News Column

East Valley shopowner relives mother's disappearance, death in new TV show

August 25, 2014

By Eric Mungenast, East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

Aug. 25--Reality has a habit of raining down hard and melting away the comforts formed by the kindness of imagination and the vagaries of memory. There's the way a person wants to remember an event that occurred in his or her life, and then there's the way the event actually played out, complete with details absent of sympathy.

Ahwatukee resident Terri Bowersock underwent this phenomenon recently while recounting the story of her mother Loretta Bowersock for a television show. The version of her mother's death Terri used for years was already grisly; the real way her mother died was much, much worse.

The charming Taw Benderly

Although the disappearance occurred 10 years ago this December, the circumstances behind Loretta's murder traces back nearly 20 years prior when she first met romantic partner Taw Benderly through a classified ad in a newspaper. Terri described him as a charming man with an opaque but sympathetic background who easily integrated himself into the family, particularly the life of lonely divorcee Loretta.

He also possessed a series of seemingly clever inventions for the Bowersocks to invest in. There was the serrated lawnmower blade that could cut the grass at a certain angle, as well as a surround sound system to "make the sound huge," as Terri put it.

It all sounded interesting, and all it would take to make those grand plans come to fruition was an investment from Loretta and Terri, who at the time owned Terri's Consign & Design Furnishings -- a multimillion-dollar company with 17 stores in Arizona and six other states.

Saying "no" to the schemes of the charismatic Benderly was a difficult proposition for both Bowersocks.

"All of it was a show to get money from her, from me and from friends," she said. "At the end of the day, it was a con."

Terri said Benderly also took over power of attorney from Loretta and essentially took possession of Loretta's house and car. And it wasn't the first time he swindled women either; Bowersock said and media reports about the case indicate he had taken millions from women across the country before he met Loretta.

Investigation Discovery has its own description of what happened for its television series "Handsome Devils," which will air an episode devoted to the case called "Desert Rat" on Aug. 28. "Divorcee Loretta Bowersock falls for the intelligent charm of inventor Taw Benderly," it states. "She's so smitten, she doesn't realize Taw is conning her out of every penny she's got."

"He was the archetypal handsome devil," said Nick Godwin, who is one of the show's executive producers, in an email. "We were drawn to the extraordinary story of how he charmed his way into Loretta's life -- and also by the way Loretta's daughter, Terri, was determined to get to the truth."

Loretta Bowersock's disappearance

There is one thing missing in the show's summary that ties into the motivation for revisiting the case: "Or how far he'll go to protect his lies."

Terri believes her mother figured out what happened with her funds and might have confronted Benderly about it on Dec. 13, 2004. That was the last day Terri, and everyone besides her killer, saw the then-69-year-old Loretta alive.

Benderly reported Loretta missing the following day, claiming she vanished while they were on a trip to Tucson. Suspicions arose early on when police discovered gloves, blankets and a pickaxe covered in dirt in the back of a van the couple apparently drove to Tucson, as well as multiple bags packed with Benderly's clothes and just one for Loretta at the couple's hotel. The couple's home in Tempe was found to be "meticulously clean" with the exception of a few droplets of blood in the garage.

There were other clues as well, and they combined to make Benderly the prime suspect in the case.

"He never said he killed her," Terri said, "he always looked me in the eye and said 'I don't know, I didn't kill her.'"

Benderly never faced a trial or any earthly punishment for the alleged crimes; he hanged himself two days before Christmas in 2004.

Cell phone records indicate Benderly was in the desert just west of Casa Grande hours before he reported Loretta missing.

Terri began to search for her mother everyday with a cadre of 60 or so volunteers, and even began searching landfills when a clue led to that as a potential place to search.

"If it's a family member, you just gotta do it," she said.

Her search efforts began to dwindle to once or twice a week as the number of volunteers dropped to 30 to 15 down to a person or two over the course of a year. Although Terri's search proved to be in vain, luck favored her in January 2006 when three hikers stumbled upon Loretta's body 3 miles west of Interstate 8 and state Route 84 in Pinal County. Her corpse was buried in a shallow grave covered solely by a few rocks -- one of the hikers accidentally toppled a rock over and discovered the skull.

Life after death

A decade on and life has changed dramatically for Terri. Her $36 million-a-year business faltered in the years following, and she said the economic recession knocked her out and forced her to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It wiped out the wealth she accumulated.

Terri has since rebuilt the company up to five locations across the Valley, including Tempe, Chandler and Mesa, albeit at about 5.5 percent of its net worth. What she lost financially though, she made up for in personal growth. Terri said she stopped caring as much about the money she earns and more about her integrity and the life she wants to live. She advocates for women in situations akin to the one her mother was in and offers a series of red flags to keep an eye out for in those circumstances. The flags include borrowing large amounts of money, being overly complimentary and separating a woman from her friends and family.

She became much more spiritual in the ensuing years as well and said she has communicated with her mother and even Benderly through physics, mediums and little messages her mother conveys. Terri said she's always had an interest in the spiritual world but her interest in it increased during the search for Loretta's body and the help those mediums offered during the process."This is so much bigger than me. We on earth don't know the bigger picture on the other side," she said.

It was through a medium that Terri said she learned the death of her mother was accidental, stemming from an argument and an ensuing fall into a coffee table. Terri believed Benderly panicked and strangled her out of fear of being caught.

"I don't think he was a murderer; I think a murder happened," she said.

That's what she thought for several years until the "Handsome Devils" opportunity arose and Terri decided to revisit the case. She dug through the box of police documents she hadn't really looked at before, and the details of what occurred on Dec. 13, 2014, and even afterward were hard to handle. She realized how much force it took to kill Loretta and about how Benderly used an extension cord to hang himself as the investigation intensified.

The more intensive details shocked her and wiped away the peace that came from the tidy version of Loretta's death she held onto for so long.

"I'm not in the bawling stage, but now I'm more confused about the death," she said.

Terri has written a book about her mother's relationship with Benderly called "The Other Side of the Crime" available at ShopTerris.com. Proceeds from the book go to support the DOVES program -- a nonprofit that supports older victims of domestic abuse.

For information on "Handsome Devils," including when "Desert Rat" will air, visit www.investigationdiscovery.com.

Contact writer: (480) 898-5647 or emungenast@evtrib.com. Follow him on Twitter at @EricMungenast

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(c)2014 East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.)

Visit East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.) at www.eastvalleytribune.com

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Source: Tribune (Mesa, AZ)


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