Pre-Dawn March in Loudoun County, Virginia, Week After Lethal Attack

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

In its own way, it was as much a protest march as it was a tribute.

The candles they carried sputtered in the persistent pre-dawn mist yesterday, flames twinkling in the dark. Their feet shuffled as the near-silent procession wound its way along the road.

Exactly a week before, at the same time of day, the safety of that quiet corner of Loudoun County seemed to evaporate when two neighbors were attacked while on their routine morning stroll. Retired Army Lt. Col. William Bennett was beaten to death. His wife, Cynthia, also an Army veteran, was found critically injured in a ditch.

To many of those marching, the Bennetts were strangers. But to the defiant crowd of about 200 men, women and children, that didn't matter. This was their community, they said, the one they moved to because it was safe to walk the streets, regardless of the time of day.

They had come to reclaim it.

"We're taking our neighborhood back," said Lansdowne resident Beverly Bradford, who sent out a notice to residents last week calling for the gathering. "We're not going to be intimidated by these cowardly acts."

The anger, sorrow and solidarity that coursed through the crowd yesterday had been building steadily since the attack. Last week, 1,000 people packed a community meeting to seek answers from investigators.

For the Leesburg area suburb, as in many similar communities, crime is typically limited to "quality of life" incidents, such as thefts from cars and graffiti, authorities say. Residents said the attack and the mystery behind it have given them no choice but to confront the matter head-on if they don't want to live in terror.

They had agreed to come together at 5:30 a.m. because that was when the Bennetts, of nearby Potomac Station, were probably "struggling for their lives," said Bradford, 60. Sheriff's deputies discovered the bloodied couple on a Lansdowne roadside while investigating a report of a suspicious white van. No arrests have been made, and no suspects have been identified, authorities said.

"I choose to not allow it to bring fear into my life," Lansdowne resident Marge Coakley, 48, said as she steadily made her way along a desolate Riverside Parkway, clutching a candle and a flashlight. She did not know the Bennetts.

"There's a lot of evil out there, but also a lot of good," she said. "Evil is not going to win."

Those who knew William Bennett, 57, remembered him as a family man and an avid hiker who had conquered the Appalachian Trail and had almost licked the Continental Divide Trail through the Rocky Mountains. He was also described as a diligent worker who had been a contractor for the CIA and defense companies. He had spent time in Iraq training troops, former colleagues said.

Cynthia Bennett, 55, remains in critical condition at Inova Fairfax Hospital, where she is under round-the-clock guard by a sheriff's deputy. She has not been able to speak to investigators. She is the director of procurement for the Architect of the Capitol, the office that maintains the U.S. Capitol complex and other facilities. There are two adult daughters in the family.

William Bennett worked as a contractor at the CIA for several years, ending in 2000, officials said. He was retired at the time of his death. Loudoun authorities said they are in talks with the agency to see whether his professional background might be connected to his slaying. Sheriff's Office spokesman Kraig Troxell said that authorities are looking for at least three assailants and that the FBI and other federal agencies have offered assistance.

Yesterday's mile-long march began in the parking lot of a Lansdowne shopping center, where the gleam of automobile headlamps began to crisscross the pavement shortly before 5 a.m. The group set out at 5:30 a.m., bundled in slickers and parkas to fend off the chill and damp. They stuck to sidewalks as deputies directed traffic, the flashing red and blue lights on their patrol cars lighting the way at times.

In the group was Michael R. Spak, chairman of the Loudoun Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization, who said he used to work at the CIA and had known Bennett since the mid-1990s. Spak declined to discuss the specific nature of Bennett's work at the agency, but he said he did not think it was likely that Bennett's slaying was related to his career.

"Espionage is a gentleman's game, for the most part," Spak said. "All countries do it. If someone is caught or something like that, or they know about you, it's not like on television where you rub your opponent out. . . . It's more of a cerebral game than it is a violent, James-Bond-firing-daggers-out-of-the-bottom-of-your-shoe-type thing. . . . Could Bill have made enemies? It's possible that we all did. Would that precipitate a personal attack on [Bennett] and his wife? It's not very likely."

Spak said his company hired Bennett for several stints as a contract worker, most recently in November 2007.

That the attack might have been random has some residents all the more concerned.

"It's just shocking," said Bernadette Davis, 40, of Potomac Station, her pink raincoat hood cinched tight as she set off on yesterday's walk. "It was so brutal. . . . Why them? Why here?"

Those were questions on everyone's mind as the throng came to a rest on a bridge that spans Goose Creek, just yards from the now-flower-adorned patch of grass where Bennett's body was found. The marchers said prayers for the Bennetts and thanked them for their service to the country.

Then, in the chilled glow of the vigil, Felicia Crawley, a local choir director, sang the hymn "Come by Here, Lord."

She added an original final verse, and the crowd joined in: "We need answers, Lord."

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