AURORA, Colo. — Ask Ron and Donna Holm how they got engaged, and when they married, and there’s a lot of laughter.
“I made her favorite dessert one night and didn't let her know,” Ron said as he and Donna sat on a comfortable couch in their family room, holding hands. “It’s this pistachio dessert. And then I chopped up some nuts. And it’s got whipped cream on the top and pistachio pudding, and it’s got a crust.”
Using the nuts, he wrote a simple message on top:
Will You Marry Me?
“I hid it in the fridge,” he said. “And after we'd eaten, I brought it out and put it in front of her. That's how we got engaged to be married.”
As he told the story, they both started laughing.
Then they’re asked the date of the big day.
“I better – May 30th,” Ron said, cracking up before Donna joined in. They recited the year in unison: “1984.”
“Whew,” Ron said.
“You passed,” Donna told him.
And then this longtime airline pilot and longtime flight attendant, married now for 37 years, laughed some more.
It’s not just that those are happy memories for a happy couple. It’s that they were made in the months after a man with a hammer surprised Donna in the garage of their condominium, beat her with a ball-peen hammer, sexually assaulted her and left her for dead on the concrete – one of four similar attacks in January 1984 in the Denver area.
It’s that they got engaged, and married, while Donna was still learning how to do everything anew – things like speaking and eating. A wig covered her bald head and healing wounds as she and Ron said, “I do,” in a friend’s backyard.
She recovered, returned to work a year after the attack, and refused to let what that man did to her define her life.
It wasn’t always easy.
“People would always say, ‘Oh, you're so lucky,’ ” she said. “Well, in all honesty, back then I didn't feel lucky. I would be like, ‘No, you're lucky it didn't happen to you,’ because I had to rebuild. I had to learn everything all over again, and it's very overwhelming and tough to go through.”
And yet, she said she's thankful for where her life has gone.
“Every day is a blessing to me because, technically, I shouldn't be here,” she said.
A series of attacks
No charges will ever be filed in Donna Holm's case.
Police and prosecutors believe her attacker was Alex Christopher Ewing, who was convicted this month of bludgeoning to death Bruce and Debra Bennett and their 7-year-old daughter, Melissa, a week after the attack on Donna. The couple’s younger daughter, 3-year-old Vanessa, was grievously injured but survived.
The murder weapon was never located, but investigators think it was a claw hammer. Ewing, 61, was sentenced in that case to three consecutive life sentences
He also has another trial scheduled in October in Jefferson County in the rape and murder of Patricia Louise Smith, a 50-year-old interior decorator. She was killed the day after Donna was attacked, beaten to death with an auto body hammer in the Lakewood townhouse she shared with her daughter and two grandchildren.
The attacks were unsolved for more than three decades before a 2018 DNA hit led investigators to Ewing.
At the time, Ewing was behind bars in Nevada for a late-night ax handle attack on a couple in Henderson.
'That's where my memory goes'
Donna has vivid memories of the hours leading up to the attack: driving across town to buy a barbecue grill as a gift for Ron, stopping at a grocery store and writing a check for $5 over the purchase so she’d have a little cash, picking up her mail.
It was early evening, and dark outside, when she finally pulled into the garage.
“At this point, I know I'm safe, I'm home,” she said. “Nothing's following me. So I reach and grab the mail, swing the [car] door open, and that's where my memory goes. It’s now erased.”
The attacker hit Donna in the head and rendered her unconscious, then dragged her out of the passenger side of the car, her ribs bending the emergency brake handle.
He sexually assaulted her on the floor, rummaged through her purse and fled.
Donna regained consciousness, naked, feeling as though she'd had way too much to drink.
“I'm outside of the house, trying to get in and falling down, standing up, falling down,” she said.
Ron was on an overnight flight. He returned home the next day.
“I get out and go in and start going in the house, and I see there's blood on the stoop,” he said. “So I ran inside, ran over to the bedroom, and I saw her lying in bed with all his blood. And I started yelling at her and kinda rolled her over, and I see this big dent in her head.”
At the hospital, Ron worried that the attacker would return. In the early days, he slept on the floor next to her bed with a gun. Eventually, a police officer was stationed outside her door.
From the beginning, Donna struggled with the most basic tasks.
“In the hospital, I say I had the mentality of a 2-year-old,” she said. “Everything was new to me. … I didn't know a knife and fork. I couldn't even tell you that I can't open my mouth and how hard it is to eat.”
Things she had done without thinking since childhood eluded her.
“Silverware is there,” she said. “I don't know what you do with this.”
After a couple of weeks, she was well enough to be released.
“That's when the policeman and a therapist from the hospital were in my room and told me about what happened to this girl,” Donna said. “And I'm crying, and I thought, oh, how sad it is for her. And they kept saying, 'Well, that was you,' and it's like I, I don't know anything of what you're talking about. I just think it's really sad.”
As Donna’s body healed, she had to endure months of therapy to help her mind get better.
“I had to try to figure out what to do. How do I get my life back? Because I would hang up from a conversation on the phone – Ron’s like, who is it, what’d you talk about? I don't know.”
In the midst of all that, they married.
She returned to work in January 1985, a year and nine days after the attack.
“Her speech therapist broke down and cried,” Ron said.
'We'll go together, we'll be there'
By the time Ewing was identified as a suspect in Donna’s attack, more than 34 years had passed.
The statute of limitations meant that it was too late to file charges for the physical and sexual assaults on Donna. Prosecutors told the couple they could pursue a kidnapping charge, under the theory that the assailant had moved Donna against her will from the car to the garage floor, but Ron was opposed.
“I said, ‘I'm not going to put her through all this stuff,' ” he said.
After all, Ewing was facing multiple counts of first-degree murder for the killings of Smith and the three members of the Bennett family.
As Ewing stood trial for the Bennett murders this month, a friend called Donna.
“We're going to go there for the final arguments,” the friend said. “Would you like to go?”
Donna said yes.
“I’d never thought about it,” Ron said. “So now when she said would like to go, I said, ‘Well, we'll go together, we'll be there. Let's show support to the families that weren't as fortunate as we were.’ ”
The took seats near the front of the courtroom as prosecutors and defense attorneys summarized their cases for the jury.
It was the first time either of them had seen Ewing in person.
“I've kinda put him behind us,” Ron said. “And he just looked like a kind of a frail old man sitting down there.”
It was a look, Donna believes, that was planned: a “feeble old man playing on the jury.”
The next day, as Donna was in the air headed to Europe, the jury convicted Ewing on all counts.
“I think I'm past the anger, and he's getting justice being done here,” Ron said.
If Donna hadn’t recovered, “there might be some real hate still lingering in my body. But to see the way she's turned out – she’s the most wonderful person there could be.”
For Donna, there is the blessing of having no memory of the assault itself – and gratitude that while the attack changed her, it did not alter the essence of who she is.
“He did that to my body, but not my soul,” she said.
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.
The story of the assaults, the search for a killer, and the anxiety that gripped the survivors and altered life in the Denver metro area is the subject of a 9Wants to Know investigative podcast.
“BLAME: The Fear All These Years” takes listeners back to the attacks and tells the stories of those most deeply impacted — the survivors and the loved ones of the dead. It follows the police investigation through years of cold-case frustration, forensic breakthroughs and the latest developments.
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