Vanessa Bennett Schulz stood at a wooden podium in the center of an Arapahoe County courtroom Tuesday, steps from the man who slaughtered her family and almost killed her, too, nearly four decades ago at their home in Aurora.
In front of a courtroom filled with family, Bennett Schulz described how the attack when she was 3 years old derailed her life, how growing up she bore not only the physical scars of nearly being beaten to death, but also the emotional trauma.
As a child she was angry, she didn’t sleep, she suffered night terrors, she said. She hurt herself and became addicted to heroin for some 20 years; she’s sober now.
“I didn’t just lose my parents and sister,” she told the judge. “I lost trust in people, I lost my dignity and my pride. I lost the person I was supposed to be.”
She let out a ragged sob.
“I lost my sanity. I look in the mirror every day at myself and I hate who I am… I hate what I had to go through, and what I still go through,” she said.
Sitting with his attorneys, Alex Ewing, 61, showed no emotion during her comments or when 18th Judicial District Judge Darren Vahle sentenced him to three consecutive life sentences for the murders of 27-year-old Bruce Bennett, 26-year-old Debra Bennett and their daughter, 7-year-old Melissa Bennett, on Jan. 15, 1984.
Ewing technically will become eligible for parole on the first life sentence in 20 years, but because the lifetime terms are to run consecutively, he can’t be released then, officials said.
“Every breath you’ve drawn since 1984 is a crime against everything that is good and decent and right in the world,” the judge said to Ewing, calling him an “abomination” and adding he would have sentenced him to death if he could. Colorado last year abolished the death penalty.
Ewing declined to speak on his own behalf during the emotional sentencing hearing, at which a family that had waited decades for justice finally saw it done. Ewing broke into the Bennett family’s Aurora home and used a knife and hammer to brutally murder the family. Melissa Bennett, the 7-year-old, was also raped. Only Bennett Schulz survived, though she was severely injured.
The attack was one of a spree of similar attacks by the so-called “Hammer Killer” in the Denver region during a 12-day span in January 1984. In addition to the fatal attack on the Bennetts, a 28-year-old woman was bludgeoned nearly to death and sexually assaulted after she pulled into her Aurora garage on Jan. 9, 1984. Days earlier, on Jan. 4, 1984, someone slipped inside an Aurora home and used a hammer to beat a couple, who both survived. On Jan. 10, 1984, 50-year-old Patricia Smith was killed at her home in Lakewood.
“You inflicted on this community an unspeakable orgy of violence,” Vahle told Ewing.
Ewing also has been charged with Smith’s murder. That case is scheduled to go to trial in Jefferson County on Oct. 18.
Investigators said advances in DNA testing allowed authorities to identify Ewing as a suspect more than three decades after the random attacks, matching his DNA to genetic material found at both crime scenes. Ewing had been imprisoned in mid-1984, just months after the Bennetts’ killings, on a 40-year sentence for attacking a couple with an ax handle in Nevada.
A jury earlier this month convicted Ewing on all counts related to the Bennett murders.
Connie Bennett, Bruce’s mother, raised Bennett Schulz after her parents and sister were killed. During Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, Connie Bennett described a moment when her granddaughter started first grade and a teacher asked what had caused her scars.
“She replied, ‘Someone came and killed my mom and dad and murdered me,’” Bennett said. “She was right, because it changed her.”
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