Almost from the beginning, Phoenix-based crime writer Jana Bommersbach knew something was terribly wrong.
Television stations in Phoenix were reporting that Loretta Bowersock, a Tempe businesswoman, was missing. Loretta and her daughter, Terri, had created a multimillion-dollar chain of stores – including one in Tucson – called Terri’s Consign & Design Furnishings, offering “gently used” furniture to customers. Loretta was reported missing by her live-in partner, Taw Benderly.
Speaking from her home in Phoenix, Bommersbach recalls that Loretta was reported missing in December 2004, and what first attracted her to the story is that she casually knew Terri and what Benderly was telling investigators simply did not add up.
According to the statement Benderly gave Tucson police, he and Loretta had driven to Tucson on Dec. 14, stopping at least twice along the way for sandwiches and baseball caps. He added that they arrived later that day at the Park Place mall, where he left Loretta so she could shop. He concluded that when he returned for her sometime later, she had vanished.
“What tripped him up from the very beginning were the surveillance cameras at the mall,” Bommersbach said. When Tucson police examined the tapes, they found no evidence that Taw had been at the mall or dropped Loretta there.
As Benderly’s story began to unravel, police worked to build a case against him. But before an arrest could be made, he threw an extension cord over a rafter in the family home in Tempe and committed suicide. Shortly before he killed himself, he created a file on his computer named “Vows for Eternity.” It simply said, “Loretta and I vowed over the years that we would spend eternity together, and so we shall.”
Even though he more or less confirmed he had killed Loretta, no one knew what he had done with the body. He had taken his final secret to the grave.
As Terri Bowersock began sifting through her mother’s personal belongings, she found graphic evidence that Loretta had been a victim of domestic abuse. That abuse exploded during a quarrel over finances Monday afternoon, Dec. 13, 2004. When Loretta found unauthorized withdrawals, she confronted Benderly and in a rage he killed her. He then wrapped her body, placed it in Loretta’s van, withdrew $24,000 and headed south on Interstate 10. He disposed of the body somewhere between Tempe and Tucson.
Looking for a body in the Arizona desert is difficult even under the best of circumstances. With no clues, the task is more than daunting.
“After months of searching, the body was eventually found, thanks in no small part to the grit and determination of Terri, who vowed in her first statement to The Arizona Republic that she would find her mother’s body and see that it was properly buried,” Bommersbach said.
In addition to Terri’s involvement, there was also insight and luck involving a psychic and a couple of rock hunters who led investigators to a shallow grave just south of Interstate 8 and east of state Route 84.
This fascinating case has been documented in gripping detail in a book by Bommersbach, “Bones in the Desert,” a new true crime release by St. Martin’s Press.
“This is a sad account of a lovely woman who was murdered at the hands of the man she loved and it is a story that could not have been written without the cooperation and help of Terri, who wanted her mother’s story told so that more people recognize the very real consequences of abuse, both physical and verbal,” Bommersbach said.