Vanessa Bennett sat under a picnic shelter on a muggy Arizona morning and talked for the first time about the physical and emotional toll she bears as the only surviving victim of one of Colorado’s most brutal crimes.
Bennett is 38 now, and the scars of the 1984 hammer attack that left her clinging to life are visible.
“I don’t remember anything at all,” she told 9Wants to Know on Thursday in her first interview in more than two decades. “Honestly – people ask me that all the time if I remember things but I don’t. I remember bits and pieces of the last Christmas.”
That last Christmas was 1983. Her parents, Bruce and Debra Bennett, had just moved into a new home in Aurora. Vanessa was 3; her sister Melissa was 7.
Vanessa's life changed on Jan. 16, 1984. Her grandmother, Constance Bennett, went to the family’s home that morning after her son and daughter-in-law didn’t show up for work at the family’s furniture business. She walked into a scene of absolute horror: Bruce Bennett crumpled near the bottom of the stairs, Debra Bennett and Melissa dead in their bedrooms, Vanessa barely breathing.
The attacker was savage – beating all four with a hammer, slashing Bruce Bennett’s throat with a butcher knife as he fought to save his family.
“I was in a coma,” Vanessa Bennett said Thursday. “My jaw was wired shut. I had tubes in my nose to eat. I went through physical therapy. I had braces on my legs.”
The physical injuries were difficult to overcome.
“I had paralysis on my left-hand side,” she said. “So, like, I felt handicapped, you know. I had a lot of anger issues growing up. My family really couldn’t handle me – I just wore everybody out with my problems.”
Today, she traces the injuries with her fingers.
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“I have a metal plate in my forehead,” she said. “I have frontal – I guess frontal lobe issues because I was hit in the head with a hammer. My skull kind of breaks right here. My jaw is shattered, which is why it’s kind – I need a facelift – I had a tracheotomy here. I have scars on my ankles, stomach, everywhere pretty much.
“I have a shattered pelvis, but I guess I healed pretty well.”
Some of those problems were fueled by the things other kids said to her.
“I was made fun of in school because my parents were killed,” she said. “I was made fun of because the hammer man or whatever you want to call it was going to come to my house and hurt everybody when I had slumber parties and stuff.
“I was made fun of for a long time.”
She was frank as she discussed her life. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. She also struggled for a decade with substance abuse problems and got into multiple scrapes with the law.
“My parents dying is the main reason I started using,” she said. “I had issues with my grandmother growing up because of my anger issues and I kind of turned to drugs. I’m not saying just because of her, but I was hurt growing up, she was hurt, and I just chose a different path of trying to make things go away.”
Then, this week, she got two phone calls – one from someone with the Aurora Police Department, another from the District Attorney’s Office. They told her a man behind bars in Nevada since August 1984, Alex Christopher Ewing, was suspected of being the attacker who altered her life and took her parents and sister from her.
“I can’t remember her name, but she said you parents’ killer had been caught,” she said. “And I didn’t – I wasn’t … like … in shock. I mean, I guess it really hasn’t hit me yet – it’s been 34 years. But I was just OK.”
She is getting help now for her mental health and substance abuse issues, and Thursday afternoon, when she was asked if she was hopeful about the future, she answered with a smile.
“I am, I am … I have big things planned,” she said.
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.