Arrest Prompts Range Of Emotions For Victims’ Friends
POLICE CONTINUE TO SEEK SUSPECT’S ASSOCIATES
For many, the news that police had caught up to the man suspected in the brutal murder of their classmate and her daughter more than 30 years ago was predictably jolting.
For some, it ripped open old wounds and triggered tears that wouldn’t stop flowing.
And for others, it vindicated a husband and stepfather who struggled to shed the cloak of suspicion.
Last week’s arrest of 64-year-old Jerry Nemnich of Longmont in connection with the slayings of 24-year-old Linda Benson and her 5-year-old daughter, Kelley, triggered an array of emotions for friends who moved on with their lives but never forgot those that ended in July 1975.
“I’m really thrilled with what’s happened in the last week. I always hoped there would be an arrest,” said John Foote, a high-school friend of Linda Benson’s husband, Steve. His wife, Mona, was friends with Linda, and his daughter, Michelle, was one of Kelley’s playmates.
Linda Benson, whose maiden name was Ketchum, graduated from Grand Junction High School in 1969. Steve Benson graduated three years earlier. The two married in 1970, the same year Kelley was born from a previous relationship Linda had.
Friends recalled Linda Benson as a petite brunette who smiled and laughed frequently, was a strong student and made friends easily.
Mike Holmes, a Grand Junction criminal defense attorney, said he took Benson out on a few dates in high school and was in several classes with her.
“Linda was just a really nice girl. She was very good looking, very nice personality,” he said.
“She was a sweetheart, there’s no question about it. Everyone liked Linda.”
Holmes, who said Benson survived a serious car accident in town a year or two after graduation, was on summer break from law school in San Antonio when he learned that she and Kelley had been stabbed to death.
“We all tried desperately to come up with a theory as to who might have done that to her and her daughter,” said Holmes, who wondered whether there was a connection between that case and one in which his friend died mysteriously in Denver around the same time.
Mark Zipse was in graduate school at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley in the summer of 1975 when he heard that a Linda Benson had been killed in Grand Junction. The name didn’t mean anything to him.
It wasn’t until last week when he picked up the newspaper and saw the name Ketchum that he realized he knew the murdered woman.
“(She was) just one of those kids you would always come up to and say hi, and you could talk to her,” said Zipse, a longtime School District 51 administrator now serving as the assistant principal at Fruita Middle School. “She wasn’t part of one of those snobby groups or any cliques.”
Friends of Steve Benson remembered times they went out drinking, playing or listening to live music and occasionally wreaking havoc. Foote said he and Benson were part of a group of guys that grew up together on Orchard Mesa and later joined the military and went off to Vietnam. Back in Grand Junction, Foote and Benson worked together for a construction company.
“He was a totally nice guy. Everybody liked him. Lots of friends,” Foote said.
But he said Benson changed after returning from Vietnam.
“I can’t put my finger on it. I can’t explain it. But he was a different person,” Foote said, theorizing that Benson “saw some horrible things” during the war.
Mona Foote remembers the day her mother, who had taught Linda Benson in school, called her and told her Linda and Kelley had been found dead the day before.
“You can’t even process it,” Mona Foote said. “She kept repeating things over and over.”
In the days and weeks that followed the deaths of his wife and stepdaughter, Steve Benson did his own detective work independent of police, friends said. He’d accuse one person one day of committing the crimes, then another person the next. He criticized the police investigation.
“He was trying to solve the case himself,” John Foote said.
And then, Benson disappeared. Friends said they haven’t heard from him since the murders and have no idea where he is.
They say, however, they’re glad an arrest was made, not only for Linda and Kelley Benson’s relatives, but for Steve Benson. Even though police announced within days of the murders that he “has been pretty much cleared” — he discovered the bodies but had been working as a pipe fitter in Hayden for several days beforehand — whispers persisted that Benson may have killed his wife and stepdaughter.
“The fact that they made an arrest, I think it’s kind of a vindication for Steve,” said Bill Wagner, a friend and fellow 1966 Grand Junction High graduate and current real-estate agent. “For years I’m sure he’s been held at least in some people’s eyes (as a suspect).”
Mike Page, who also graduated with Benson, said he believes the cloak of suspicion that hung around Benson “would have been a huge torch to bear.”
“To be honest, I was absolutely delighted for Steve that he wasn’t the guy,” said Page, a 36-year veteran of the Grand Junction Fire Department. “I wished that could have occurred 30-some years ago.
“I don’t think (Benson) ever exited out of that cloud of suspicion until now. I don’t know that we know absolutely, 1,000 percent for sure know (who the killer is), but certainly this (arrest) goes toward saying, ‘No, he didn’t do it.’ ”