee did not give Benn that information but told him how he could likely obtain it.
Neal first came to state police barracks to report the alleged stalking on Feb. 28, 2019, Nevel said. Afterward, troopers told Benn to stay away from the actress, and his lawyer, A.J. Iuele, told troopers Benn would comply with the request.
Since the breakup, Neal has gone through five different lawyers, all of whom she claimed had wronged her in some way and run off with her money. Her restraining order had expired, her request for a second one was rejected, and her attempt to get listed as an equal owner of the house proved ineffective.
Benn has all but disappeared from the public eye, though he emerged briefly for a TV appearance this past summer. The segment was for an ABC game show called To Tell the Truth, where a panel of celebrity judges hears from three guests—two of whom are impostors—and votes on who they believe is telling the truth. In the July 14th episode, Benn pretended to be a professional hypnotist, but not very well; only one judge believed him.
Today’s amended complaint, filed by Neal’s new legal team, Sarmad Khojasteh and Danielle Gill of the Kasowitz Benson Torres firm, captures the actress’ story in greater detail. “As a result of Benn’s depraved and unconscionable conduct against Neal, and his attempts to continue the campaign of terror and intimidation against her, Neal—fearing for life and her safety, and at great personal cost—has been forced to live in hiding rather than pursue her professional career,” the complaint alleges.
“Ms. Neal has suffered a devastating ordeal—as a victim of domestic abuse that robbed her of her personal security, as a victim of a fraudulent scheme that robbed her of the financial security that she earned during an extremely successful acting career, and as a victim of lawyers and prosecutors who have served her extremely poorly,” Khojasteh told The Daily Beast in a statement. “This lawsuit is a first step towards Ms. Neal reclaiming her life and obtaining justice. We will be taking all necessary steps, including working with law enforcement, to ensure Ms. Neal is protected and vindicated.”
Hardiman, the private eye, said at least some of Neal’s accusations have a chance of being prosecuted. “Relationships are complicated,” Hardiman said. “The things she’s told me, some of the specific incidents I have investigated or gathered information about, I have found there to be supporting evidence.”
“That there are exceptional crazy details in her story does not mean that it’s unbelievable,” Hardiman told The Daily Beast, adding, “Just because it sounds like something out of a novel, doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“The real question this is going to become: Was this a good honest relationship and people parted ways? Or was this relationship a fraud from the outset?”