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Ax Handle Attacker Alex Ewing Named Suspect in Bennett Family Murders

A childhood photo of Vanessa Bennett, who survived the hammer attack, and Alex Ewing as seen in a mid-1980s booking photo.
A childhood photo of Vanessa Bennett, who survived the hammer attack, and Alex Ewing as seen in a mid-1980s booking photo.
Family photo via 9News/Nevada Department of Corrections via 9News
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At a press conference this morning, August 10, representatives of the Aurora Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies confirmed that Alex Christopher Ewing, a 57-year-old prisoner in Nevada, where he's serving time for brutally beating a couple with an ax handle, has been named in arrest warrants related to the 1984 hammer killings of Bruce, Debra and Melissa Bennett and the severe wounding of Vanessa Bennett, then age three, as well as the murder of Lakewood resident Patricia Louise Smith six days earlier.

Ewing's DNA profile, which was only recently uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database used by law enforcers nationwide, is said to have scored a match with samples from the scenes of the Colorado homicides, much to the relief of those at today's gathering, including current detectives working the case in Aurora and Lakewood and investigators who retired without being able to bring matters to a resolution.

"It was obvious that this case haunted our detectives and officers," said Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz, adding that "it was a case that haunted the families and victims to the core."

Prior to Colorado authorities tying him to the Bennett and Smith slayings, Ewing was just three years from becoming eligible for parole. Among the comments he's shared about himself online: "I've been no saint in my life but I want to do better and I realize I'm still alive by the grace of God."

Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz at the press conference.
Aurora Police Chief Nick Metz at the press conference.
Screen capture via 9News

The announcement was scheduled after a 9News report on August 7 maintained that a Nevada inmate was being eyed for the Bennett and Smith homicides, with formal charges likely to be divulged in the coming days. A subsequent APD statement advised the media in general that "any information provided by a source other than one of these organizations may be inaccurate and should be treated with caution. These are sensitive and complicated investigations, and information is being made available as quickly as possible."

Rather than being cowed by this warning, 9News and reporter Kevin Vaughan, a refugee from the Denver Post , doubled down, specifically naming Ewing in a piece that also detailed other hammer assaults in the metro area circa 1984 and doing so again in a moving interview with Vanessa, now 38 and living in Arizona. In conversation with Vaughan, Vanessa, who suffered a shattered jaw and pelvis, among many horrific injuries, revealed how she was taunted by kids at school about the "hammer man" and acknowledged a later history of substance abuse, a number of run-ins with the law and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and a bipolar condition. More recently, she recalled, she had received phone calls from representatives of the Aurora Police Department and the 18th Judicial District DA's Office during which Ewing was identified as the killer of her parents and sister.

In our 2013 account of the case, culled from the Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons website, we noted that Bruce Bennett had married Debra before joining the Navy, where he served at Pearl Harbor between 1976 and 1980 as a sonar analyst. Upon the completion of his service commitment, the couple moved to Aurora. There Bruce worked at a family-owned furniture store and helped Debra raise their two daughters.

"They led a very quiet life," said Constance Bennett, Bruce's mother. "They worked hard and stayed home at night." She added that Bruce had enrolled in a local college, where he trained to be an air-traffic controller with an eye toward landing a job at an airport in the area.

A family photo of the Bennetts: (left to right) Melissa, Bruce, Debra and Vanessa.
A family photo of the Bennetts: (left to right) Melissa, Bruce, Debra and Vanessa.
File photo

These dreams came to a shattering end on January 15, 1984. Between midnight and 6 a.m., following a family get-together in honor of Melissa, who was on the cusp of turning eight, an intruder entered the Bennett home.

According to Marvin Brandt, an Aurora police homicide detective who investigated the case up until his retirement in 2002, "It was a blitz attack for no reason." Investigators believe Bruce confronted an attacker on the stairs. Deep gashes were later found on his arms and body, and blood was found up and down the staircase. The following morning, Debra's body was discovered in her bedroom, while Melissa was found in her bed.

Vanessa, too, was in bed when her grandmother Constance first saw the carnage; she'd come to the house when Bruce hadn't shown up for work at the furniture store. Both Vanessa and Melissa were sexually assaulted.

More than 500 people were questioned during the initial phase of the investigation into the Bennett family killings, and while no arrests were made, detectives never stopped looking for the person or persons responsible. In 2002, for instance, the Aurora Police Department obtained an arrest warrant for the still-unknown killer based on DNA — a first in the state of Colorado.

Vanessa Bennett today.
Vanessa Bennett today.
9News via YouTube

Then, in 2010, a new twist: Aurora police announced a DNA link between the Bennett slayings and the murder six days earlier of Lakewood's Smith, a fifty-year-old whom authorities characterized at the time as "an outgoing, friendly, sophisticated woman who had recently started her own interior decorating business." The homicide took place between the hours of 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on January 10, 1984, in unit 5 of an apartment complex located at 12610 West Bayaud Avenue.

Six years later, in 2016, the APD used age-progressed DNA phenotyping, a technique developed by Parabon NanoLabs and dubbed Snapshot, to try to move the investigation forward. The result when it came to the Bennetts was a pair of images — one offering a likeness of a possible suspect as he looked at the time of the slaying, a second aged to approximate his appearance circa 2016.

Neither of these illustrations bears more than a slight resemblance to Ewing.

After the flurry of activity spurred by the Snapshot pics quieted down, the Bennett case slid from the headlines again — until this week.

While news media in Denver mostly steered clear of following 9News's Ewing scoop, the Las Vegas Review-Journal offered details on how he wound up behind bars in Nevada from its own archives — and a clip from the Arizona Republic published on August 13, 1984, around seven months from the death of Smith and the three Bennetts, unveils even more.

The Bennett home after the gruesome discovery.
The Bennett home after the gruesome discovery.

On August 9 of that year, the Republic pointed out, Ewing was being transported from St. George, Utah, to Kingman, Arizona, in a van with eleven other prisoners. The move was prompted by what the Review-Journal describes as "jail overcrowding" after he'd been taken into custody for beating a man in the head with a rock after breaking into his Kingman home.

When the van stopped for gas, the Republic allows, Ewing bolted. By the time he was nabbed by park rangers in Lake Mead on August 11 following a tip from a telephone company about his attempt to phone relatives in Arizona, he was already suspected of another crime: the ax-handle assault on Henderson, Nevada, residents Christopher and Nancy Barry, which took place the same day he slipped away from the van.

In 1985, Ewing was convicted of the Barry beatings and handed over to the Nevada Department of Corrections. Under his conviction, he was eligible for parole in 2021.

In the interim, Ewing placed a listing on the Meet an Inmate website seeking a pen pal. His page includes this photo....

A cropped version of Alex Ewing photo from his page on the Meet an Inmate website.
A cropped version of Alex Ewing photo from his page on the Meet an Inmate website.

...and the following text:

Alex Ewing 20866
P.O. Box 7000
Carson City, Nevada 89702

Race: Caucasian
Date of Birth: 8-14-1960
Height: 5'7"
Earliest Release Date: 2021
Maximum Release Date: 2023
Religion: Messianism
Would you like letters from both sexes? Women
(This does not refer to sexual orientation)
Education: High School
Occupation before prison: Loader Operator
Activities in prison: Exercise, art, studies

My name is Alex, 57 years old. Adventurous outdoor type; camping, travelling, exercising. Likes animals, old movies, old cars. A homebody who likes good conversations and cooking. Keeping an open mind towards future employment and trade possibilities while educating myself and keeping a sense of humor. I'm looking to meet a woman in her 50's for the purpose of becoming a pen-pal friend. I'll like a person for themselves; looks, race, creed or color does not matter. I'm not looking for someone to support me. Not to sound pathetic but after doing as much time as I have, a letter (especially from a woman) would mean a lot to me and something to look forward to. I've been no saint in my life but I want to do better and I realize I'm still alive by the grace of God. If any of what I've written interests you, I'd be glad to hear from you and answer your letters. Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, Alex C. Ewing.

During his remarks at the press conference, Aurora Police Chief Metz said that when he heard about the DNA results, "it sent a chill through my spine. ... There was a great deal of elation in knowing that we possibly had that suspect's identity known. ... It was really clear that even for officers who came on well after the murders of the Bennett family, it was something they, too, felt was great news to get at that time."

A more recent mug shot of Alex Ewing.
A more recent mug shot of Alex Ewing.
Nevada Department of Corrections via the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Within days of getting the results, Metz noted, "we met with victims and family members. ... It was obvious in talking with them that there's been no closure. ... These murders have not only destroyed the lives of those who were killed, but they've destroyed the lives of those who are still with us today. ... We hope they will feel a sense of justice and be able to heal just a little bit more."

These words were echoed by the next speaker, Lakewood Police Chief Dan McCasky. After pointing out that the Smith family planned to release a statement about the Ewing arrest warrants later today, he stressed that "your police officers, your public servants, are dedicated to solving all the cases that come our way. We never forgot this case, even 34 years later. ... It's challenging, it's difficult, but we don't forget these cases. They have a place in our heart."

Next up was John Camper, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's executive director, who shared a timeline of events leading to publicly accusing Ewing.

According to Camper, evidence from the Bennett and Smith homicides was submitted to the CBI on January 17, 1984, before DNA was widely used in criminal investigations. Seventeen years later, in 2001, a DNA profile was first obtained in the Bennett case and uploaded into CODIS.

Another nine years passed before the 2010 connection between the Bennett and Smith slayings was established, "confirming a link investigators had long suspected," Camper allowed.

Cut to early July 2018, when Camper said forensic experts in Nevada entered the results of Ewing's DNA-test swab into CODIS. He revealed that the CBI does a nightly search of data entered into the system, and the following day, staffers locally noticed a match with the Bennett evidence.

18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler at the press conference.
18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler at the press conference.
Screen capture via 9News

After a week's worth of additional verification work by CBI scientists, Camper outlined, a conference call was made in which all of the law enforcement agencies looking into the Smith and Bennett matters were informed about the breakthrough.

Following Camper to the podium was 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who started his presentation on a dramatic note. He said that 12,626 evenings ago, the Bennetts had celebrated the upcoming birthday of Melissa — but by the next morning, the four-person family had been reduced to one.

Brauchler, a candidate for Colorado Attorney General, shifted gears shortly thereafter. In his words, "Today represents the first public and foremost step on what will prove to be a long journey toward justice in this case. If we're going to achieve justice in this case, as with all cases in our system, it is important that I tell you...that no matter what you hear today, no matter what you discover on your own, no matter what you read in the affidavit, this individual is presumed innocent and must be presumed innocent until he may be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt."

Also important for Brauchler to highlight were the differences between the laws at the time of the crime and those in place today. For instance, murder circa 1984 tended to bring a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after twenty years, not life without the possibility of parole in extreme offenses. He stressed that he and his colleagues were exploring ways to ensure that Ewing earns the latter punishment, not the former.

"What happens next?" he asked rhetorically. "Today we will work alongside the First Judicial District DA's office to perfect the extradition paperwork we will send to the governor's office. I have every confidence the governor will seek to extradite this individual from Nevada, where he is currently incarcerated," and seek to bring him to Colorado as quickly as possible.

First Judicial District DA Pete Weir at the press conference.
First Judicial District DA Pete Weir at the press conference.
Screen capture via 9News

Also coming in for praise from Brauchler was Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Back in 2013, Brauchler said, "Nevada decided to join almost every state in the country...and said, 'We are going to authorize taking the DNA profiles of people who are incarcerated.'" However, such testing didn't take place immediately and only went forward, by Brauchler's telling, because Laxalt issued an opinion saying that the state "should retroactively test all the other inmates. And that's why we're here today."

Shortly thereafter, 1st Judicial District DA Pete Weir got his turn to speak — and his focus was on Smith.

"It appears she was having lunch," Weir said of the day she was killed. "And that lunch was interrupted. She obviously met with an individual who then preceded to beat her to death."

Yesterday, he continued, "we presented an affidavit that detailed a recitation of facts that we believe resulted in probable cause for the arrest of Alexander Christopher Ewing. ... The request detailed that we believe he's responsible for the murder and assault of Patricia Smith."

These charges are set to be filed early next week. In the meantime, a Jefferson County judge has already issued an arrest warrant for Ewing.

Weir didn't know when Ewing would be transported from Nevada. "It could take a couple of weeks to a month or two. I just don't know," he admitted. "But we will move with all appropriate speed to have Mr. Ewing returned to the state of Colorado to exercise all his rights — but to be able to bring these matters to an appropriate conclusion."

After three decades-plus and counting.

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