Linda Bennitt’s killer pleads guilty to murder, ends 25-year search for justice

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Mark Steven Erler entered a Lake County courtroom last Thursday to hear charges against him in connection with the 1984 rape and murder of Switzerland County native Linda Bennitt.

As members of Linda Bennitt’s family looked on, Mark Erler admitted his crime and pleaded guilty but mentally ill to all charges – without the aid of a plea agreement.

The plea ends a struggle of nearly a quarter-century for Linda’s family, including her mother, Joan King; and sisters Jonnie Hankins and Bobbi Marksberry. All were in the courtroom on Thursday.

According to the Merrillville Post-Tribune, Mark Erler was being questioned by defense attorney T. Edward Page when he admitted that he was near the Tiberon Trails Apartments on May 4th, 1984. Mark Erler stated that he saw Linda Bennitt on the couch of her ground floor apartment; entered the apartment and woke her up.

He stated that he then took her to his home, where he raped and fatally stabbed her. Mark Erler then took Linda Bennitt’s body to the Riley School on East 43rd Avenue in Gary, where he left her.

The case has been unsolved for more than two decades, before investigators in the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, led by Commander Shaw Spurlock, reopened the case using DNA procedures that hadn’t been available in 1984.

In June of last year, a press conference was held at the Lake County Justice Center, where Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez announced that Linda Bennitt’s killer had been caught.

Linda Lee Bennitt was a native of South Bend, Indiana, and had grown up in Vevay. She was a 1979 graduate of Switzerland County High School, where she was honored by her classmates by being named “Most Likely To Succeed”. She then graduated from Vincennes University in 1981, and Purdue University in 1982.

In May of 1984 she was working at the L.S. Ayres Department store and living in Merrillville, Indiana, when a friend couldn’t reach her and called authorities. She had been murdered on May 5th, 1984, and her body had been found on the grounds of the Riley School in Gary.

After an exhaustive investigation, the person responsible for the crime had never been caught.

“Today I, Sheriff Roy Dominguez and the Lake County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigation Division are announcing that felony murder counts have been filed in the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office in regard to the murder and rape of Linda Lee Bennitt in 1984,” the sheriff said last June during the press conference. “Lake County detectives reopened the death investigation in late December, 2007, and their investigation had led to the murder and rape charges being filed.”

Mark Erler had three Class A Felonies filed against him in connection with the case last June: one count of murder; one count of murder in the perpetration of a rape; and one count of murder in the perpetration of criminal deviate conduct.

At the time that the announcement was made, Mark Erler was being held in the Coalinga State Hospital Facility for Sexually Violent Predators in Fresno County, California – where he had been for the past several years.

He was then returned to Indiana later in 2008, and has been going through the judicial process since that time.

Now that he has pled guilty to the charges, Lake County Superior Court Judge Diane Ross Boswell on Thursday accepted the plea and set a sentencing date for Friday, May 29th.

The sentencing ranges from 30-60 years; and Lake County authorities have Mark Erler under a suicide watch while he sits in jail.

The Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper reported that once the sentencing is completed, Mark Erler will be returned to psychiatric hospital in California; where he has been indefinitely committed for being a sexually violent offender. Should California authorities decide to release him, he would then be returned to Indiana to begin serving the sentence that will be imposed on May 29th.

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How is a 25-year old murder case solved?

To get to the end, investigators started at the beginning.

According to the Probable Cause Affidavit filed in the Superior Court of Lake County by Detective Thomas Huber of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department last June, a general assignment unit of the sheriff’s department had been looking into some “cold case” files – unsolved crimes that were no longer being actively investigated.

Detective Huber wrote in the Probable Cause Affidavit that he had reviewed reports of the Lake County Police Department and the Gary Police Department regarding Linda Bennitt’s death on May 5th, 1984.

The Probable Cause Affidavit stated that Detective Rick Stewart was sent to the Tiberon Trails Apartments in Gary after a friend of Linda Bennitt’s, Julie McCracken, hadn’t been able to contact Linda Bennitt over the weekend.

The report said that Julie McCracken had last seen Linda Bennitt on Friday, May 4th, at about 6 p.m. as Linda Bennitt was leaving her job at the L.S. Ayres Store in the South Lake Mall in Merrillville. When Linda Bennitt did not report for work on Monday, May 7th, Julie McCracken said that she went to Linda Bennitt’s apartment, and after not being able to get anyone to come to the door, she went around to the back of the apartment and found the sliding glass door open and the television set on.

At that point she called the Lake County Police Department.

The investigation found that a screen had been removed and placed by the outside wall of Linda Bennitt’s apartment. Evidence was collected at the scene.

Investigators then received information that the body of a young female had been discovered in a school yard in Gary. Julie McCracken identified the woman as Linda Bennitt.

During the autopsy, DNA material was recovered, but at that time using DNA as part of a criminal investigation was still relatively new.

Reopening the case, Commander Shaw Spurlock, Detective Huber, and Detective Robert Bridgeman began the search for the DNA evidence that was a part of the rape kit for Linda Bennitt. At June’s press conference, Sheriff Roy Dominguez said that the kit was found “after an extensive search” in the evidence room of the Gary Police Department.

Using the DNA samples that had been acquired during the autopsy, investigators ran the sample through the “CODIS” federal identification system.

The DNA came back as a match to Mark Steven Erler, who was being held in California.

Detectives said that during their search of evidence collected at the crime scene, a single, latent finger print had been recovered from the window sill of Linda Bennitt’s apartment. That finger print was then processed through the “AFIS” federal finger print system.

And it returned as a match for Mark Steven Erler.

Detectives Huber and Bridgeman then traveled to Los Angeles, California, on May 22nd, 2008, and met with detectives there who had been involved in the investigation of other crimes that Mark Erler had committed. After providing those detectives with their information, California law enforcement officers were able to obtain a search warrant to collect a blood sample and a mouth swab from Mark Erler at his place of incarceration.

Those DNA samples matched the evidence from the Linda Bennitt murder.

That evidence led the Lake County Prosecutor’s office and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to file charges in connection with the case.

“In Linda’s case, it has been justice delayed,” Sheriff Dominguez said at the press conference last June. “But today it is justice served. I want the family to know that we never gave up.”