Suspected killer identified in 1987 cold case murder of woman on hiking trail
The now-deceased man has also been linked to three sexual assaults.
On June 13, 1987, Cathy Sposito, a 23-year-old college student, was brutally murdered while hiking on a trail in central Arizona.
The murder remained cold for decades. Thanks to recent developments in DNA technology, authorities announced on Friday they were able to find the likely killer in the case -- who is also linked to three other sexual assaults in which the victims survived.
Sposito is believed to be the first known victim of the suspect -- Bryan Scott Bennett, who was a 16-year-old high school student in Prescott at the time of her murder, the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office said.
Sposito was killed while hiking the Thumb Butte Trail near Prescott. Among her injuries, she was bludgeoned with a wrench, shot with a .22 caliber gun in the eye and head and stabbed, according to Yavapai County Sheriff David Rhodes. Other hikers heard her screams but couldn't get to her in time, he said.
The case "rocked" Prescott at the time, Rhodes said.
"How could such an incredibly awful and atrocious thing happen in such a wonderful place?" Rhodes said during a press briefing on Friday.
In April 1990, a second woman was sexually assaulted on the same trail, around the same time of day, while camping with her boyfriend, the sheriff said. A DNA sample from that attack ultimately led investigators to a family member of Bennett, who died by suicide in 1994, the sheriff said.
To rule out a relative, authorities exhumed Bennett's body to obtain a complete DNA profile and positively matched it to the DNA profile from both attacks on the trail, Rhodes said.
"I am saying today with high confidence, Cathy Sposito was murdered by Bryan Scott Bennett," Rhodes told reporters.
Bennett was accused of sexually assaulting two other women -- one at a party in Chino Valley in July 1990 and another in her car after leaving a post office in Prescott in June 1993, the sheriff said. He was arrested in both cases but never convicted due to discrepancies in the stories and lack of evidence, Rhodes said.
The victim in the fourth case spoke during Friday's press briefing.
"This is a long time coming," the woman, who was 22 at the time of the attack, said in emotional remarks. "I want to start by saying thank you, God. I give you all the glory because he was with me that night. I prayed. He spoke to me. He's the reason that I'm here today."
She asked those listening to "pray for all these people that have suffered a crime like this."
"Pray for those people who never had a voice," she said.
Sandoval had just left the post office when her assailant forced her by knifepoint into her car and sexually assaulted her multiple times, Rhodes said. A police officer ultimately pulled the vehicle over for failure to dim headlights, allowing Sandoval to escape, Rhodes said.
"She believed he was going to kill her," Rhodes said. "He had said to her, 'I can't let you go because you've seen my face.'"
Rhodes said the sheriff's office has closed all four cases but Sposito's; there were multiple contributors of DNA on the evidence so they are continuing to investigate.
"Even though there's an extraordinarily high degree of likelihood that Bryan Scott Bennett killed her, we always take new information," the sheriff said.
Though Bennett won't be tried in the cases, Rhodes said it "doesn't mean that it's any less significant."
"The other role here is exactly what happened is that we're giving voice back to the survivors. You're giving answers back to the survivors. You're giving answers back to the community," he said.
Bennett withdrew from Prescott High School in 1988 and was briefly in the Army before deserting in 1989, according to the sheriff's office. He was convicted of forgery charges in 1991 and received three years probation, though was not convicted of any violent crimes, the sheriff's office said.
Rhodes said investigators believe there may be more than four victims linked to the suspect.
"What we know of serious violent predators like this is that it is very unlikely, given the frequency in which he was willing to act, that these are the only four cases that exist," he said.