Murder Story

Sensationalism and speculation hinder this book about the death of Loretta Bowersock

Many Arizonans remember the name Bowersock: It was the last name of the unfortunate 69-year-old Loretta, who was murdered, almost certainly by her longtime boyfriend, Taw Benderly, and buried in the remote Arizona desert in 2004.

Her story is fascinating and terribly, terribly sad. Although it was obsessively followed in the local news, it merited a more complete treatment in the true-crime book Bones in the Desert. Veteran journalist Jana Bommersbach has done a fine job of researching and reporting the heartbreaking tale, but her account is ultimately undone by sensationalism, speculation and a little too much attention to detail.

In 1986, Loretta, then a successful professional (she co-founded a business with her daughter and worked as a tennis instructor), decided to lease a room in her Tempe home. The man who responded, Taw Benderly, showed up like a character from a romance novel, straddling a motorcycle and brimming with stories about his days as a student at Wharton business school and as a top-flight entrepreneur. Drawn to his mystique and willfully ignoring his lack of cash and personal connections, Loretta welcomed Taw into her home and her life as her romantic partner.

Taw quickly proved himself incapable of holding a job, making money or following through on any of his business schemes. But Loretta loved him and kept supporting his ephemeral ventures, even when friends and family warned against it. Eventually, a rift formed between her and her daughter, Terri, after Taw convinced Loretta to sell her share in the business she and Terri co-owned. Soon before her death, Loretta's prized asset, her home, went into foreclosure; it turned out Taw had been hiding the warning notices.

It's unknown what precisely happened in the end--whether Loretta snapped and threatened to throw Taw out, or whether he thought that by killing her, he could make a clean break--but in December 2004, he almost certainly killed his longtime lover after financially and emotionally abusing her for nearly two decades.

Bones in the Desert centers on the killing, the subsequent investigation and the search for Loretta's body, which took a gut-wrenching 13 months. Bommersbach, who covered the Bowersock story for Phoenix magazine, is a skilled reporter. She spent months going through court documents, reviewing paperwork, driving through the desert and talking to everyone who knew anything about Loretta and Taw. The account is gripping at times, but the book is strongest when Bommersbach uses Loretta's own sad words, little notes she wrote to herself to try to get by. After a self-help program, she forgave herself for her perceived failings: "I forgive myself for not being 'enough' to attract a kind, gentle, supportive, secure, honest, financially viable man as a partner"; "I forgive myself for accepting so little for so much of me."

Unfortunately, Bommersbach can't quite resist the urge to sensationalize. The book's weakest sections are those filled with wild speculation about what might have happened in Loretta's horrible last moments. Bommersbach also has a penchant for the obvious ("The desert is a dry, dusty, prickly place") and overwrites at times: She fills an entire paragraph with a physical description of the outlet stores where Taw briefly stopped on his way to the desert, just after she spends another guessing Taw's speed as he drove.

The book's star is Loretta's daughter, Terri, owner of eight companies that deal mostly in furniture consignment. Terri is completely convinced that she has received a number of "messages" from her mother via psychics who foretold the location of her mother's body. It is clearly difficult for Bommersbach to include the strong role psychics played in Terri's version of the story; she does a good job of giving credit to Terri's beliefs and mentioning where the psychics were right, but also goes into somewhat amusing detail about how a number of them were dead-wrong.

At the end of the book, Bommersbach submits an emotional personal note about working on the story and speaks passionately about the prevalence of elder abuse. She refers to an anecdote from Darla Neal, one of Loretta's sisters, that if you put a frog in very hot water, it will jump out, but if you put it in tepid water over heat, it will stay in until it's boiled.

This perfectly describes Loretta's tragic situation and forms a fitting coda to what would have been a fine book had it not veered into the realm of tabloids. It's hard to say whether Bommersbach decided to go the sensationalist route; many journalists are pressured into over-dramatizing their accounts.

The important thing, though, is that Loretta Bowersock's story got told again. A story like hers can't be told enough.

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