Lead investigator: Arrest eases burden of frustrating 1975 case

For 34 years, Ron Smith has carried with him the burden of knowing that his best efforts to find justice for a slain mother and 5-year-old girl weren’t enough.

Smith was a lieutenant in charge of the Grand Junction Police Department’s investigations unit when Linda and Kelley Benson were brutally murdered inside their apartment in July 1975.

Detectives that year spent thousands of hours probing the deaths and interviewed hundreds of people. But a rash of homicides plagued the Grand Valley that summer — police later dubbed it “The Killing Season” — and the question of who killed the Bensons ultimately faded into history unanswered.

“You certainly feel a sense of failure,” Smith said. “You certainly don’t want to be responsible for a case that goes unsolved, and add that to the fact that a 5-year-old girl was killed. It’s something that sticks with you. I had a sense of failing that girl.”

On Thursday, a call from a reporter began the process of lifting the weight off Smith.

Police confirmed that they have arrested a man believed to have stabbed Linda and Kelley Benson to death in their apartment. The suspect, who has not been identified, will be advised of murder charges in a Mesa County courtroom today.

While it appears DNA evidence created the break police needed to obtain an arrest warrant, it was Smith who urged the police administration two years ago to take another look at the Benson case.

Smith said the arrest reaffirms the competence of the officers he supervised who processed the crime scene. And it may also confirm a long-held suspicion of his: that a serial killer could be responsible.

Several media outlets reported the suspect is believed to be linked to several other murders around the same time in Grand Junction and Denver. That makes sense to Smith, based on what he said police told him Thursday.

“It was nobody on our radar back in 1975,” he said. “I’ve been told we were chasing ghosts because it apparently was no one that we had connected to the family.”

Smith was eating dinner with other officers at a local restaurant the evening of July 25, 1975, when he was called out to the Benson apartment on North 21st Street.

He said the case was filled with twists and turns that complicated the investigation, including the fact that Linda Benson’s sister was found dead in a tent in Pitkin County and her mother and stepfather were involved in an acrimonious divorce.

A Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent whose blood analysis expertise Smith trusted died of a heart attack before he could send her evidence for testing.

Ultimately, police quickly eliminated Steve Benson, Linda’s husband and Kelley’s father, as a suspect based on his solid alibi.

They looked at all of the Bensons’ relatives, known criminals in Mesa County and homicides in the region to see if there were similarities.

All leads hit a dead end. Everyone was cleared.

Smith led a task force in January 1976 that re-examined the murders of the Bensons and 19-year-old Debra Tomlinson. The group split up three months later without making any headway.

Smith retired in 1980 after 20 years with the Police Department and later became a private investigator. The Benson case haunted him.

“You always wondered whether you had missed something, whether you were sitting across that table from the person that did this,” he said.

Then, during an encounter with police Cmdr. Greg Assenmacher two years ago, Smith pushed Assenmacher to dust off the Benson case.

He was convinced the evidence existed. It just needed someone with the time to review it and the benefit of technology.

Smith ultimately teamed with Assenmacher and others to form a cold-case unit that reopened several cases, including the Bensons’.

They sent physical evidence collected from the crime scene to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. On Thursday, Smith learned their work yielded the result he wished for 34 years ago.

“I’m really proud of Greg for picking it up and holding onto it,” he said.


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