To the point week of 6-12-08

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IT WAS THE THURSDAY, May 10th, 1984 issue of the Vevay Newspapers, and as I look back on the front page of that issue, I feel a certain symmetry to life in general.

Things are finally coming together.

In the lower right hand corner of the front page of that newspaper is a story about the tragic murder of Vevay’s Linda Bennitt in Merrillville, Indiana.

To say that the loss of Linda Bennitt in May 24 years ago was a tragedy simply doesn’t do her justice. I never met Linda Bennitt, but since her death – and recently during the announcement that her killer has finally been identified – I’ve learned a lot about her.

I’ve come to respect the type of character and generous spirit that she showed to others.

I think of her quite often.

Sounds silly, in a sense, doesn’t it? After 24 years, I find myself at times thinking about a person whom I never even met. I’ve met her parents and her sisters and other relatives, but I never met her.

So why the tie?

You see, in the lower left hand corner of that May 10th, 1984 issue, is a photograph and announcement that Vevay Newspapers had a new editor.

Me.

On the very first front page of this newspaper that I ever edited is a story about the death of Linda Bennitt – and a story about me.

Linda and I are the same age. We both graduated from high school in 1979 – although different high schools. We both love this community and the people who live here.

The only difference is that I – like many other people of our age and many of Linda Bennitt’s classmates – got to live out my “American Dream”. I got the job and the spouse and the kids and the house.

Linda Bennitt never got that chance.

On Tuesday morning in the auditorium of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, sitting among Linda’s family and friends, I listened as detectives and law enforcement officers and prosecutors spoke about having identified the man who took Linda’s life.

The man who took Linda’s future.

After 24 years, Lake County Sheriff Roy Dominguez told the family that although “justice was delayed – Lord willing – it won’t be denied.”

Suddenly I found a sense of peace in that statement.

We can all hate Mark Steven Erler for what he’s taken from us, but in the end it doesn’t bring Linda Bennitt back to her family and friends.

What we saw on Tuesday in the Northeast corner of the state was a commitment by members of a caring law enforcement community that Linda would have her day of reckoning – and that this man will never be able to hurt anyone else ever again.

As I sat there looking at images of Linda up on a large screen, I also looked over to the right side of the stage, where her family was sitting, united in their desire to see justice done.

It was then that I realized that Linda Bennitt is only gone in a physical form, because as long as all of those family members, and all of those friends from near and far – as long as they all remember the spirit of Linda Bennitt and the impact that she had on their lives – she’ll always be a part of them.

And us.

Over the past week I’ve had the opportunity to speak with classmates of Linda’s here in Switzerland County. Although it’s been nearly 30 years since graduation, news of the identification of her killer brought several of them to tears as they told me of the outstanding young woman that Linda Bennitt was.

Her classmates had voted her “Most Likely to Succeed” as a senior, and although her physical life was far too short, I believe that she fulfilled that title admirably.

Linda Bennitt succeeded because she left her family and friends with love and wonderful memories that no one can erase. She touched their hearts far more than she touched their lives, and they will never forget her or the spirit that she exhibited – as evidenced by the pins with photos of Linda that family members wore during Tuesday’s announcement.

Linda Bennitt even touched the lives of the men and women who worked so diligently to find who did this to her.

Deputy Commander Shaw Spurlock of the Lake County’s Sheriff’s Department told me prior to the press conference that his staff had a photograph of Linda on the wall of their office – an inspiration to keep going until her killer was found.

The core of the investigation crew has become very close to Linda’s family; and recently those officers traveled to Vevay to personally update the family – and also to visit Linda’s grave.

Detective Rick Stewart of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department investigated the case when it happened in 1984, and even after he retired from the force, his instincts that Linda’s killer could still be found led his son – now on the Lake County Sheriff’s Department – to ask Commander Spurlock and his team to reopen the investigation.

Those men and women never met Linda Bennitt, either, but they now share her spirit and her love, because they came into contact with it through her family and friends and through the type of person that she was.

The person who did this will hopefully soon be extradited to Indiana to face charges. He will be locked away for the rest of his life, and he will never have the chance to hurt anyone.

Ever again.

But he is not the focus of this column – Linda Bennitt is.

As a community we will continue to grieve over her loss – as we have for 24 years and will continue to do into the future. We will grieve for her but we will not allow her death to be in vain.

On Tuesday, Linda Bennitt had her day of justice.

And her family members and those whose lives she has touched both mourned and celebrated that justice.

Including a man who shared the front page with her 24 years ago.