Pair Were Attacked on Morning Stroll

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MAP: Loudoun County homicide
By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Loudoun County couple out for their routine early-morning walk over the weekend might have been randomly attacked by as many as three assailants in the Lansdowne area, the county sheriff said yesterday.

William Bennett, 57, was found dead before 6 a.m. Sunday along Riverside Parkway near Rocky Creek Drive by a sheriff's deputy investigating a report of a suspicious vehicle in the area. His wife, Cynthia, 55, was found critically injured about 30 minutes later across the road, beyond a bloodied white fence in a muddy ditch, Simpson said.

"It has the look and feel of a random act," Simpson said. "I'm not sure how much you do to prepare for that. . . . Everybody has the same thought on their mind: 'See, that could have been me.' "

The Bennetts live in the Potomac Station subdivision in the Leesburg area, less than a mile from where they were found, Simpson said. They suffered severe blunt force trauma, but the medical examiner has not yet provided an official cause of death for the husband, Simpson said.

At 5:38 a.m. Sunday, a resident reported hearing a commotion and seeing several people get inside a white panel van that kept coming and going, authorities said. A deputy responded within five minutes and discovered the man's body on a grassy patch along Riverside Parkway, near a walking path that leads to Goose Creek, Simpson said.

Authorities combed the area, and, as the sun came up, investigators noticed blood across the street on a white fence that lines the road, Simpson said.

It was then that Cynthia Bennett was discovered about 50 yards away in a ditch. She was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital and was in critical condition yesterday. Investigators have not been able to talk to her, Simpson said. The couple were wearing jogging outfits when they were found.

The attack has left residents of the quiet community shaken. Some said they would avoid the walking path near the creek and keep their children indoors.

"It's shocking and scary, and I guess you can't ever assume you're safe no matter where you live," said Sandy Bednoski, 38, of Lansdowne.

Authorities were able to identify William Bennett, who carried no identification, by his fingerprint, which was on file because he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, Simpson said. The couple have two adult children, he said.

Bennett's slaying is the first homicide this year in Loudoun, where killings usually register in the low single digits annually. The sheriff's office investigated three homicides last year, up from one in 2007. Authorities described the Lansdowne area as fairly quiet and said crime there is generally limited to "quality of life" issues such as property destruction and car theft.

County Supervisor Lori L. Waters (R-Broad Run) expressed shock and sadness over the attack and said she hoped for a quick recovery for Cynthia Bennett.

"Our prayers and thoughts go out to the families of the victims," Waters said in a statement. "This type of violence will not be tolerated in our community, and we know the sheriff's office will be doing all in their power to bring the murderer to justice."

Deputies are canvassing the neighborhoods surrounding the crime scene, asking whether anyone had seen a white van in the area or has a home security system with cameras that might have caught a shot of the vehicle or suspects.

The tag number of the van is not known, and physical descriptions of the suspects are vague, Simpson said. One was reportedly heavyset, and all were wearing dark clothing.

Investigators do not have a motive, but they are investigating a variety of possibilities, including whether the incident was a robbery or part of a gang initiation, Simpson said. They also have not ruled out that the couple were attacked somewhere else and then left along the parkway, he said.

Until the suspects are apprehended, Agnes McDonald, who has lived in the area since 2004 and likes to walk her dog there, will be adjusting her routine, she said.

"It's very concerning," she said. "Who are these people, and what's to stop it from happening again?"

Last night outside the Bennetts' red brick home, white carnations tied in purple ribbon and an unlit candle sat outside the front door. Their next-door neighbor, Bruce Develle, 46, said he was trying to determine his "level of paranoia should be."

"They seemed like very nice, upstanding people," he said of the Bennetts. "They kept to themselves."

Anyone who saw anything suspicious is asked to call the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office at 703-777-0475. To remain anonymous, call Loudoun Crime Solvers at 703-777-1919. If the information leads to an arrest and indictment, the caller could be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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