For a crime reporter, one of the few comforting things about the beat is that a large portion of violent crime victims put themselves in harm’s way, whether by drug dealing or gang activity or other nefarious undertakings.
So when two people are taking an early Sunday morning walk in the Loudoun County suburbs and are suddenly set upon by what seems like a pack of crazed wolves, there is no comfort. No explanation. And in the spring of 2009, there was a lot of fear running through eastern Loudoun County, and not a lot of answers.
So far, only Jaime Ayala, 17 years old when the vicious attack on William and Cynthia Bennett occurred on Riverside Parkway in the Lansdowne area, has offered any explanation. But he says he was only the driver of the van and that two other men — his longtime pal from Annandale, Darwin Bowman, then 18, and Anthony Roberts, then 19 — got out to rob and beat the couple, leaving William Bennett dead and his wife severely injured. Ayala says that he helped Bowman and Roberts burn his friends’ clothes and other evidence but that he didn’t see the attack.
The Bennetts were “randomly targeted for no reason whatsoever,” Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman said at Ayala’s sentencing Wednesday. “That’s the most frightening aspect of this for the community. The community hears this, and they don’t think they’re safe anywhere. When we can’t explain why something occurred, other than ‘an evil act,’ I think Mr. Ayala’s sentence today should explain how we deal with an unexplained evil act.”
So Judge James H. Chamblin imposed the maximum sentence on Ayala, life plus 40 years, the details of which you can read here. But Cynthia Bennett and her two daughters are left to stagger on with the aftermath of this attack and the prospect of two more sets of hearings in the Bowman and Roberts cases, in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Bowman, and likely also for Roberts, who is not yet charged.
The Bennetts testified for the first time Wednesday in Leesburg about the impact on their lives. They did not want to speak with reporters after it was over, but they said plenty from the witness stand. And it all serves as a breathtaking reminder that our lives can be turned upside down, anywhere at any time, for no good reason. The Bennetts, inspired by the remarkable, courageous recovery of Cynthia Bennett, are battling through the senselessness and pain the best they can.
William Bennett, 57 when he died, was a soldier in the Special Forces and then a contractor for “the Agency,” or the CIA, his wife said Wednesday. Cynthia Bennett worked for the Architect of the Capitol. They raised two daughters in Loudoun County whom William Bennett coached in softball.
Cynthia Bennett, now 57, moved gingerly to the witness stand, using a cane, which she hates. She is slim, and you can tell that she was athletic. She said she liked to run and still hoped to run again, despite severe nerve damage in one of her legs. Doctors aren’t encouraging. She also consulted a specialist for her drastic internal injuries, but she was told she would need a colostomy bag for the rest of her life.
William Bennett liked to hike, had been up the entire Appalachian Trail and was working on the entire Continental Divide Trail. The two liked to walk together, talk together, make plans together. Now, Cynthia Bennett said, she reluctantly had to sell their house. Too many memories, too close to what happened, she said.
She needed plastic surgery on her face, Cynthia Bennett said, and she has a metal plate in her cheek. She tried returning to work, but after a year she had to give that up. “I couldn’t do it,” she said, and retired early.
She had to lean heavily on her daughters, to move in with one, to essentially forfeit her independence. She described grocery shopping, which she needs help with. “People look at me differently,” she said. ”It’s just living in a different world than I used to live in.”
Cynthia and Bill had “our big plan,” she said, “to move out West, get our own place. Maybe own some land and build a house for our daughters to come visit when they had families. That’s gone.”
When the earthquake hit yesterday, she was unable to round up her two cats, she said as an example of her limited mobility.
“I don’t like being dependent on anybody,” Cynthia Bennett said. ”It’s just very frustrating. I think that’s what’s bothering me the most.”
She doesn’t dwell on the crime, which she does not have any memory of. “I don’t even want to think about what happened,” she said. “I want to start a new life. That’s basically what’s going to have to happen. So life-changing, so suddenly. I need to make a new life and move on. Starting a new phase, make it exciting, make it challenging. That’s what keeps me going, not remembering anything at all, not thinking about it at all.”
We learned Wednesday that Cynthia Bennett lay on the cold ground for 45 minutes after the attack, because she was more than 50 yards from her husband, who was already dead. Investigators were unsure exactly who she was. They presumed she was Bill Bennett’s wife, but she had no identification on her.
It wasn’t until Monday morning, around 5 a.m., that the knock came at the Falls Church door of Jennifer Bennett, who was then 27. Investigators told her that her father was dead. Not only that, they needed her to go to the hospital to identify her mother. Recalling that moment, in the intensive care unit at Inova Fairfax Hospital, was highly emotional for Jennifer Bennett.
“It didn’t look like my mom,” she said of the badly swollen woman, covered in tubes and wires. “I looked down at her hands. I could tell it was her. ‘That’s my mom.’ ”
Then she sat down and waited, in paralyzing pain. “I felt useless,” she said.
Jennifer Bennett told the judge: “My parents are good people. I don’t know, they had really bad luck. They worked really hard. And I’m going to take care of my mom.”
Samantha Bennett, then 29 and living in Alexandria, said she ignored the early morning phone call from her younger sister. Then her boyfriend called and said they needed to go to the hospital.
She said she was taken to see her mother in intensive care, with family members gathered around. “Everybody but my dad,” she said. “Where’s Dad?”
She said an uncle whispered in her ear, “He didn’t make it.” And Samantha Bennett screamed and fell on the floor, “basically just lost it.”
Her mother, after weeks in Fairfax Hospital and then more weeks in Mount Vernon Hospital, was released to her. Samantha Bennett said she woke up every night, every hour, “to make sure she’s still breathing.”
For a long time, Cynthia Bennett needed help getting dressed, bathing, everything. Her recovery has been remarkable, but she “doesn’t look the same,” Samantha Bennett said. “She’s still my mom, and I love her. But it’s just a reminder every day. To just sit back and wait for days like this, to relive everything all over again, it just sucks.”
Days like this. Because even after the violence, and the recovery, there is the legal process. And though Ayala claimed he was only the driver, and his lawyer argued that his role was less than Bowman’s or Roberts’s, Chamblin gave him the maximum for second-degree murder — 40 years — and for aggravated malicious wounding, life in prison.
More days like this. Next up is the trial of Darwin Bowman, a member of a rival gang, but whose friendship with Ayala overcame that. Bowman supposedly called Ayala and asked for a ride. Ayala said he agreed and that Bowman came out to his van. Unexpectedly, so did Anthony Roberts, who prosecutors suspect may have committed the worst of the violence.
Bowman was facing trial this summer, but a problem with testing of combined DNA samples has caused its postponement to next spring. Roberts has not been charged, but he is doing seven years in prison for an unrelated crime.
Plowman said after the hearing that there was no rush. “We’re going to methodically go through these cases in the best way we can to maximize accountability,” he said. That could mean getting Bowman, facing the death penalty, to agree to testify against Roberts in exchange for a non-capital penalty.
So the legal part is one-third over for the Bennetts. But the trauma goes on, infinitely, for no reason.
“This has been a nightmare,” Samantha Bennett said. “And it’s a never-ending nightmare.”