Bones in the Desert: The True Story of a Mother's Murder and a Daughter's Search [NOOK Book]


Loretta Bowersock and her daughter, Terri, ran a multimillion-dollar furniture store based in Tempe, Arizona, where they were well-known and admired by many. Together, these two women seemed to be living the American Dream…until one man decided to take it all away.

Over the course of two decades, Taw Benderly worked his way into Loretta’s heart, home, and business. Though the couple appeared to be happy, their lives behind closed doors told another story. Terri had always known ...

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Bones in the Desert: The True Story of a Mother's Murder and a Daughter's Search

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Loretta Bowersock and her daughter, Terri, ran a multimillion-dollar furniture store based in Tempe, Arizona, where they were well-known and admired by many. Together, these two women seemed to be living the American Dream…until one man decided to take it all away.

Over the course of two decades, Taw Benderly worked his way into Loretta’s heart, home, and business. Though the couple appeared to be happy, their lives behind closed doors told another story. Terri had always known that the handsome, charming, and usually unemployed Taw was manipulating her mother—but she did not know the extent of the abuse or how far he would go to defraud her. Then, just before Christmas in 2004, Loretta went missing. It would be more than a year before Terri learned the shocking truth: That, before killing himself, Taw murdered the 69-year-old Loretta and left her.

Bones in the Desert is the shocking story of a devoted mother and daughter, a successful business, and the man who would do everything to destroy it all ...

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429944274
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2008
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 531,225
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Jana Bommersbach is an acclaimed Arizona journalist and author of The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd, which was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award and won Arizona's only literary prize. She has been Arizona's Journalist of the Year, won a Regional Emmy for her television writing and has been honored with two lifetime achievement awards for her newspaper and magazine reporting. She lives in Phoenix. Visit her at

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Read an Excerpt


The Last Week

The last week of Loretta Bowersock’s life started out joyously—a blessing to the middle of five daughters who was remembered at her mother’s funeral as the "joyous" one.

On this Tuesday, December 7, 2004, Loretta was 69 years old, but still had the tennis-pro figure of her earlier years, carrying just 130 pounds on her 5- foot- 6- inch frame. She still dressed like the "fashion queen" she’d been for decades, and showed so few signs of aging that nobody would have guessed she was about to enter her seventies.

If you wanted a fun person—someone with a constant smile on her face and a swing in her walk—then Loretta came immediately to mind. Her sisters would always remember her as "energetic and very generous," if not headstrong and determined to do things her own way. She entered the world on March 2, 1935, and was a particularly happy baby. And she carried that with her through the years. She showed a .air for dressing up and presenting all her good points to advantage early on, just as she danced about the best jitterbug anyone can remember from her days growing up in Kansas as Loretta Jean McJilton.

The girlfriends she met along the way—women who would remain her friends for decades—always thought of her as "Miss Personality." She could talk with anyone about almost anything. She was interested in politics and current affairs, in sports and business, in bridge and gourmet cooking. She paid attention to the news going on in Tempe, the Arizona town she’d called home for decades, which sits next to Arizona’s largest city and capital, Phoenix. She was always trying to improve herself and her mind, and if you suggested something new, girlfriends would recall, she’d be the first in line to learn. Her easy and attractive ways made her a magnet at the bars she and friends visited in their forties as they looked for, but never found, second husbands.

"A classy lady" always started a long list of accolades from her only daughter, although if you listened long enough, eventually Terri would get to her one complaint about her mom: "Her generation believes women should stand by their men and live in houses with white picket fences—she’s afraid to be alone without a man."

She was an "outgoing woman who wouldn’t take crap," her son, Scott, adds.

Loretta labeled herself an extrovert, but acknowledged that she was an old- fashioned woman. Her life had been a series of mixed signals. She fought for control over her teen years with her father—bull- headedly defying his rules. She would do things her way, she’d tell him, and the constant conflict in the house hold got pretty thick sometimes. Nor would she listen to her older sisters when they tried to give her advice. Like when they warned her that a handsome airman named Dave Bowersock was just too old for her. He should have been after one of her older sisters, but it was Loretta who caught his eye. Nobody in the family was very thrilled about it, except Loretta, who married him and went off to live around the country for the next nineteen years as a dutiful wife of an Air Force officer.

"She really relished that role," remembers Terri, who was in her mid- teens when her parents divorced. "You could just see her playing the role. At Christmas we had a full- blown tree and all the trimmings, and everything was always just perfect, and you could just hear her saying, ‘This is what an officer’s wife should be doing,’ and she thought it was Leave It to Beaver."

It seemed the perfect family: a handsome man in uniform, a beautiful woman in her lovely home, a son, a daughter—but it wouldn’t be the first time a family kept up the appearances. Loretta doted on her son, Scott, who was the first born, while daughter Terri always felt second best. "My mother comes from a family of five sisters, so when my brother came along, she was in love—she had a boy! When I came along, it was just another girl, and I was a crying baby, so that didn’t help."

"About everybody knew I was the favorite," Scott admits, "but I was the kid who wasn’t any trouble. Terri was a needy, noisy kid. I’m more introverted. I’d come home after school and go to my room to listen to music. Terri would come home bouncing off the walls." To this day, he admits that "she’s my sister and I love her, but I don’t have anything in common with her."

Loretta hung on to the marriage until she couldn’t hang on any longer, and by then, she was living in Arizona. Now she had to take control of her own life, whether she wanted to or not. The failure of her marriage clearly shook her—"We watched her change," Terri remembers—and Loretta started serial dating, younger men, older men, all kinds of men. But none of them stuck. Most didn’t meet her expectations; some didn’t want such a needy woman.

Soon, Scott was off studying psychology and Terri was finishing her high school years and demanding independence; Loretta, for the first time, had time to focus on her own needs.

The great irony is that at this very moment, she proved that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. In fact, she began the most productive period of her life. At 37, she earned a college degree from Arizona State University. She started teaching dance, then tennis; she became a tennis pro; she opened two businesses, and each step along that route had meant bigger and better things. She had made enough money on her own—by her own wits, personality and skill—to fill her hands with jewels and buy a beautiful home.

But as well as she was faring on her own, Loretta still yearned for a man in her life. And one day, in response to an advertisement renting out her guest bedroom, one arrived like some modern Galahad, with a motorcycle for a steed.

Taw Benderly had been a knock- out—in today’s parlance, a "hottie"—when he’d first arrived on her doorstep, and even at 66, he still cut a fine figure. He was tall and handsome, intelligent and well- spoken, a great cook and an expert in art glass. He had an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, just like his classmate Donald Trump, and was an inventor who knew just about anything about everything. He had a mesmerizing voice and spoke with such authority that few challenged him. You didn’t spend ten minutes in his presence without knowing he thought he was smarter than anyone in the room, and that he had an unflagging confidence in himself and the inventions that would someday make him rich. He and Loretta made a very good- looking couple. From what everyone saw, they’d spend all their remaining years together.

To anyone looking in, Loretta was the kind of accomplished, secure woman who was living out her senior years in good health and good form, and had the kind of solid middle- class life anyone of that age would envy. She was bright and active, belonged to a bridge club, had a loving family, and friends she’d kept for decades. She had a daughter who was a local media star, called "the Domestic Diva," which gave Loretta a dose of celebrity, too. Her son and his wife lived in Hawaii, and all seemed fine there. She’d lost one sister to cancer, but was in close contact with the other three, and she loved writing long emails to her loving nieces and nephews.

So it would have seemed that a joyous week wasn’t that unusual for a woman who had so much to live for. But that was just the public front of her life. In reality, most of that was a façade. No, the joyous start of her final week was so delightful because joy wasn’t an emotion often found inside her ranch house on Tempe’s Manhattan Drive. This wasn’t a fine home with a happy couple and a busy social life. This was a home where fear and anger were more common, a home where the number one anxiety was financial insecurity.

In every list Loretta ever made about her fears—in her constant self- improvement quests, she visited this question again and again—the top fear was always the same: She’d grown up with an oilman father who struck dirt most of the time, but was always blustering about the big score just down the next hole. "Someday, coming around the corner will be a white Cadillac," Luther McJilton would say. Yes, her father did eventually strike oil, but that was late in the game, and Loretta remembered a childhood of financial disappointment. She also well knew it was mother Gladys’s real estate company that kept them afloat, and she vowed as a girl that she wanted a solid provider at her side, not some fly- by- night dreamer with no respect for the value of a dollar.

So it astonished even her that she’d landed herself in the same situation as her childhood, with a boyfriend who always dreamed his version of the white Cadillac but never brought home the keys.

That’s certainly not how she’d expected this story to end when he’d roared up on a motorcycle eighteen years ago. She’d had such high hopes when he answered an ad that Terri had encouraged her to run: "Executive woman, big home, nice suite for rent." Loretta’s house was perfectly suited for a renter, with the master bedroom suite on one end and a guest bedroom and bath at the other. She’d had a couple renters in the past and had not only liked the company, but the extra money helped with the house hold expenses. Loretta clearly did not like living alone.

Taw arrived straddling a Harley, with no billfold, no suitcase and no money in his jeans. He said he’d just .own in from Saudi Arabia, where he’d worked for Bechtel. Everything had gone wrong: the company had lost his last paycheck, his wallet had been stolen at the airport and his luggage had gotten lost in transit. But he was an inventor with a big idea that was going to make him so much money someday, he’d never live long enough to spend it all. He couldn’t pay any rent until that lost check turned up, but until then, he would help out—he was a gourmet cook and could fix almost anything. And if she’d trust him for the rent, he’d cut her in on his invention when it came through, and they’d both be rich.

As implausible as all that sounds, Loretta fell for it. To her, it was exciting and exotic and hypnotic. Anyone who’s ever read a romance novel will see the familiar plot: big, handsome man comes to save you, but he needs rescuing, too, and you’re just the woman to do it. Somebody needs to believe in him—to support him and stand by him. And the gamble you take will pay off in riches and love ever after, and all the lonely days will be over. It’s a high-school view of life, but it’s one that has made romance novels the biggest- selling book category in the nation. Loretta certainly wasn’t the first woman to fall for a "danceable, romanceable man," as one journalist would later put it. Or as they say on The Young and the Restless: "Love is a mental illness."

Some of Loretta’s friends cried foul right away. "That story is bullshit," one exclaimed. Skyla Petersen, who’d already been a friend for nearly .fifteen years, remembers being there the day Taw arrived. "He was a smooth talker and very smart, but come on, he has no money, no luggage. I never understood where he got the motorcycle, but I’m sure he had a story all worked out about that, too. But Loretta bought it all. I couldn’t believe it." Nevertheless, she acknowledges, love and logic have never been on speaking terms.

Loretta’s four sisters couldn’t believe it either, seeing red flags all over this story. Baby sister Darla Neal said there was such concern, she’d .own to Phoenix specifically to meet this new man in her sister’s life. "I stayed with them for three days," Darla remembers. "I have a great bullshit detector, and his story didn’t ring true. I went to Loretta and I told her all her sisters were very concerned. ‘You don’t know anything about this guy—he has no family, no friends.’ "

She can still recite Loretta’s response: "I know what I’m doing, and it’s none of your business." Darla wishes now that she would have fought back, but "in our family, we’re taught to keep the peace." So what could she say? She couldn’t force her sister to throw him out, but in all the years to come, the sisters kept a close eye on Taw Benderly.

By the time Darla sounded the alarm, Loretta and Taw were already sharing a bedroom. And then they were sharing a life, and then they were sharing her bank account, because neither the lost paycheck nor the suitcase ever showed up. But he hadn’t lied about being a gourmet cook, and he could .x anything, and he jumped right in to be helpful wherever he could. Besides, he was so incredibly charming—his deep, resonant voice was almost hypnotizing—that Loretta clung to the hope that all the rest of it would come true someday too. And so she opened her checkbook to all of Taw’s promises.

He presented an impressive résumé filled with business degrees and work history, as well as detailed drawings of his inventions. He was constantly on the phone, setting up deals and making contacts, and he was regularly in meetings with potential "partners" for his ideas. Taw was taken with the incredible potential of solar power and thought he could help "educate" the world to all its uses. He had "big plans" to create a solar power plant on the island of Lanai that Scott would manage for him.

To prove he was on the up and up, Taw brought legitimate businessmen into their lives, like Gary Bailey from a North Carolina company called Duke Solar. Gary and his wife, Laura, became close friends of Loretta and Taw, and it was clear to Loretta that Gary was impressed with the brainpower that lived on Manhattan Drive in Tempe. "Taw was extremely bright and he had an amazing network of people in government and private business—he could open doors," Bailey remembers. But he, too, watched in amazement as Taw’s ideas never went anywhere, including inventions Bailey thought could be a success. "Taw just oversold things," he says. "He was great at the knowledge, but didn’t know how to close a deal. It was so sad to me."

Some of Loretta’s money went for Taw’s "solar car cover" invention. Some to his "serrated lawn mower blades." Some to his "transducer audio speakers." For years, she refused to admit that Taw’s inventions were a money pit and one after another, each one failed to bring the riches he promised.

"I told my mother once I was tired of hearing about those inventions," Scott remembers. "I told her, ‘They’re old, outdated and they’re stupid, stupid things. I’ve been hearing about the same three things for ten years now. Technology has moved on and the time has come for you to move on.’ That worried me about her, that she was buying into it." How did Loretta react? "She took it and understood," he recalls.

Scott had recently told her he was moving on too, bowing out of the Lanai solar plant that never got out of the planning stage anyway, even though Taw and Loretta had taken dozens of trips to Denver where he supposedly was meeting with investors. In truth, Scott found, the investors never showed up and the trips were mainly visits with Loretta’s sister, Shirley.

But Taw never once acted as though he were a failure. He kept asking for more and more support for the big payday that was always just around the corner. He hit up everyone who came into their circle to invest in his schemes. Loretta had invested heavily; so had her daughter, Terri; some of their friends were listed as official investors; neighbors, too. Not everyone saw the magic and potential fortune he was trying to sell, and onlookers always found it amazing that Taw had such a hostile attitude towards those who turned him down but no shame to those whose money he lost.

But Loretta was in a different boat. She either wouldn’t or couldn’t turn him down until there was nothing more to give. She kept praying that Taw’s dreams had some substance. She needed for him to succeed as much as he did. She finally admitted to a girlfriend that by the time she doubted his stories— by the time she actually entertained the thought that he was lying to her—she had loaned him so much money, she needed to keep him around in hopes she’d get some of it back. She’d gambled everything on this man, and she needed him to make it so she could survive. Sometime over the years, she stopped romancing the idea of getting rich through him, and settled for the basic hope he’d help with the monthly expenses. But most months, even that was too much to hope for.

You couldn’t see that from the outside, from the public face of this lovely home in this lovely neighborhood; not from the well- dressed and well- groomed couple who emerged from it, seemingly successful and secure.

No one could guess that for years Loretta had lain awake at night worrying about the bills and the collection notices. She scrimped and saved and watched every penny, because sometimes, by the end of the month, that was all that was left. No wonder the fear of financial insecurity dominated her outlook. So did her other fear, the one common to "women of a certain age"—Loretta Bowersock was convinced she was "too old to start over." She believed she’d "made her bed and must lie in it." She tried, as best she could, to make the most of it and see it through, and somewhere in the back of her mind, she must have believed that certainly someday, one of Taw’s schemes would work out.

It hadn’t always been that way, and the irony was that Loretta had done just fine alone. After her divorce, she’d supported herself and finished raising Terri on her own strength and her own skill. For some seventeen years before Taw showed up, she’d proven herself a capable and energetic businesswoman, first teaching tennis, then establishing a tennis club at San Marcos Golf Resort in Chandler. She opened a tennis pro shop and ran it for seven years. When it closed, it wasn’t because she failed, but because the resort hadn’t lived up to its promises. And her letters of recommendation came from among the leading citizens of Arizona, like grocery magnate and community activist Eddie Basha, who wrote in February of 1978:

It is a privilege for me to write this letter of recommendation for Loretta Bowersock. I became acquainted with Loretta during the first part of 1974 on the occasion of her association with the San Marcos Resort. In my opinion, what she accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. . . . I heartily recommend Loretta Bowersock to you as both a tennis instructor and as a proprietor of a pro shop. She is a very talented woman and a very pleasant and friendly person to know.

Then in 1979, with her daughter, she opened a furniture consignment store named Terri’s Consign & Design. Loretta was 44; Terri was 23. The business was growing—already two stores, many more to come—by the time Taw rode up on the hog in 1985. By then, Loretta had bought her Manhattan Drive house in a town she loved. Tempe, Arizona, has lots of bragging rights: home to Arizona State University; home to a charming downtown that so reminds you of a quaint village; home to the Rio Salado Project that turned the normally dry Salt River into a lake that trains Olympic rowers. Unlike the other cities that make up the "Valley of the Sun"— Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale, Mesa—Tempe is hemmed in by other towns and an Indian reservation. Since it can’t grow out, it has done the best with what it has, and many feel it has done some pretty wonderful things, even if politically, it is all over the board: not only did this area send the arch conservative Republican J. D. Hayworth to Congress, but Tempe kept electing an openly gay mayor, Democrat Neil Guiliano. Loretta had watched it all with a bent toward the Democratic side—she still had the Kerry–Edwards button she’d worn for months until the November 2004 election that sent George W. Bush back to the White House. One friend remembered Loretta wore the largest political button she’d ever seen, describing it as "the size of a dinner plate." And this very week Loretta had another reason to be proud of her town and her alma mater: Edward Prescott became the first ASU professor to win a Nobel Prize. He was honored for his work in economics. Saturday’s paper would show him receiving the award the night before in Sweden from King Carl XVI Gustaf.

The consignment business had already doubled to four stores, and Loretta and Terri were starring in TV commercials. Life was pretty swell in the mid- 1980s, in the days before Taw showed up. Loretta wanted a man in her life—that was like a constant toothache—but she had tons of friends and a very active social life.

And then this new man rode in and she thought she’d found her Prince Charming. She certainly treated him that way, bowing to his "superior intelligence," bending to his need for control, minding her p’s and q’s to make him happy. He almost immediately wanted to "help out" with Terri’s Consign & Design, and Loretta insisted he join in. Yet he’d been nothing but a problem from the start, meddling with the finances and getting them in debt; constantly whispering to Loretta that Terri didn’t know what she was doing; getting Loretta’s ear and support until decisions that used to be made by mother and daughter were now being made by Taw. In 1987 he convinced Loretta to demand a buy- out from her daughter. Terri neither wanted nor could afford a buy- out at this point, but she agreed because it meant getting Taw out of her company. Terri couldn’t afford to let him muck things up anymore, so she negotiated a monthly plan that paid her mother more than a quarter million dollars in today’s money. The buy- out drove a wedge between mother and daughter—a wedge that would eventually become devastating— but Taw didn’t seem to care how it hurt the women. His eye was always on Loretta’s bottom line. It had to sting like hell that Terri went on, all on her own, to create a consignment empire that included thirty- six stores across the nation at one point, making the young woman a millionaire—but Taw had ideas how to cash in on that, too.

If Loretta had invested that buy- out windfall, she could have secured her future. She’d eventually get an inheritance from her mother, too, that should have been a nice cushion. But all that money went down the rat hole of Taw’s investments. As she’d later complain to girlfriends, money ran through his fingers like sand, and he could never get enough. He had no concept of saving for the future—his financial demands were now.

So by December 7, 2004, there was nothing left of the financial success Loretta had earned. Her certain income each month consisted of two sources: Social Security sent her $474, and her one big investment—a house on Abraham Lane in Phoenix that her daughter had bought for her years earlier— was rented for $1,495. She had such nice renters now, who always paid on time. Her own mortgage— the first she’d taken out thirty years ago, and second that had gone toward a failed Taw invention—cost her $1,209.08 a month. After she paid her mortgage, she had just $759.92 left for everything else. The only other income was the bits and pieces she and Taw earned from buying and selling items they picked up at yard and estate sales. They sold any furniture through her daughter’s shop. The couple sometimes consigned estates themselves, taking a commission when they sold things, first through dealers and shops, and later, through eBay. Loretta had a real estate broker’s license, but only sold a couple houses, so the big commissions from that never came through.

When things got desperate, she turned to Terri as a last resort. Her daughter was generous with loans and gifts, although the borrowing was humbling to proud Loretta. She would have been devastated to know Taw often went begging for Terri’s money, too. One of Terri’s employees, Heather Dolan, remembers how the staff would whisper to one another on days when Taw would come to the corporate headquarters. "He’d sit in that lobby for hours on end until Terri would cut him a check," she says. "We thought it was so humiliating, but he didn’t seem to mind."

"I always gave it to him because I didn’t want Mother to be without," Terri says. "But I knew she’d be embarrassed if she knew he was borrowing from me, so most of the time, we kept it between us." Last year she’d slipped him $40,000. This year, it was $20,000. She didn’t see herself as an "enabler," but resented every penny, for this was the man who’d come between her and her mother, and here she was, saving his butt time and again so he could look like a "big man" in her mother’s eyes. She’s sure he passed off her loans as though they were payments from investors on his worthless "inventions." And while her mother always promised that one day she’d repay the loans, Terri knew Taw had no intention of ever giving her back the tens of thousands she’d loaned him over the years.

Loretta had once written a demand letter to Taw— for a couple who lived together, they communicated surprisingly often by letters, most not very nice— insisting that he either contribute to the monthly bills or get out. It was an idle threat, repeated in later letters spread out years apart. At one point she demanded $6,000 a month as his share. She had to know she was dreaming.

So it was a delicious joy on Tuesday, December 7, 2004, when her investment house sold to those nice renters and they sent a wire transfer from Bank One for $69,119.25. And for once, Taw had helped maximize the windfall. He convinced her they would escape capital gains taxes if the money were wired into his business account so it would look like an investment fee. Loretta figured she’d be saving thousands. Now the money was safely wired to Technology Lab Inc., whose address was their Manhattan Drive home.

You can just imagine the big smile on her face that happy day. Loretta wouldn’t live to see another Tuesday, but of course, she had no way of knowing that then.

Taw never had a payday, but this was a payday for Loretta. Now things could be different; now the constant anxieties could be over; now she could have the kind of life she’d so dreamed of. Besides, maybe now she could treat herself and fulfill some of the dreams she’d detailed nearly a year ago on a list she titled "What do I want for Christmas 2003–2004." It was both a practical and a fantasy list— from paying off credit cards to a three- to- five- day stay at a health spa; from gold pierced earrings and a "fashion statement purse" to a new entrance to the house: "front entry landscaped, including new sidewalk and driveway."

The number one thing on that Christmas list had been Loretta’s big priority for so many years: "Better communication with Taw." You have to wonder if she snickered when she pulled the list out to review it, in light of her newfound financial bonanza. Getting through to Taw was a theme that had run through page after page of her personal journals. It was the focus of her self- improvement classes and the long, laborious inspections of her mind and her soul that she committed to paper, year after year.

In 1999 she wrote him:

I am no longer willing—indeed I was never willing— but I am no longer going to accept financial abuses, verbal abuses and shirking of your responsibilities.

But on November 10, 2001, while Taw was exiled to the guest room, she was writing to herself:

I have to set a deadline some time. I will not go this month without a financial contribution toward his expenses. Enough is Enough! He must get some money to operate, he cannot keep expecting me to support him and his business.

On December 10, 2002, she wrote:

Still no financial relief. Money withdrawn from personal and business accounts without entry in the checkbook. $17 left in the business account. $500 in sinking fund that he agreed was to avoid overdrawing account and bank charges—blatant disregard. Cannot control what he does with money. How do I protect myself against careless and unnecessary spending? Deceitful withdrawals from bank account? His willingness to "educate the world on energy" without receiving compensation? How do I protect myself from another lien being placed on my house? If bills are to be paid this month, he will pay them. Either he can find a way or phones get turned off. I don’t want to be intimate and I know that there has not been a change of attitude or skills to create a supportive relationship. I can’t earn enough to pay the bills. I’m through borrowing money to live on. It is very demeaning to my self respect.

In another letter, she warned:

The only thing you can do to keep this relationship from blowing up on a daily basis is create a steady, reliable, income that I can run a house hold in an organized, predictable way. Until you do that, stop beating up on me verbally for being unhappy about not having any money.

And Taw gave back as good as he got. In a 1991 letter he mocked her complaints that "Taw, you have brought too much baggage to our relationship," or "Taw, you ruined my relationship with my daughter." He taunted that she should question her own judgment if she were so unhappy and stayed with him anyway.

In May of 2004, Taw spent several days working on a Dr. Phil "Relationship Rescue" exercise. He completed a series of sentences meant to get him to see their problems:

WHAT MAKES ME ANTRY IS feeling and being frustrated.

WHEN I GET ANGRY I use my voice to express it.

I WOULD GIVE ANYTHING IF my partner would be less critical of small things.

MY BEST QUALITY IS my brain power.

MY ARTNER HATES IT WHEN I am not truthful.

IT WOULD BE BEST to be honest with Loretta.

I CAN'T FORGIVE myself for failure.

I BELIEVE in myself.

WOMEN CERTAINLY differ in how they view life and issues.

WE NEVER SEEM TO make the time to have mutual enjoyment.

IT HURTS ME WHEN MY PARTNER doesn’t trust me, even though it is warranted.

But while Taw clearly saw the problems—even admitting he wasn’t trustworthy or truthful—the obvious solutions eluded him. There’s no inkling he thought he needed to improve himself; instead, his partner needed to do the accommodating. His warnings to Loretta, when he fought back with his own harsh letters, were to dangle the possibility of walking out on her. He had to know this would terrify her.

But, of course, he never made a move to leave, and Loretta never made a move to throw him out. The best she could do was refuse to marry him because he offered no financial security. But she gave him so much control, that was just a technicality anyway. The threats and ultimatums were just talk, and all the self- help "rescues" in the world can’t save a drowning person who won’t grab for the safety rope. All this was simply scenes in their drama.

To Loretta, it was the great failing of her life. She tried to "forgive" herself for being weak and not standing firm, and not expecting more but accepting so little out of life. Somehow in all those classes and all those self- improvement seminars— all the hours of watching Dr. Phil on television— she never got the message that sometimes it’s not your fault.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Steven Pitt, who’d look at all this later, says it isn’t hard to see why this went on so long: "She wasn’t hard- wired to deal with a guy so manipulative and cunning. She was an emotional hostage to this guy’s manipulation."

But by this mild December day in 2004, with the wire transfer completed and a hefty nest egg in the bank, Loretta finally seemed done with her self-flagellation.

That day she wrote in her journal her first true words of freedom in eighteen years:

I will give him some money to get out of here and pay back Terri.

Was this day really the mark of a new beginning? Did she mean it this time? Was she going to buy him off and kick him out? Is that all it would take to get her life back—one more check and don’t-let- the- screen-door-hit-you-in-the-ass? If she seriously entertained it, as her journal entry said, she’d have made an assessment, finding she was still .t, still pretty, still active. She’d taken good care of herself and she had that beautiful smile. Maybe it wasn’t too late to start over, as scary as that was to someone who was looking at the last chapters of her life; maybe it wasn’t so bad to be on your own—it certainly couldn’t be worse than this.

She kept that joy with her for the next few days. On Wednesday, December 8, at 10:10 a.m., she had an appointment for a .u shot. The only other event in her day planner was for Saturday night dinner with her old friend, Lorraine Combs: "Combs. Dinner and Christmas lights."

Light tours are one of the happy holiday traditions in the Valley of the Sun, where it never snows and "White Christmas" is just an Irving Berlin song. Many don’t even realize that the famous composer penned the Christmas classic while sitting around the pool at the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix one balmy December day in 1942.

So Valley families compensate for the very un-Christmas-y weather of 70- and 80- degree temperatures by decking out their homes with thousands of lights. Some go absolutely berserk over it—one set of brothers competes against each other to see who can be the most elaborate, and each of their yards is covered with up to 100,000 lights. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. And so many in Arizona spend a night making a light tour—limousine rentals are very big for this event in December—and the local papers print maps of holiday displays. Loretta had clipped one out to take on their after-dinner excursing.

It appears to have been a normal Saturday for Loretta and Taw. Their neighbor, Neil Crawford, remembers seeing Loretta cleaning out the double garage. She was always cleaning it or, as her journals show, nagging Taw to clean the messes he dumped there—often excess parts of his "inventions" that so cluttered the space, you could hardly get even one car inside. Loretta didn’t like things messy, didn’t like things out of place, and her journals show almost an obsession with getting the garage in order. In fact, one of her Christmas wishes the year before had been "clean garage by Jan. 15th to last for a year." Obviously, it was a resolution that didn’t hold.

Another neighbor, Michelle Pazsoldan, was hanging her own Christmas lights when she saw Loretta sweeping the front porch while Taw tinkered in the garage on Saturday. Mrs. Pazsoldan considered Loretta and Taw "grandparent figures" to her little girls, and remembered they had recently given the toddlers a wicker tea set to play with. Her dominant memory of Taw is that he was "an eccentric."

Sometime Saturday, Loretta and Taw went into the Zales jewelry store in Fiesta Mall for what the clerk remembered as a strange visit. Police would summarize this account from clerk LaJean Sommerville:

The woman wanted one of her rings sized and needed it back before the end of the day. The man became angry when they were advised the ring could not be sized that quickly. The man said they needed the sizing done right away because they were leaving for Tucson in the morning. As the man became angry, the woman he was with became very meek and looked as if she were about to cry.

On Saturday afternoon, the couple went to a garage sale in the Arcadia area of Phoenix—not only a favorite hobby, but the way they supported themselves. After going through the house wares and trinkets and clothes, they had a rude awakening—Loretta’s second vehicle, her 1991 white Dodge van, had broken down. They had it towed to their neighborhood Cobblestone Auto Spa to have the brakes fixed.

That afternoon, Loretta got an email she’d been expecting for at least a week. The subject line read "non-violent communication." The message was from Carmen Falcon, who later explained that a week earlier, she and others had held a garage sale in Tempe to help raise scholarship money for people who wanted to take classes in non- violent communication. "The classes were only about seventy dollars for six weeks, but there were people already signed up who couldn’t afford it and we knew there were others, too, so some of us got together and said we’d sell our old things to help out," Carmen remembers. One of the people who came to that sale was a "lovely woman" who was very interested in the classes. "We had a lovely conversation," Carmen remembers. "She was really excited about the classes and wanted to take them, but she didn’t have the resources. I told her I’d email her the information, and I remember she was happy to get it. But we were so busy, it took me a couple days to send the information."

Carmen says she "never pays attention to the news," so was unaware what had happened to the "lovely woman." She was shocked to hear that Loretta had been murdered.

Carmen’s email read:

Excerpted from Bones in the Desert by Jana Bommersbach

Copyright © 2008 by Jana Bommersbach

Published in October 2008 by St Martin's Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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