Eva Benefield is just 21 years old and already the joint owner of a clothing brand called Ghost Cowboy.
The business venture began in March, when Benefield, a South Carolina native, came up with an idea for a T-shirt. At the time, she was working in sales at ecommerce brand United Monograms, which sells graphic clothing, and growing her TikTok account, @evathefreakindiva, on the side.
Benefield proposed creating a T-shirt from a famous selfie — the one that comedian Pete Davidson took from his then-girlfriend Kim Kardashian’s bed and texted to her former husband, Kanye West. She figured it would do well if she promoted it on her TikTok. The company went for it. Her video about the tee ended up attracting more than 700,000 views, and the item generated $50,000 in sales.
The shirt’s success inspired Benefield and her boss — Sean Lowery, the 33-year-old founder and owner of South Carolina-based ecommerce group Lowery Brands, which owns United Monograms — to launch a brand through which Benefield could sell her designs. They named it Ghost Cowboy.
“A few weeks after we started, she walked in with a tattoo of the [Ghost Cowboy] logo on her upper arm,” recalls Lowery, who co-owns the brand with Benefield. “She told me we were taking things to the top. That’s commitment right there!” Benefield herself draws many of Ghost Cowboy’s designs, including an “It’s Corn” sweatshirt commemorating the recent viral sensation Tariq the Corn Boy.
Ghost Cowboy has been a success, largely thanks to Benefield’s TikTok account, where most days she promotes her designs to more than 300,000 followers. A great number of her fans, however, don’t come for the shirts. They’re there for the videos in which Benefield talks about her past.
In 2015, when she was just 15, Benefield discovered the body of her mother, Renee, who had died at their Charleston, South Carolina home from an undiagnosed heart condition. Nine months later, in 2016, her widowed father, Doug, then 54, married a 24-year-old woman, Ashley Byers, whom he’d known for only a few weeks. (Byers took Doug’s last name.)
In 2020, Ashley Benefield shot Doug with a .45 caliber handgun at her mother’s residence in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Doug died from his injuries an hour later at a local hospital. In the months that followed, the case garnered international attention.
Eva sees TikTok as a way to explain her dark family history on her own terms, which usually means comedy and memes. Humor, she says, is her coping mechanism. This February 2021 video, which was filmed to fit with a SpongeBob audio clip popular on TikTok, garnered more than 23 million views:
But she avoided getting into too much detail until August of this year — when she posted another joke about her past which segued into an eight-part account of the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Combined, those videos have amassed more than 20 million views. Eva says she finally felt comfortable speaking out thanks to the support of her close friends and remaining family. “They all find it really funny,” she says. “We all laugh about it because I don’t censor myself in my videos.”
Her forthrightness is evident. “I kind of just want the trial to be over because I want either her to go to jail — no, I want her to go to jail,” Benefield said of Ashley in one of her videos. She doesn’t linger on negative emotions for long, however. “Maybe you’ll see my story on Netflix one day. Y’all know the movie The King of Staten Island?” she continued in the same video, referring to the semi-biographical look at the life of Pete Davidson, which blended tragedy and comedy. “I think that it could be like that with a really good soundtrack, but better.”
More recently, Benefield launched a podcast called Eva Unfiltered to give followers additional glimpses into her life, although she hasn’t decided what the show might be like past her introductory episode. “What I discuss,” she says of both her podcast and her TikTok account, “is guided by people’s responses to it.”
For now, as she awaits the trial, which has been delayed until at least 2023, Benefield is trying to focus on herself — and her community. She says she has found a sense of purpose thanks to her social media presence. “I’ve gotten so many DMs recently from people saying my videos help them somehow, which is really why I’m so grateful for TikTok and the platform that I have,” she said in her podcast’s debut episode. “The fact that people have told me I make them feel less alone warms my heart so much.”
Although the media frenzy surrounding Doug Benefield’s death began in 2020, it attracted significant attention across much of last year. One of the most in-depth stories was a lengthy feature in Vanity Fair last fall, which featured the subheadline “The Charleston-based evangelicals had much in common: guns, God, Trump. What went wrong, only one of them could say.”
Eva says she was “heartbroken” by the framing of the Vanity Fair story, which she participated in. “They politicized the whole thing, which is very unfair because the full incident wasn’t political,” she says. “My father was my best friend, and I thought hundreds of thousands of people were going to think badly about him.”
The facts of the case are this: After getting married, Doug and Ashley — a former ballerina and Trump campaigner — attempted to launch a “diverse” ballet company for unconventional dancers. But the endeavor fell apart as problems in their marriage arose.
Ashley got pregnant in 2018, but the couple separated shortly thereafter. At the time, Ashley alleged that Doug was an abusive and violent husband who had attempted to poison her. She also claimed that Doug had poisoned Eva’s mother, Renee, resulting in her death. According to press accounts, Ashley’s accusations were investigated by authorities and deemed unworthy of further action.
Despite their turbulent relationship, Doug and Ashley reconciled in 2019 for the sake of their new child, a daughter, but their marriage continued to be fraught. By 2020, they were preparing for divorce — until the summer, when the couple decided to give things one last try. They made plans to move to Maryland together, a journey they were packing for on Sept. 27, 2020. That night, Ashley shot Doug in the back. She said she acted in self-defense, although police have stated there was no evidence to support her claim.
“We don’t know what went wrong in her brain. She just truly believed that my dad was a terrible person,” Eva says. “She was out to get him.”
Eva says she’s been heartened by social media’s response to her new, more open approach to the case. “I got a lot of private messages saying ‘Hey, I’m going through this, and your videos help me feel less alone,’” she says of viewers who have also experienced traumatic events.
Benefield, in turn, gets something from her audience: “There are times where I feel very alone in my situation. Knowing that there are other people out there going through similar things helps me to feel less isolated.”
It’s something those closest to her have picked up on, too. “I think it’s helped her to process a lot,” says 21-year-old Margaret Cormeny, a fellow South Carolina artist who has been a good friend of Benefield’s since elementary school. “Being able to speak with people that aren’t family members or friends, who have been through something similar, I think is kind of encouraging for her.”
Lowery, Benefield’s Ghost Cowboy partner, thinks Benefield has created a small army of loyal fans thanks to her open nature. “What you see on TikTok is what you get — she’s a very genuine person, and she’s not putting on an act in any way. I think that resonates with people,” he says. “She’s just an intriguing, cool girl, and she’s a fun follow.”
Benefield’s followers have been so enamored by her TikTok presence that they have bombarded her with offers of cash and assistance, hoping to help her move through life without her parents. “People offered to start a GoFundMe to get me a house; they wanted to support me. But I don’t want to just take people’s money — I told them if they want to support me, they can buy a T-shirt from my brand,” Benfield says. “There was definitely an uptick in sales after I did my videos.”
Although Benefield’s closest friends and relatives have been thrilled to see her business thriving, they think the best part about Benefield’s recent journey is seeing her take ownership of her own narrative. “She’s always been super-confident and had this wonderful attitude — I’ve always looked up to her in that way — but I think TikTok sparked something,” Cormeny says. “It gave her a sense of self-confidence she probably wouldn’t have without having somewhere to speak her mind.”
Of course, speaking freely about a murder case does not come without controversy. “I’ve got a few DMs from people saying I’m psychotic,” Benefield said in a recent TikTok video. “There’s been a few people saying it’s concerning that I’m joking about my parents being dead. They’re my parents! I can joke how I wanna joke.”
(Benefield tells Input that she’s even written a stand-up comedy set full of material about Ashley and being orphaned at a young age — although she hasn’t tried it out on a crowd yet. “I wrote a whole set just to see if I can do it,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever have the confidence to actually perform. I think only three of my friends have actually heard any of my jokes.”)
Meanwhile, true crime aficionados drawn to Eva’s account can occasionally be callous and cruel, offering up comments like “Do you feel guilty that maybe [Doug] wasn’t able to tell you if things were bad, because he respected you not wanting to know about the relationship?” and “I saw a video in which they said her Dad was basically doing fraud and was poisoning [Ashley].”
Although she understands that inviting such people to speculate on her father’s death comes with risks, Benefield is enthusiastic about the attention. “I welcome it, in a sense. I know why I should be worried — because of what Ashley and her team of lawyers put out there — but I know my dad, and I know the truth,” she says.
“If the true crime junkies do start digging, they’ll see that my dad was a fantastic father, husband, and brother,” she adds. “People will follow the trial, and they’ll see what actually happened.”
True crime researcher Cole Imperi — who founded the School of American Thanatology, which is dedicated to the study of death and dying — tells Input that Benefield’s approach, while somewhat unusual, could be regarded as an example of best practices when it comes to turning tragic events into content.
“Many of these true crime podcasts and shows are turning traumatic loss into entertainment for people who aren’t involved with that loss at all. There’s a lot of ethical issues there,” Imperi says. “But what I like about Eva is that she’s talking about her own loss. That’s good. We want to see people that have lived experience being able to tell their own stories.”
“I’ve always really wanted to talk to [Ashley]. I genuinely want to ask her, ‘What did you do that for?’”
Ashley Benefield’s attorney, Neil G. Taylor, tells Input he’s watched Eva’s TikTok videos and found her to be “cute.” Still, he isn’t so thrilled about Eva’s social media presence. “We are concerned about the impact [Eva’s TikToks] may have on the potential jury pool,” he says via email. “We invite you to attend the trial and evaluate the evidence (as opposed to rumor, speculation, and/or biased representations) for yourself… to determine the truth or falsity of the allegations.”
Although Benefield isn’t certain about whether she’ll have to testify, she knows that she will be at the trial, where she’ll come face-to-face with Ashley again. “I don’t know what my reaction will be in that moment,” she says. “I’m not legally allowed to right now because of the trial, but I’ve always really wanted to talk to her. I genuinely want to ask her, ‘What did you do that for?’”
In the meantime, Benefield has high hopes for her new podcast and fostering a deeper connection with the fans she has picked up across the last year. “I want to talk about what’s going on in my life and to give advice on staying positive,” she says. She intends to discuss the case in more detail and is open to taking questions from listeners.
However, she hopes to focus most of her content on moving forward, rather than looking back. “I want other people to know that things are going to be okay, even when they seem like they won’t be,” she says. “And that if you maintain a positive attitude and your appreciation for even the littlest things, it can make life a lot more enjoyable.”