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American among 3 killed in British terrorist attack

Police line tape (Dreamstime/TNS)

A Northeast Philadelphia native was among three people stabbed to death Saturday evening during an attack at a park in Southern England that is being investigated as a “terrorist incident.”

Joe Ritchie-Bennett, 39, grew up on Brous Avenue in Mayfair but moved to England about 15 years ago, his father, Robert Ritchie, said.

Ritchie said that his son worked for a law firm in London before taking a job about 10 years ago at a Dutch pharmaceutical company with British headquarters in Reading, where the stabbing attack took place.

Ritchie-Bennett’s brother is 7th District Police Capt. Robert Ritchie, a 24-year veteran of the Philadelphia force.

“I love him. I always have. I always will,” Capt. Ritchie said Sunday night. “He was a great guy. He was four years younger than me. I had a paper route at 12 and he helped me every day. I used to buy him something every two weeks to thank him.”

“We used to play together every day. We rode bikes together every day. Our family is heartbroken and beside ourselves,” he said.

“He did not deserve to go out like this,” he said.

Theirs is a family of police officers. Robert Ritchie, the brothers’ father, is a retired chief inspector. Their mother is a retired police officer, as is the younger Robert Ritchie’s wife. Ritchie-Bennett’s grandfather, who was in the Navy and fought in World War II and the Korean War, was killed in October 1958, a few days before he was to be honorably discharged. He was 38.

Robert Ritchie described his son, Ritchie-Bennett, as an “absolutely fabulous guy.”

“I absolutely love my son with all of my heart and all of my soul,” he said.

Ritchie said his Mayfair home he shares with his wife, Charlene, was full of family members and neighbors Sunday evening.

“We’re mourning, and we’re trying to decide what we’re going to do,” he said. “It’s 3,500 miles away. They are still in lockdown over there with the coronavirus, and I don’t know what else to say.”

“This doesn’t seem real,” said Danielle Gayda, 39, who has been Ritchie-Bennett’s best friend since they met in fourth grade at St. Dominic School in the Holmesburg section.

“It’s just absolutely devastating,” Gayda said.

Even after Ritchie-Bennett had moved to London and Gayda to South Jersey, the friends never lost touch, texting nearly every day.

Their last conversation was a text exchange on Friday night. Ritchie-Bennett was telling Gayda about his plans for his yearly summer trip to Greece.

”He was sending pictures of clothes he was going to wear,” she said, with a laugh. “He was such a funny, lighthearted person.”

Ritchie-Bennett married Ian Bennett in England on Nov. 11, 2006, and they merged their last names. Bennett died Dec 6, 2014, after a short battle with colon cancer. He was 32.

”And now they’re together, which is not really good for any of us down here,” Gayda said. “But I guess I’m happy for them that they’re back together.”

Sean Clothier, Little Flower High School’s head swimming coach, was Ritchie-Bennett’s teammate on swim teams for both St. Dominic and Father Judge High School.

”He was a few years behind me, but even in grade school you could tell he was a character,” Clothier said of Ritchie-Bennett, who graduated from Judge in 1998.

“At Judge, when he was a freshman and we were all seniors, he was not intimidated one bit and immersed himself not only on the team, but with the upperclassmen as well,” Clothier said.

“Our team can be a little daunting when you’re the new kids on the team. Joe didn’t let that affect him. He was always so upbeat and fun to be around.”

Clothier said his favorite memory of Ritchie-Bennett was from a team training trip in Florida. He remembers hanging out in the hotel lobby around 9 p.m. when the elevator doors opened and out strutted the confident freshman wearing a thong-style bathing suit, a boa, and sunglasses.

”He strutted his way through the lobby towards the hot tub as if none of us were there and he was king of the world,” Clothier said. “It was hilarious and he endeared himself to all of us even more. He had that special spirit that only a select few Judge Swimmers had. Joe was everything that was good about our team.”

The stabbing attack happened around 7 p.m. in Reading’s Forbury Gardens, a public park about 40 miles west of London.

The names of the two other people killed have not been released. Three others were seriously injured. A 25-year-old man was arrested at the scene on suspicion of murder and remained in custody Sunday.

Officers found nothing to suggest other people were involved, according to a statement released by Britain’s Counter Terrorism Policing.

One eyewitness, Lawrence Wort, told the BBC that groups of people were drinking and enjoying the park when a man suddenly started shouting unintelligible words. Holding a “massive” knife that he said was at least five inches long, he darted around a circle of about eight to 10 people, stabbing them in and around their necks. The assailant headed to another group, where Wort was sitting. Wort quickly got up and ran, along with lots of others.

“He stabbed my brother in his neck and armpits, so it would be fatal,” Ritchie-Bennett’s brother, the police captain, said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled and sickened” by the incident, and thanked local police for bravely “tackling” the suspect.

The Ritchie family doesn’t have much information about why the assailant attacked, or when they can retrieve Ritchie-Bennett’s body for burial.

“No alleged act of terror will ever take away my brother, his memory, or the American spirit,” his brother said.

“That, no one can take away.”


© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer