MISSOULA – They called it a cold case in California, but more than 30 years later, the brutal murder of Mary Bennett still simmers in Montana.
Investigators from the San Francisco Police Department revealed on Feb. 23 that DNA evidence positively ties Bennett’s slaying to David Joseph Carpenter, the so-called Trailside Killer of the early 1980s and a longtime suspect.
“I wasn’t even fazed when I heard the news,” said Terri Waldorf of Butte, Bennett’s younger sister. “I always knew who did it.”
Carpenter was sentenced to die in 1984 for two murders in the Bay Area, and in 1988 was convicted of five more slayings — all coming after Bennett’s death in October 1979. A 49-year-old habitual felon who spoke with a severe stutter, Carpenter was finally identified by the boyfriend of one of his victims in the spring of 1981, a man he left for dead with a gunshot wound in his neck.
At 79, he’s reportedly the oldest of 621 inmates on Death Row at San Quentin, where the last execution took place more than four years ago.
“I’m the blunt one of the family,” said Dinny Bennett of Colstrip, Mary’s brother. “I’m glad it was finally proven, and I’m sorry to see the bastard still alive.”
His siblings echo the sentiment, if in softer terms.
“It’s real interesting to hear people talk sometimes about forgiving and forgetting and those things,” Tim Bennett of Kalispell said. “But, boy, I tell you what, it just changed things for us.”
Mary Bennett was 23 when she died. She was the second of six children raised by Gene and Betty Bennett on a farm near Deer Lodge that dates back in the family to 1883.
“We had 160 acres, started out with potatoes, raised 20 head of cows, had pigs in FFA in high school,” Dinny Bennett said. “Just a Catholic family living on a farm.”
All six kids were off to college or launching careers in the fall of 1979. Mary had graduated from Montana State University that spring and was immediately offered an internship at Wohlfeiler and Beck, a San Francisco accounting firm. She passed her CPA exams in July on the first try.
“It usually takes up to three times,” Dinny said. “She was a very intelligent young lady.”
Bennett had been in California only three months when her body was found on Oct. 21 in a park near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was covered by a thin layer of dirt and branches. Somebody had stabbed her so many times that one police officer said she’d been butchered.
The news of Mary’s death hit the whole family hard, but none more than her mother.
“Part of her died the day Mary did,” Dinny said.
Eight years later Betty Bennett, director of nurses at the nursing home in Deer Lodge, died of complications from rheumatoid arthritis. She was just 53, a year younger than Mary would have been today.
Gene Bennett, who spent his whole life on the farm in the Deer Lodge Valley, passed away in 2007 at age 78. Both he and his wife were surrounded by family at their ends. They’re buried at Hillcrest Cemetery in Deer Lodge next to Mary.
The six Bennett siblings, all graduates of Powell County High School, were separated by less than six years. Joe, 55, was a year older than Mary. Tim, the youngest, turns 50 in May.
Joe Bennett was a second-year teacher in Plentywood when Mary died. Now the superintendent of schools there, he received the call from San Francisco police on Feb. 5 that informed the family of the DNA findings and the pending publicity they would be receiving.
Lorri Bennett, third born behind Joe and Mary, is a registered nurse at St. James Hospital in Butte, where all the Bennetts were born. She lives in the same Deer Lodge Valley ranch house that her father grew up in.
Waldorf is a social worker in Butte, where she’s lived since 1987 after spending a couple of years in Gillette, Wyo. A student at Montana State University in 1979, she was in her apartment in Bozeman when Mary’s boyfriend brought the horrific news.
Dinny Bennett is middle school principal in Colstrip. He and Tim, a teacher at Flathead High School in Kalispell for 25 years, were students at Western Montana College in Dillon when Mary died. Their aunt and uncle drove down from Butte to break the news.
Their sister’s decision to leave Montana had been no surprise.
“She’d always wanted to do the big city thing,” said Lorri, who graduated from St. Patrick nursing school in Missoula in 1978 and was working in Polson in October 1979.
Mary was murdered on a Sunday, while jogging at Lands End, a park in northwest San Francisco. The next morning, Lorri received a letter in the mail from her big sister.
“It was all about how she loved San Francisco and she was enjoying life to the fullest,” she recalled. “Mary had visited me in Polson before she left, and she and I were talking about how I was going to come down and see her some day. So I was all excited.”
After work that evening, Lorri took in a movie in Polson. Midway through, she was called to the lobby.
“I had an uncle who lived in Ronan, and they had called him to find me, to tell me about Mary,” she said.
She still remembers the movie — “Sleeping Beauty.” She appreciated the irony when, years later, she read one of two books written about the Trailside Killer. The author, Robert Graysmith, wrote about Mary’s murder and investigators’ suspicions of Carpenter’s involvement.
For a title, Graysmith chose the nickname for Mount Tamalpais, a trail-laced landmark in Marin County where many of the murders occurred. He called the book “The Sleeping Lady.”
“How strange is that?” Lorri said.
Tim Bennett named his first child after the aunt she never knew. Mary Lindsay Bennett goes by Lindsay now. She was a standout athlete at Flathead High in Kalispell and is now a senior at Carroll College.
He’s heard the comment a number of times in the past two weeks, as graduation pictures of his sister have appeared in newspapers and on television. Lindsay, they say, looks so much like her aunt.
“The same facial features. Long dark hair, the same smile,” Lorri said.
“The resemblance is very striking,” Tim agreed. “Almost spooky.”
Lindsay Bennett is one of 11 nieces and nephews Mary could have championed and pampered had she not gone for a run in San Francisco that Sunday afternoon 30 years ago. Golfers at the Lincoln Park municipal course at Lands End told detectives they heard a woman’s “long agonized screams.” But they didn’t investigate because they saw a police car nearby and assumed help was on the way.
The Bennetts learned from police that Carpenter showed up at an emergency room that day with a maimed thumb. He claimed he’d been bitten by a dog. The police said the stab wounds on Mary’s body, at least 25 of them on her neck, chest and back, were indications that she had resisted Carpenter’s sexual advances.
“In many ways, over the years, I never gave him a whole lot of thought,” said Lorri Bennett. “It was always more about Mary and how much she’s missed being with us. We’re a very close family, and she missed a lot of good things. That’s what saddens me most.”
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